Two years ago the Conservative Party took the bold step of announcing a timetabled and costed commitment to deliver a north-south high speed line. At the time, Labour had made it clear that high speed rail had no part to play in their in their 30 year strategy for the railways. But we remained steadfast in our support for this crucial upgrade to the nation’s transport system – and we have led the debate on high speed rail ever since.
Since then, high speed rail has started to gather support from across the political spectrum. We welcomed Lord Adonis’s interest in this issue and his decision to establish the company, HS2 Ltd, to look at how plans for high speed rail could be taken forward.
However, when it comes to such a large and important investment in the future of Britain’s infrastructure, it is essential that we get high speed rail right. And the proposals that Lord Adonis is expected to announce today show that in important respects, Labour has got it wrong — for the economy and for the environment.
For example, Labour’s proposed route will only go as far as Birmingham. This is their first step. Anything north of Birmingham remains, at best, just an aspiration for Labour. This leaves the North, Scotland, and Wales out of the massive social, economic, and regenerative benefits of high speed rail.
And crucially, Labour proposals are not expected to integrate Heathrow into the proposed new network. Failing to take high speed rail to the UK’s most important airport would be a big mistake and a major lost opportunity for the environment. Labour’s deeply misguided support for a third runway has distorted their approach to high speed rail. Their blind determination to press ahead with a new runway would do untold damage to our environment and the quality of life of millions of people.
Because they see high speed rail as an addition to and not an alternative to a third runway, their plans are not expected to integrate the airport into the new high speed rail network. For us, encouraging people to switch from the plane to the train should be pivotal in decisions on high speed rail. We believe high speed rail has the potential to provide an attractive alternative to thousands of short haul flights at Heathrow, playing a significant part in relieving capacity pressure and improving the airport.
Realising this potential, and reaping the benefits in terms of reducing emissions and pollution, needs a bigger vision for high speed rail than we have had from Labour.
The next Conservative government will begin work immediately to create a high speed rail line connecting London and Heathrow with Birmingham, Manchester and Leeds, with construction to begin in 2015. The commitment to build this line is the first step towards achieving our vision of a national high speed rail network to join up major cities across England, Scotland and Wales.
As well as well as encouraging a big switch from air to rail, this will free up space on our existing railways and also provide an alternative for thousands of journeys that are clogging up one of the most congested motorway corridors in the UK.
Our plans to take high speed rail to the North will boost jobs and investment right across the country and bring particularly strong benefits to the regions. We believe it is essential that the North is not short changed and left out of high speed rail and the major regeneration opportunities it will generate.
We have made it clear that the business case for high speed rail is so strong that the project is affordable — even if fares are low enough to be accessible to a wide range of ordinary families. We have made a clear pledge to the travelling public that we see no point in building a line which only the rich can afford to use. No equivalent promise has been made by Labour.
So while we are part of the growing consensus of political parties, local authorities, business and environmental groups backing the case for high speed rail in the UK, we are adamant that Britain’s high speed solution must be right for the environment and for the economy. And in failing to integrate Heathrow into the network and setting out plans that don’t make it past the Midlands, Labour have got it wrong.
We must not miss this opportunity. The decisions we make now will have a profound impact on our transport system for generations to come. Only a Conservative Government has the energy, leadership and commitment to deliver high speed rail’s full potential for Britain.