The future of high speed rail in the UK

Chris Grayling, Shadow Secretary of State for Transport, looks at options for the development of high speed rail.

In the end, the Eddington Report was a massive disappointment. Far from being a long term blueprint for transport in Britain, it proved a damp squib – with far more focus on short term issues than should have been the case. To give him due credit, it may not have been Sir Rod’s fault. We now know that he submitted one report to ministers in the summer, and that only after it had been redrafted was it deemed fit to be released to the public.

So it may be that the long term vision was there originally, but in the end it had gone. And gone with it was serious analysis of the pros and cons of what may very well prove to be Britain’s next big transport horizons – the construction of a high speed rail network.

Transport is certainly one of Britain’s big headaches. In the immediate future, we have to start making a difference to Britain’s congestion problems quickly. So our focus in Government would initially be on “quick wins” – projects that can start to change things in a relatively short period of time. We believe that the right mix of smaller projects, for example longer trains, improvements to individual bottlenecks on the roads, making improvements to transport interchanges, represents the best way to start making a difference quickly.

But there is little doubt that beyond that we will need to bring forward longer term projects to tackle the capacity constraints that are hindering both economic development and the kind of modal shift that will be needed to help our battle against global warming. We already know that major routes, like the West Coast Main Line, are going to be full to capacity in ten years time. That’s why we have to start assessing in detail longer term solutions as well.

That’s why in December I announced that we are pressing ahead with detailed feasibility work on three major potential future rail project options, which could help address Britain’s longer term transport challenges.

They include the option of building up a high speed rail network in the UK to match the growing systems in continental Europe.

The three options are:

• the construction of a conventional high speed rail network in the United Kingdom, using TGV-type trains running on traditional rails. This would probably initially involve extending the existing Channel Tunnel Rail Link northwards.

• the construction of ultra high speed inter-city rail links using maglev technology, capable of reaching speeds in excess of 300 miles per hour. Maglev is an experimental technology, though it is currently in public use in China. It has both advantages and disadvantages, and we want to assess its potential over both longer and shorter distances.

• the development of a new dedicated freight route through the centre of the United Kingdom, probably using derelict or under-used rail corridors, to link the Channel Tunnel, major ports and Britain’s major business centres. The aim would be to reduce pressure on motorways and existing rail routes.

In fact none of the three is mutually exclusive – but it is pretty unlikely that we could afford to do all of them. The work will focus in particular on:

• the relative construction cost of the three options
• the overall commercial potential of the options and whether they would require public subsidy
• the likely impact of the development of each of the options, and particularly their ability to link in to existing transport corridors
• the ability of the different options to secure a shift of traffic away from congested roads and motorways and onto rail.

Any of the three options we are looking at would be expensive, and would probably need to be developed in phases in the way our motorway network was. But we would not be doing our job properly if we were not looking at the longer term as well as short term challenges.

So what lies behind the bare bones of this early announcement – are we serious and what do we intend to do? We’ve already had numerous questions – not least about our decision to include maglev in the project.

The logic of starting now is compelling, even though we won’t have access to all the support we may need until we are in Government. Major consultancies are reluctant to hop into bed with the Opposition and jeopardise their relationship with the DfT – and also to commit large resource without any guarantees. But the offers of help from those with requisite skills are privately there – and will give us enough of a basis to begin serious work.

And my view is that we do have to start when in Opposition. 2015 may seem a long way away – but transport projects take a long time to come to fruition, and you can never start too early. The ground work we do now will not only enable us to form a view before the next election and give voters a clear direction – but it will also save time when we are in Government if we reach the conclusion that one or more of the options is truly viable.

The most central questions are about demand, modal shift and cost. Is there really a market for high speed rail in the UK? Would it really encourage people out of their cars or out of planes? How commercially viable would the options be – would they need subsidy, and if so, how big?

In particular, people question the need for extra speed – but then if we have to add new capacity, then isn’t it logical for it to offer high speeds, leaving our existing networks for slower traffic?

Then there is the inevitable question about maglev. The immediate reaction of those in the know has been to criticise – until I explain to them exactly what we envisage. No sensible strategist would argue for an immediate project to build a maglev line from London to points north.

As a technology it is much too newly developed, there are far too many questions about its cost and too many uncertainties about its suitability for longer distances. But we’ll only know if we try – and that is the option we are looking at.

No one who has travelled on the only commercially operated maglev route in Shanghai could fail to have been impressed. It could well be a vision for the future. Not only is it fast – it also appears to offer much more versatility than conventional rail. A maglev line could, for example, be built above a motorway in an existing corridor, without the need for massive land take – and yet could also sit at ground level alongside an existing route where no constraints exist.

If maglev were to be the right option, my view is that it should be used initially for high speed inter-city metro services, between cities that are linked by a congested corridor that is a few tens of miles long. Leeds and Manchester and Edinburgh and Glasgow are two obvious route options. Either could serve as a pilot for maglev without compromising the option of a conventional north-south route.

There are cost issues. The Chinese told me that the cost of maglev to them was about twice the cost of conventional high speed rail. But a recent report by the Institution of Civil Engineers said that maglev could, conceivably, be cheaper in the UK than high speed rail. And its versatility could avoid some of the substantial additional cost incurred by CTRL phase one in Kent, where the final cost of the project is estimated by those involved in building it to be 50% higher than it could have been because of all the other work that had to be done alongside the route. The project, for example, involved more new road building than rail construction.

Considerable work has already been done on possible options for a second stage conventional high speed route – by Atkins, Greengauge and Network Rail among others. Certainly, the logic would be to extend northwards into the Midlands as a next phase, with an eventual goal of moving further towards Scotland.

Would such a project need support from the taxpayer? Possibly, but not definitely. Some TGV lines have proved highly profitable – others less so. In any case, could we conceivably cope with future rail demand without making some alternative plans of this kind?

The third option on our list is very different. Over the years, numerous groups have put forward, often in a very amateurish way, ideas to create a dedicated freight route to the north. Usually the project includes the use of the derelict Great Central corridor, though the suggestion that the line should run through suburban Buckinghamshire and involve carving chunks out of the side of the Chilterns and through the middle of High Wycombe have always seemed to me to be absurdly badly thought out.

But that doesn’t mean that the overall concept of a freight route linking the Channel Tunnel and the east coast ports to the Midlands is a bad one. If it could deliver adequate modal shift for sufficient freight, it could be a very attractive one for us as a nation with very congested roads. So we’ll look at whether there is a viable model that could deliver benefits of the kind that we need.

This work is not simply political window dressing for electoral purposes. We are very serious about looking at how best to meet a need that is very likely to be there in the next decade.

We plan to work through all of the options carefully, using both industry and financial expertise, to identify what is viable and what is not. Enough work has already been done to suggest high speed rail may have a real domestic role for the future. In a world where our transport systems have to become increasingly green, its position is strengthened still.

Against that, its potential has to be weighed against all of our other national priorities, particularly if it would require substantial public support.

But we wouldn’t be doing this work if we didn’t mean business. If we are to meet our future transport needs, we will need to add capacity to our transport system in a way that attracts people to a greener form of transport. High speed rail may be a vital part of that future mix.

No one who has travelled on the only commercially operated maglev route in Shanghai could fail to have been impressed

Enough work has already been done to suggest high speed rail may have a real domestic role for the future.

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