High speed rail: consultation launch 28 February 2011

This speech was published under the 2010 to 2015 Conservative and Liberal Democrat coalition government

Announcing the opening of a consultation into high speed rail.

Ladies and gentlemen.

It is a very great pleasure to welcome you here today (28 February 2011) for the launch of our consultation into high speed rail, and where more appropriate than Birmingham; a city with a proud industrial heritage - now looking firmly to the future - to diversify and grow - as it creates the jobs of tomorrow and plans to reap the benefits of HSR.

This will be one of the most extensive and, potentially, most far reaching government consultations in history. The proposal we are consulting on is not merely a blueprint for a new national railway, speeding passengers in huge numbers between our largest and most important conurbations in state of the art 225 miles per hour trains, but also a vision for the future of inter-city travel in the 21st century. An investment in infrastructure to deliver the long-term growth, jobs and prosperity that Britain needs if we are to retain our place in the world league tables. A once-in-a-generation chance to reshape our economic geography; bring our key cities closer together; regenerate our urban centres; and tackle the north-south divide that has held this country back for far too long.

Economic context

It is 10 months since the new coalition government began tackling the debt crisis that threatened to cripple the UK for a generation, and set about rebuilding our economy after one of the longest and deepest recessions on record. But rooting out waste, reforming welfare and balancing budgets is only part of the solution to the country’s economic problems. The next challenge is to secure the growth, the jobs, and the investment that will lay the foundations for a stronger, more balanced, more competitive economy in the long term - while delivering on our climate change obligations. And infrastructure investment - as the Chancellor has clearly spelt out - will be a crucial part of answering that challenge. Over the next few years, despite the squeeze on public spending, we will invest in Crossrail, in Thameslink and in London’s tube upgrades. As these projects reach completion, we need to move the focus away from London - to the infrastructure that will support the wider UK economy.

Origins of HS2 - the problem

When we became the first party to commit to high speed rail in opposition, we recognised its potential to rebuild and rebalance the UK economy through massive improvements in journey times, in connections between cities, and in capacity. We could see that the country needed a radical and visionary solution, to tackle the road congestion and rail overcrowding that are set to become significant obstacles to economic growth, and to deal with rising demand for inter-city travel in the future. Our railways have undergone a remarkable, and welcome renaissance. Against a baseline assumption at privatisation of continued, managed decline - the opposite has happened. Between 1994 and 2009, the number of miles travelled by rail passengers in Britain soared - from 18 billion to 32 billion - and that growth shows no sign of slowing. Network Rail estimates that demand on the West Coast Main Line route between London and Manchester will grow by around 60% between now and 2024 - yet even today passengers have to stand in peak periods on some long-distance journeys. Ignoring the problem is simply not an option. Severe overcrowding would spread from the peaks, to the whole of the day, and the reliability of the network would deteriorate. More passengers would be forced onto short-haul air services or onto the road network, generating ever-rising levels of carbon.

HS2 the answer - lessons from abroad

After an extensive review of the options, which is summarised in the document published today, our conclusion is that the only sustainable transport solution to these challenges is high speed rail. No other form of transport investment offers the same package of benefits. Indeed, countries across the developed world have come to the same conclusions - and are pressing ahead with ambitious plans for high speed rail. The UK simply cannot afford to be left behind. Across Europe and Asia, high speed rail has delivered for travellers in terms of journey times, capacity, reliability, comfort and accessibility. And it has delivered for our competitors’ economies, the job creation, regeneration and economic benefits that we will see in the UK if we go ahead with HS2. Not to mention modal shift - flights between Paris and Brussels have all but come to an end and air traffic between Madrid and Barcelona is in dramatic decline since the opening of high speed lines.

Service benefits

The network we are proposing today would bring central London to within 49 minutes of Birmingham; to within 73 minutes of Manchester and 80 minutes of Leeds. At least 14 services an hour in each direction would be added on the north-south route - each carrying more than 1,000 passengers. Transferring long distance services to the high speed line would release capacity on the existing East Coast, West Coast and Midland main lines, allowing substantially improved commuter services and new opportunities for freight. For the first time, high speed rail would deliver fast and efficient links between cities in the north and the Midlands - overcoming the inherent connectivity deficiencies of the current railway and its Victorian design. The current rail journey from Birmingham to Leeds, for example, takes 2 hours. HS2 would cut that to 1 hour 5 minutes.

Economic benefits

By connecting the West Midlands with Manchester, Sheffield and Leeds, as well as the East Midlands, high speed rail would allow them increasingly to operate as a single economic area, with the capability to compete with other economic centres across Europe. The links from HS2 onto both the West Coast and East Coast main lines would enable high speed services to reach other destinations - including Newcastle, Liverpool, Glasgow and Edinburgh - by through running onto the existing network. High speed rail would allow the economies of the North and the Midlands to benefit more directly from the economic strength of London and the south-east: improving urban productivity, providing access to major new markets and enabling them more easily to attract the most highly skilled workers. The network would generate economic benefits of around £44 billion - and the first phase alone would support the creation of more than 40,000 jobs. HS2 will be good for business and good for jobs. Which is why 69 business leaders wrote to the Financial Times last week in support of our proposals for high speed rail.

Work so far/mitigation

A huge amount of work and preparation has gone into developing the project - and getting to the launch of this consultation. And I would like to thank the teams in HS2 and DfT for all their hard work. More than 90 options were considered for stations and line of route sections during the process. By dividing the line up into sections, HS2 ltd developed a shortlist of 7 different possible routes, which was then narrowed down to 3 - and then finally one.

I came to this project for the first time in May. And I have asked the difficult questions; challenged the departmental conventional wisdom. I’ve explored the objectors’ arguments and put my officials on the spot to rebut them to me. I am satisfied that what we are publishing today is a robust proposal, in which the national benefits of high speed rail will have been properly balanced against the impact on local communities. I have personally reviewed every mile of the route with HS2 engineers, looking at the stress points; challenging the alignment; exploring different approaches to mitigating the most intrusive local impacts. I have visited the whole of the line of route and the communities that will be affected by it, listening to their views.

This painstaking process has already had a massive impact in shaping the proposal that we are launching in today’s consultation. Over half the route has been refined since the original recommendations of HS2 were delivered in December 2009 - for example adding more than a mile and a half of ‘green tunnels’ to maintain local access and minimise noise and visual impacts. We have lowered the vertical alignment of large sections of the line, reducing the amount of viaduct, and altering the line to avoid settlements and important heritage sites. We have ensured that the Chilterns will be crossed predominantly in tunnels and deep cutting and we expect to plant 2 million trees along the route from London to Birmingham. And for those who, despite our best efforts at mitigation, are still negatively affected, we are consulting on options for an extra-statutory scheme, offering greater protection than the statutory compensation scheme. In the meantime, we have launched an ‘Exceptional hardship scheme’ for homeowners who need to relocate urgently, and whose property values have been affected by the published route proposal.

What’s next

The importance of the project is reflected in the scale of the consultation: this is one of the most comprehensive, wide-ranging and inclusive consultations government has ever undertaken. Alongside it, we are publishing a detailed economic case and a full appraisal of sustainability. It is a real consultation. We want to hear the views of people from across Britain on these exciting proposals. Which means this is just the first stage in an ongoing process.

And I guarantee this: no final decisions will be taken until everyone has had the chance to have their say. Now is the time for people to speak up and make their voices heard: passengers, local communities, business, environmental groups. And the railway industry. Not just along the line of the first phase route - but across the country, here in the West Midlands, in our great Northern cities, and in Scotland. We want to hear from all of them, to help us reach the right decision, in the national interest. We will analyse the contributions, and publish our response, setting out our proposed way forward, in December 2011. If our decision is to proceed, we will aim to get a hybrid bill for the London to Birmingham route on to the statute book by 2015.

Concluding remarks

The urgent need to support economic growth and to decarbonise our economy means that the time for high speed rail in Britain has come. Today, we have set out our case for HS2. We will take that case to the regions of Britain. And we’ll take it to the communities along the line of route. We will show how High Speed Rail can transform the face of Britain’s economy - with more growth, more jobs and more prosperity. And we will show, too, how we will mitigate the local impacts of the proposed line. Maximising the benefits and minimising the burdens.

We have before us a once in a lifetime opportunity. An opportunity to reshape our economic geography and secure our future with the benefits of high speed rail. Too often in the past, Britain has baulked at the big decisions. This time, let us look resolutely to the future and seize this prize.