Speech

Institution of Mechanical Engineers (IMECHE)

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

Explaining why HS2 matters critically for Britain's future.

Opening remarks

Thank you for that introduction.

Thank you also for asking me along. This is an important event, debating an important subject, and so I’m delighted to be here today (26 April 2012).

Now I know you have a packed schedule, so I’ll do my best to keep things brief.

And, what I’d like to do this morning is give you a sense of why I think HS2 matters critically for Britain’s future - why this is a project whose time has very definitely come.

1825, 2025, 2026

Ours is the country that gave the world the railways.

But, if Victorian Britain was the 19th century midwife to rail travel, then it was the mechanical engineer, and former President of this very Institution, George Stephenson who was surely its father.

Back in 1825 it was Stephenson - one of the greatest of our Victorian forebears - who built the first steam locomotives. And it was Stephenson who ran them on the first public railway.

Those trains, and that line, covered little more than 2 dozen miles between Stockton and Darlington, but they started a process that would change our world forever.

2025 will be the year we celebrate the bicentenary of that incredible achievement - two centuries since the story of rail began.

But 2026 will be the year we start writing a new chapter in that story. Because that’s when we aim to have the first trains speeding along HS2’s tracks.

A different future

For Britain, high speed rail will be a transport quantum leap.

In many other countries it’s already a well established form of travel.

In fact, it is 47 years since Japan launched the world’s first commercial high speed rail service.

And its famous bullet trains proved to be so popular and successful they were carrying a hundred million passengers within 3 years.

Since then, high speed networks have sprung up across the Far East and Western Europe.

And new lines are being built in nations as diverse as the United States, Saudi Arabia, and Brazil.

So, set against this international reality, the choices I faced when I took up my job as Transport Secretary were pretty straight forward:

  • do we go for growth, or do we settle for stagnation?
  • do we take this once in a generation chance, or do we lose it forever?

And, for me, the facts were crystal clear - self-imposed exile from this global transport revolution made no sense whatsoever.

Do that and it would be our cities, our businesses and our travelling public losing out, and looking on, as others embraced high speed rail - enjoying, and exploiting, its social, economic and environmental benefits.

To compete and win in the modern world Britain needs to aim for a different future. So, in January, I gave the green-light to HS2.

Answering that “should we” “shouldn’t we” question on HS2 naturally raises other important questions.

For example, when will it be up and running? What will it look like? How much of a difference could it make? So let me try to address some of the key strategic issues around the project.

National network, 2 phases

The first thing to say is that HS2 will be a truly national high speed rail network built in 2 phases.

Phase 1 will link London to the West Midlands, plus a direct connection to the Continent through the Channel Tunnel via High Speed 1. And it’s worth noting that more than half of the route will be in cuttings or tunnels to mitigate the visual and noise impacts.

HS2 trains will run directly onto the existing network - which means that, even in this initial phase, it will offer faster journeys to destinations in the North West and Scotland.

Phase 2 will provide onward legs to Manchester and Leeds, with intermediate stations in the East Midlands and South Yorkshire, plus a direct connection to our international hub, Heathrow Airport.

In the coming weeks and months I’ll be considering HS2 Ltd’s route and station advice for this second phase. I intend to publish that advice in the autumn, together with a government response.

I also want the whole country to share in HS2’s benefits, which is why I recently went up to Scotland and spoke to the Scottish government about how high speed rail can work for communities and businesses north of the border.

As I said earlier, the date we’ve set ourselves for completion of phase one is 2026. And, by 2033, we expect phase two to be finished.

What a high speed Britain could look like

Together, these two phases will add up to a Y-shaped network that’s around 330 miles long.

And just think about the potential positive impact of that network, about what a high speed Britain could look like.

The most obvious change is that journey times between our cities and regions will have been slashed and connectivity radically improved:

  • London to Birmingham: 45 minutes instead of the current 1 hour 24 minutes
  • Birmingham to Manchester: just 41 minutes, rather than the hour and a half it takes now. Birmingham to Liverpool down to a hour from 1 hour 34 minutes
  • And Birmingham to Leeds: a trip of 57 minutes, as opposed to the 2 hours it takes today

High speed trains will also be high capacity trains - up to 18 an hour in each direction with up to 1,100 seats.

So, not only will HS2 mean better connected communities and better served passengers, it will also free up a huge amount of extra space for freight and commuters on the conventional rail network.

And that’s a massively important HS2 bonus

Because, yes, in the spending review we committed £18 billion worth of investment to improve our conventional railways - the biggest modernisation programme since Queen Victoria sat on the throne.

But our scope for squeezing ever-more capacity out of our existing rail infrastructure is diminishing.

Just look at the passenger figures.

Demand for long-distance rail travel has doubled over the past 15 years and there are now over 1.4 billion rail journeys on the rail network a year.

What’s more, up-grading existing major north-south lines would only provide a short term fix, and would consign passengers to years of disruption, delays and misery.

That’s what makes HS2 so much more than a way to provide faster and better journeys for those travelling on the high speed network.

With the capacity it unlocks, it’s actually the key to meeting the demand challenge and transforming rail services for every passenger.

HS2 will also help breathe new life into our towns and cities.

And that’s because high speed rail stations will be at the heart of urban across the country, acting like a catalyst to local development, galvanising businesses, generating innovation and driving forward renewal.

Thanks to HS2 tens of thousands of jobs - direct and indirect - will have been created and sustained by the building, on-going maintenance and day-to-day running of the network.

We think that the construction and operation of phase one alone will support something like 40,000 jobs.

And, of course, HS2 will mean much wider job opportunities, not least of all for engineering, technology and infrastructure specialists, and the firms and businesses that make up the supply chain.

Many are already helping us deliver Crossrail, Thameslink, electrification and upgrades to major stations like Reading and Birmingham. But even the largest of these schemes will be dwarfed in size by HS2.

So I want to see British companies, with their world-beating skills and expertise - the kind of qualities that IMECHE and its members are famous for - competing for key high speed contracts. Britain’s best helping us deliver HS2 on time and on budget.

Actually, on the way over here this morning I was reminded that IMECHE - along with its virtual next door neighbour the Institution of Civil Engineers - is located right in the heart of government… a stone’s throw from the Treasury in fact.

And that’s no accident. Your founders chose this spot for their impressive headquarters because they lived in an age when modernising this country’s infrastructure was seen as a top political priority.

Well, as HS2 shows, under this government, it is again.

I am convinced that HS2 will give a huge boost to families and businesses up and down the country - to our individual quality of life and our collective well-being.

For starters it will enhance social mobility, giving choices and opportunities to millions of people.

But it will also help to re-boot and re-balance our economy.

All of Britain will be open for business as companies and entrepreneurs across the regions use HS2 to exploit new markets, win new customers and attract new investment.

And high speed rail could even be good for the environment, with its potential to encourage a modal shift of people and goods away from long-distance car use and short haul aviation.

Beyond a simple benefit-cost ratio

HS2 makes sound financial sense too.

We estimate the full Y network will cost £32.7 billion to build (in 2011 prices) and that it will generate benefits of up to £47 billion and fare revenues of up to £34 billion.

So the HS2 sums add up.

But let’s be clear, the economic case for this project goes way beyond a simple benefit-cost ratio.

Yes, there will be a welcome return on the money invested in HS2.

But the real economic gains will be seen in the way a national high speed rail network helps to support job creation and stimulate the economy, improve connectivity and increase capacity, and make Britain’s competitive edge razor sharp.

The plain truth is that the price of not going ahead with HS2 far outweighs the cost of building it.

In short, high speed rail matters for our country’s success and our children’s future.

Concluding remarks

From its size and scale, to the positive difference it will make, HS2 is a landmark transport project.

So I recognise that this is huge project; a challenge that’s as big as they come; and a genuine test of our energy, commitment and skills.

But, when I look at the “wow factor” renovations of stations like St Pancras and Kings Cross; when I see the way in which these railway hubs have been transformed and restored to their Victorian splendour; I know it’s a test we are equal to.

I also know that Britain has been here before.

As I said at the start of my speech, we are the heirs of giants like George Stephenson; the inventors and innovators who gave us the railways; the Victorian forebears whose vision and determination transformed this country’s fortunes.

And, half a century ago jobs, growth and opportunity got a decades’ long shot in the arm when another generation had the vision to plan and construct the motorway network.

Today, we can no more turn our backs on the positive potential of high-speed rail than these earlier generations could have opted out of the steam age; or condemned this nation to a slow-lane future without motorways.

Like them, we cannot simply hope for a better and more prosperous future- like them we must, and we will, build it.

Thank you.