High-speed Rail

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 11:00 am on 8th December 2009.

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Photo of Greg Mulholland Greg Mulholland Shadow Minister (Health) 11:00 am, 8th December 2009

That is a relief. The Minister will understand the worries that resulted from information acquired as a result of FOI requests.

I do not say that we do not get a fair deal in Yorkshire, but I must point out that our region continues to have the lowest transport spending-a lowly £234 per head in Yorkshire against a UK average of £326 and £641 in London. Capital spending in Yorkshire and the Humber is £668 million and in the north-west it is £979 million. Current spending in Yorkshire and Humber is £595 million; in the north-west it is £1,036 million.

The west cost main line has been upgraded at a cost of nearly £9 billion, and that was money well spent. I reassure my hon. Friend Mr. Leech; it is right that the people of the north-west should have good transport links, but we too should have them, as should the people of Leicester, Nottingham and all regions.

I was delighted when the Yorkshire Post took up my suggestion of a campaign, specifically for a high-speed rail link to Yorkshire. The paper's excellent "Fast Track to Yorkshire" campaign has had real resonance with the region's business community, the public and elected representatives.

We need to move the debate on a little further from saying that the economic case is not sufficiently at the heart of discussions about high-speed rail. We need to go one step further. This is where I may disagree with some Members. Having considered the various high-speed rail proposals, the enormous costs and the huge engineering challenges, as well as the transport policy challenges, I have come to the conclusion that it is not realistic-not in the medium term and possibly not in the long term-to have two lines running between the north and the south.

In an ideal world, it would be wonderful to have high-speed rail throughout the country. As I said earlier, we are unlike France; our country is much smaller. The island of Britain has a smaller landmass. Could there ever be two north-south lines? Some of the debate is focused on that question. I am 40 next year, but-[Interruption.] I thank those who think I look younger. According to current predictions, we will not be discussing a second line until I am 70 and there is no real chance of one being built until I am 80. Not only is that a sad indictment of the overly cumbersome way in which we make transport policy, but I have come to the conclusion that those on the east side of the country-I see colleagues here today from the east-are being led up the garden path with the idea that we may get a second line. We hear it said: "Don't worry about it; you may get a second line at some time in the future. There, there; don't worry about it when we make the rather lazy assumption to take the line from Birmingham to Manchester because they are the two biggest cities, even if we ignore the fact that that is not the strongest economic case."

Just to reassure other colleagues I will make it clear again that I absolutely agree that Birmingham should be included; that is an obvious assumption. Manchester, too, should be included. It is a hugely important city, and the economic driver for much of the north-west region. Let me also say to my colleagues in Scotland that we cannot conceive of a genuine high-speed future without Scotland and both the great Scottish cities-the capital and the biggest city, Glasgow-being connected. My point is that it must not, and need not, be an either/or situation.

The one proposal that has not had sufficient consideration so far is the High Speed North proposal, which was the first serious one to come out. It was put together in conjunction with the 2M Group, which opposes the third runway, in July 2008. The proposal is a single line solution that runs through Leicester, Nottingham, South Yorkshire and West Yorkshire. It includes Manchester by way of a spur, in much the same way that Birmingham would be a short spur off the main line. The High Speed North proposal uses the M1 corridor, and, although there are huge engineering challenges in delivering that project, there is a real possibility of it happening.

The good news for Mr. Grieve, who represent areas in or close to the Chilterns, is that because there has been a skewing effect of the Heathrow idea, which threatens part of the area of outstanding natural beauty, it would be more sensible to look at starting and finishing the line in London. Such a suggestion would hugely reduce the impact on those areas and see the line moving across to form realistic corridors through Greater London and into the north. Additional tracks would be required, but I am told that that would not be a problem. After that, we could introduce European-style double-decked trains, which are needed on any high-speed network, to deliver the kind of passenger numbers that are needed.

The overall high-speed rail network could be completed within about 15 years, which is a further reduction in the delivery time of the project, at an estimated cost-all of the costs are estimated-of £33 billion. It is strange that such a project has not been seriously considered. If we considered it, we would conclude that it is realistic to have one line with spurs off it to deliver benefits north and south. If we had a single line going from Birmingham to Manchester, the next step would be to go to Scotland, and not the north-east. After that, what would we then do? It is not necessarily lazy to assume that we would then have one in the east. What about Bristol, Cardiff and other areas of the country? We could open up the south-west. Given the size of the country and the huge investment that would be required, it is simply not realistic to have two lines that run no more than 50 miles apart. I ask the Minister to consider again the proposal and see whether there is a way in which we can have one line delivering benefits to all the regions that could be served by high-speed rail.

Some of us have been stuck in debates about east versus west, north-west versus Yorkshire and so on. My message to all hon. Members is that we should be arguing for one line with spurs that serves all the main economic drivers on both sides of the country-the west and east midlands, the north-west, Yorkshire, the north-east and Scotland. Only that option would justify the vast investment that high-speed rail clearly needs. To plough ahead with one line, serving only Birmingham and Manchester-especially from Heathrow-simply does not make sense. It does not add up or deliver the kind of benefits that we need from such a project.