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How to avoid fudge, muddle and endless disruption

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Channel 4’s Dispatches documentary this evening questions whether HS2 should proceed. The views of long-standing opponents of HS2 get another airing, with some of them arguing the money should go instead to improving the existing railway.

If HS2 were to be abandoned there is no requirement for the money saved to go towards improving existing rail services (whether in the North or anywhere else), or indeed into any public service or long-term investment of any sort. The budget for HS2 is set in a quite separate arrangement from the 5-year provision made for the existing national railway. Once its funding has gone, it’s gone!

It may be natural to question priorities when public spending is being controlled so tightly and the economic outlook is being affected by Brexit.  But now is not the time to back out of investment that will bring huge benefits to our economy.

The case for HS2 rested from the outset on the realisation that our north-south main railway lines are running out of capacity. All available lower cost remedies have already been deployed – trains lengthened to their maximum, more services squeezed into the timetable – but we have reached a limit. It is proving impossible to run the railway network reliably in its current state, yet our trains are as busy and crowded as ever. HS2 is needed now more than ever: the main North-South lines are full.

It is disappointing that on the C4 Despatches programme statements such as: “there was no big picture analysis…we just don’t know whether there would have been a better way of spending the money” were left unchallenged. There was a big picture analysis that looked at, for instance, expanding the national motorway network, improving existing railway lines, building conventional speed new lines alongside the option of high-speed rail: it was published by DfT in January 2004. It showed that high-speed rail represented the best value for money investment case.

The alternatives risk eventually spending more through a piecemeal approach and risk endless fudge, muddle and disruption.

HS2 offers the best way forward. By taking fast express services off our main lines, we can release capacity for much needed extra commuter services, more freight trains (to get lorries off the road network) and a revised timetable so that intermediate locations can get a better train service.

It would be wrong to rob the nation of HS2 which is a key building block in any sensible national transport strategy. It is of vital importance to the prospects of the Midlands, the North and Scotland.

Jim Steer, Director, Greengauge 21