Chris Grayling is MP for Epsom and Ewell, and Secretary of State for Transport.
Right now, if you are Transport Secretary there’s always one inevitable moment when you get something of an intake of breath from the audience as you make your speech to the Party Conference.
It’s when you mention HS2. It seldom gets a round of applause, and I suspect that every time I mention HS2 on this site I get black marks from some in the Party.
We need to change perceptions about the project. Time and again I hear from Party members that they cannot understand why we are spending £55 billion on faster journeys from South to North and vice versa.
The truth is that we aren’t – and we have to stop the impression that HS2 is all about speed and journey times. It isn’t.
Our rail networks are bursting at the seams. It’s not just about the number of people on trains – though we are tackling that problem with longer trains coming into service all across the country in the next couple of years.
It’s also about the nature of our railways. The West Coast mainline is the busiest of its kind in Europe. It squeezes together commuter trains, express trains, freight trains, semi-fast trains.
Simply put, it’s full up much of the time, with projections of future growth. The East Coast and Midland Mainlines are the same.
The only way we can meet this capacity challenge is to build something new and relieve pressure on the existing network.
That’s exactly what HS2 does. When it’s fully open, it will bring thousands of extra seats in the rush hour for commuters into London, Manchester, Leeds, and Birmingham by taking the express trains off the existing tracks, and leaving more room for commuters.
At other times of the day it will create a different option – it will create extra space for freight trains and help get lorries off the roads. Not on the HS2 network itself, but on the lines freed up by the arrival of new high speed services.
So when I ask an audience of Conservatives if they support HS2, few hands go up. But if I ask them if they want more space for commuters and freight, they almost all say yes. That’s why this is a strategically important project for the country and for us as a Party – because that is precisely what HS2 does.
But it also important as part of the industrial strategy that Theresa May set out earlier this year. We all agree that this country needs more technological know-how, more engineers and apprentices, and more skills we can export around the world.
When it is built HS2 will be one of the most advance railways in the world. Why wouldn’t it be? Why would we build something old-fashioned? It will thus help a new generation of engineers and apprentices shape their careers.
A project on this scale requires a vast range of skills, and we are already developing those skills here. The new High Speed Rail College in Birmingham and Doncaster opened its doors to its first students this month. They are people who will benefit from a project that will take them through many of the early years of their careers.
We have told any firm that wants to be part of the project that they have to leave a skills and technology footprint in the UK. No-one will be able to build the trains somewhere else, ship them into the country, and leave nothing behind. Those days are gone. Whether it’s big civil engineering, train and signal technology, or the support infrastructure that the new railway will need, the projects that deliver it will be designed to strengthen our skill base as a nation.
And the work will continue. At the Conference we announced that we would be putting in place the first building blocks for Northern Powerhouse Rail, to ensure that it will be linked in to HS2 across its network. The two projects working side by side will transform connectivity for the northern parts of the country, as well as delivering much-needed extra capacity.
To those who doubt that under the Prime Minister’s leadership we have a proper strategy for Britain, I say this: we are embarking on the biggest transformation of our economy for decades. Better transport links, a revolution in technical education, support for new technologies, and enterprises and a massive apprenticeship programme – all supported by a renewed drive to sell UK plc around the world.
It isn’t easy. We have a lot of catching up to do after the neglect of the Labour years. But we are already delivering change, with the lowest unemployment since the 1970s, and a skills, technology and engineering revolution under way. Let’s stick together, support the Prime Minister, and deliver the change that Britain needs.