23rd January 2020:

In the Lords debate today I made a speech on the benefits and need for the HS2.
UK High Speed 2 rail map
My Lords, I remind the House of my railway interests as declared in the register. Over the decade or so that we have been debating, planning and now building HS2, the demand for rail travel in Great Britain has continued to grow at a rate that those of us who worked for the railways back in the 1970s and 1980s find astonishing. Back then, British Rail was planning for contraction and there was still talk of closing lines.

We have heard from some noble Lords that it is possible to divert money from High Speed 2 to upgrading existing lines, but I think that was answered very convincingly in Construction News earlier this week by the Network Rail chief executive, Andrew Haines, in his description of the sort of disruption that it would cause to train services for years and years. My noble friend Lord Adonis referred to that. Assuming continuous weekends of closure, for example, the east coast route would be closed at one location every week for between 26 and 29 years. We all remember—and indeed shudder at the memory—the disruption caused week after week, month after month, during the attempt around the start of this century to modernise the west coast main line. If we did not build High Speed 2, we would have to do that all over again, and indeed cause similar or worse disruption on all three main lines to the north.

It is not true to say that there is plenty of capacity on those lines, as the noble Viscount has just indicated. There are no train paths available at all on the west coast main line and no additional train paths available out of either King’s Cross or St Pancras. Network Rail’s report on new lines published in 2009 forecast that the growth in passenger demand would be 2% a year and concluded that two new running lines south from Birmingham would be needed to cope with the demand. Growth has in fact been double that, at up to 5.4% a year, so we are running out of time and certainly running out of capacity.

There are only three effective ways of dealing with this growth in demand for train travel. The first is to choke off demand by raising fares to unreasonable levels, pricing all but the most wealthy off the trains, and degrading services at the same time. British Rail was told to do that by the Government in the 1970s, as I remember very well; it did not work out well for anybody—not for the Government and certainly not for the railway.

The second option, which I am pleased to say nobody today has so far put forward, is to embark on another programme of motorway construction. We would need two new motorways to provide anything approaching the same capacity as the High Speed 2 railway line.

The third option is to do what most major economies in Europe and the Far East have done, as detailed with great care by my noble friend Lord Grocott: to build a network of high-speed railways. The one aspect that is common to all these countries is that none has regretted ​it and all have expanded their high-speed network after opening it and having built and operated their first lines. Not only do they solve the problem of meeting growing passenger demand for rail travel, they also achieve huge environmental benefits as a result of what is called modal shift.

The most immediate benefit of creating extra capacity on our existing main line railways is to provide room for attracting extra freight on to those routes; an argument which I remember my noble friend Lord Berkeley put forward with great skill when he was involved with the Rail Freight Group. It is particularly true of the west coast main line, and would enable us to replace thousands of heavy goods vehicle movements.

High-speed railways also have the desirable effect of attracting passengers from shorter-distance air services and longer-distance car travel. I commend to your Lordships an excellent piece by the journalist Ian Walmsley in August’s Modern Railways, entitled, I think, “HS2: Stand Up and Be Counted”. I shall quote just one paragraph:

“HS2 stands or falls on modal transfer from road and air, but that’s no problem because high-speed rail achieves exactly that. The problem starts when you look at the Department’s figures for modal transfer, which are unbelievably low. All over the world road and air traffic has moved to high-speed rail when it becomes available, yet predictions for HS2 show just 1 per cent of its business coming from air and 4 per cent from cars.”

I have no doubt that the potential for attracting air passengers is far greater than the department has so far allowed for.

High Speed 2 is essential to achieving net zero emissions and tackling climate change. I think that only the noble Lord, Lord Mair, has mentioned the climate emergency in this debate so far. Today, a high- speed rail journey would typically yield a 90% reduction in CO2 emissions compared with flying the same route. When electrical power generation is fully decarbonised, this will be a 100% saving. Rail freight reduces carbon emissions by 76% compared to road, and passengers travelling on High Speed 2 will emit almost seven times less carbon emissions per passenger kilometre than the equivalent intercity car journey. Phase 1 of High Speed 2 will make a significant strategic contribution towards a carbon-neutral economy, with the whole-life carbon footprint of its construction and operation being less than one month’s road transport greenhouse gas emissions. I have to say that this is one reason that I find the opposition of the Green Party to High Speed 2 so inexplicable.

If HS2 does not proceed, it is not, of course, the case that funds would be immediately transferable to the north. As the Minister said on 24 July, in response to a question from her friend the noble Lord, Lord Framlingham, “northern powerhouse rail … is a very important railway project, but it is not an either/or situation. We can have HS2 and we can have northern powerhouse rail; indeed, for both of them to work, they both need to be built”.—[Official Report, 24/7/19; col. 751.]

According to the Times on Monday, Britain’s construction companies have written to the Prime Minister warning that scrapping HS2 would cause “irreparable damage” to the sector and would jeopardise “an industrial renaissance” in the Midlands and northern England. As the biggest infrastructure project in Europe, ​HS2 is expected to create around 30,000 construction jobs and 2,000 apprentices. There is no alternative shovel-ready infrastructure project that can sustain the tens of thousands of skilled workers needed to maintain Britain’s engineering and construction capability. I quote from the letter:

“It would take many years to get an equivalent pipeline of work in place, by which time the damage would already be done to the supply chain. Just as the original railways built by the Victorians are still in use today, HS2 is not just a ‘once in a generation’ project, but a multi-century investment.”

They are absolutely right.

A link to the complete Hansard here