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Here's to a high speed future

2 March 2012

Manuel Cortes looks forward to the long-overdue creation of a High Speed rail network in Britain

HS2 Map

As we move towards the construction of a new high-speed rail network in Britain, we have a huge deal to learn from the experiences of others. High- speed rail services have been operating for over forty-five years in Japan and for over three decades in Europe. This provides a wealth of information on the benefits we can expect from our investment. In the 19th century, the development of the railways formed the backbone of the Industrial Revolution. It provided the means by which goods and people could be moved at speeds and numbers that bewildered generations brought-up on horses and carts. In today’s context, investment in high-speed rail should be a catalyst to spark the economic revival that our country so badly needs.

Not that long ago, the railways were almost written-off. We had decades of government investment favouring roads. Undoubtedly, this took its toll. We got used to line and service closures. However, in the last decade or so, it appears that the penny has finally dropped. We have seen a period of badly needed – and very welcome – sustained investment in our railways. Yet, the capacity of the current network is almost at breaking point. Put simply, without expansion, we will very soon hit the buffers as projected increases in demand will completely overwhelm our existing infrastructure.

Let’s face it – we can’t deal with the twin challenges of ever increasing road congestion and the need to slash CO2 emissions without further developing our railways. And as we are going to have to invest to expand capacity, let’s do it in a way that delivers a network fit for the 21st Century. Sadly, we have been on the slow track for far too long. Most of our European counterparts have already developed high-speed networks and are reaping great economic and environmental benefits from doing so.

Many European countries have been able to dramatically reduce the volume of internal flights as well as significantly reduce inter-city car travel through the development of high-speed rail services. A similar shift in the UK would ease congestion at our airports and on our roads, reducing the need for investment in environmentally damaging schemes. Unfortunately, the government’s current plans are not ambitious enough. Our high- speed network must link all our major cities from Land’s End to John O’Groats. It can’t end in Birmingham, Leeds or Manchester for that matter. We need a comprehensive nationwide network. It also makes no sense to delay its construction until the next Parliament. We should be starting now. The tens of thousands of jobs that the construction phase will provide would be a major kick-start for our badly depressed economy. Even the first section of line between London and Birmingham is forecast to deliver benefits of over £20 billion at today’s prices. We really need to get on with it!

From an environmental standpoint, short-haul flights are a growing menace to the wellbeing of our planet. High-speed rail can all but eradicate them. In several European corridors, such as between Paris and Lyon and between Cologne and Frankfurt short-haul flights have almost been completely replaced by the train. The number of air passengers between London and Paris has been cut by more than half since the Channel Tunnel rail link was opened. In Spain, high-speed rail services between Madrid and Seville reduced car journeys from 60 per cent to 34 per cent of trips and the launch of the service between Madrid and Barcelona has seen a severe reduction in the number of flights on what was once one of the world’s busiest air routes. There is no reason why flights between Scotland and England could not be almost completely wiped-out by high-speed rail services.


Playing catch-up: The first Japanese Shinkansen line opened in 1964, constructed whilst Britain was still building steam locomotives

High-speed rail is also more energy efficient in the fuel it uses, curbing our ever increasing thirst for oil (with its air pollution and global warming impact) and replacing it with electricity which can be generated from green sources. Japan’s Shinkansen system uses just one quarter of the energy required to move a passenger by air and one sixth of that needed for road travel. This means that a typical Monday morning business trip between London and Paris on a Eurostar train is far more energy efficient than doing the same journey by car or plane.

You can of course produce electricity from sustainable sources with near zero carbon emissions. This greatly enhances the already extremely good environmental credentials of high-speed rail. In this field, Sweden leads the way. Its inter-city trains are powered entirely with renewable energy, cutting emissions of global warming pollutants by an astounding 99 percent. There is no reason why we can't replicate this in Britain.

High-speed rail will also create jobs and boost local economies. Construction of high-speed rail lines creates thousands of jobs which last for several years. For example, around 8,000 people were involved in construction of the high- speed rail link between London and the Channel Tunnel. A study of the Frankfurt- Cologne high-speed rail line estimated that areas surrounding the two cities experienced a 2.7 per cent increase in overall economic activity compared with the rest of the region.

Several cities have used the advent of high-speed rail as a catalyst for urban regeneration. Lille used its new high speed rail station as the core of a multi-use development that now accommodates 6,000 jobs. Our very own redeveloped St Pancras station is the centrepiece of a major project that will add 1,800 residential units, as well as hotels and offices in the heart of London. High-speed rail also encourages people to travel. There has been an overall increase in travel between its destinations in Spain and France, bringing wider social and economic benefits to those making journeys.

My fears about this project have nothing whatsoever to do with high- speed rail and everything to do with Westminster. Firstly, ministers must not be allowed to use expenditure on high- speed rail as an excuse to cut railway investment elsewhere. I very much hope that in the near future, most UK long distance inter-city travel will occur on high-speed rail. However, we will continue to need a comprehensive well-funded conventional network for suburban and other short distance travel and equally importantly, for freight. Freeing our existing network of long distance inter- city trains means that we should have the capacity to take lorries off our roads and significantly expand the amount of freight we move by rail. Secondly, as the public purse will fund this project, we should not allow privateers to run services and cream-off profits on the back of taxpayers investment. High-speed rail needs to be publicly owned and accountable. Finally, high-speed travel can’t become the preserve of business executives. We should follow the example of other European countries and ensure that everyone benefits from this vital investment. This means having affordable fares rather than the sky-high ones that currently plague our railways. This will allow all of us to fully embrace the massive opportunities that high-speed rail has to offer.

HS2 in dates and numbers

   High speed rail Classic rail
Capacity (seats) 1100 500
Vehicle length (m) 400 245

Late 2013 Introduction of parliamentary bill to construct Phase 1
Early 2014 Consultation on preferred route for Phase 2
Late 2014 Government’s announcement of route for Phase 2
2015 Target date for passing of parliamentary bill
2017-2025 Construction period
2024-2026 Commissioning and testing
2026 Phase 1 line opens to passengers
Around 2033 Phase 2 line reaches Manchester and Leeds

SE Highspeed

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