Monday, 15 March 2010

Prepare for the fourth transport revolution

Britain needs it and can afford it. There is no reason to hold back high-speed rail
Andrew Adonis
In the 18th century Britain developed a canal network to support the first flourishing of an industrialised manufacturing sector. In the 19th century we pioneered the railways and in the 20th we built a national motorway network.
I am setting out detailed proposals for the 21st-century transport revolution — high-speed rail — in a parliamentary statement today. There will be full public consultation, but before that, let me address the three main arguments put by those who say it’s the wrong project, in the wrong country, at the wrong time.
The first charge made is that high- speed rail is simply not suited to a country like ours; that our cities are just too close together to benefit. In fact, three of the pioneers of high- speed rail are Japan, the Netherlands and South Korea, all medium-sized countries with concentrated population centres. The most heavily used section of Japan’s Shinkansen (indeed, the most heavily used high-speed rail line in the world) is only just over 300 miles long, from Tokyo to Osaka. The Dutch high-speed line, which opened in December, links Amsterdam, Rotterdam and Brussels — a distance of 120 miles.
Even in larger countries, the most successful high-speed lines connect cities as close to, or closer to one another, than those in Britain. The first and most heavily used French TGV line connects Paris to Lyon, a distance of about 265 miles, comparable to the distance from London to Newcastle. In Germany the principal high-speed line is between Frankfurt and Cologne, a distance of about 110 miles; about the same as from London to Birmingham.

High-speed rail is not just about speed. Other countries have used new networks to transform connections between main cities, and we could do so, too. In Britain we suffer from — without quite realising it — the limitations of the Victorian rail network with its three separate and poorly interconnected main lines from London to the North. These have survived largely unchanged to the present day, each with its own separate London terminus.
So let’s put the argument for British exceptionalism to bed. Britain’s economic geography makes it well suited to high-speed rail. The capacity and connectivity between its largest conurbations could be transformed by a relatively short network of high-speed lines.
The second charge is that coming out of a global recession, on the eve of an election, is no time to be planning for the long term. This too is nonsense. As the Second World War blazed away the British Cabinet was constantly addressing issues of reconstruction. In the National Archives at Kew are the papers of the Reconstruction Problems Committee of the War Cabinet, which in 1943 began serious planning for a future motorway network.
My predecessor, the Minister of War Transport, took to heart that famous Whitehall poster: he kept calm and carried on. Months after El Alamein he introduced a memorandum on postwar highway policy with these words: “It is important soon to settle, at least in principle, the policy to be pursued as to the development of our highway system after the war. There will be a great revival and growth in the volume of road traffic, and it will be necessary to provide for this.” The memo included a map of a possible future motorway network that bears a striking resemblance to the network of today — though it took until 1959 for the first stretch at Preston to be opened, and another 30 years beyond that to complete today’s network.
If our wartime predecessors had the foresight and the vision to plan for the future, then we’ve got no excuse now. A high-speed rail network in Britain will not evolve organically out of nowhere. It will only happen if governments have the foresight to start planning now.
I was also amused to note that the minister in 1943 faced the British exceptionalists of the day who held that, while the new Italian autostrada, German autobahnen and American freeways were all very well, they couldn’t possibly work in the UK.
The third charge is that high-speed rail may be a nice idea, but it’s simply unaffordable and a pipe dream. A new high-speed rail network would be expensive, and over the decades ahead would require significant public investment. But most of these costs would not start to be incurred until the end of this decade.
Construction would not start until after the Crossrail scheme is completed, ie, from 2017. As Crossrail and other significant capital projects such as the Olympic Park show, an average annual expenditure rate of about £2 billion during construction can be accommodated.
Further work must now take place on the costs and funding options for high-speed rail. In funding a new line the Government is determined that a fair balance should be struck in terms of the contributions made by those who will benefit from it. These could include third-party contributions and Public Private Partnerships, as was done so successfully with Crossrail and the Channel Tunnel Rail Link.
High-speed rail has a transformational role to play at the heart of Britain’s transport infrastructure. I want this to be a national project, not a party project — one the whole country can get behind.
Andrew Adonis is Secretary of State for Transport