THE Confederation of British Industry has proposed that road charging should be introduced on England’s motorways and trunk roads, now operated by the Highways Agency.
As the Strategic Road Network — amounting to some 6,500 miles (10,460km) — and the rail network in England are very similar in size, as is the geography they serve, the CBI’s call for road charging could put the two networks on a broadly similar — and competitive — basis for the first time for longer distance journeys.
However, the implications for shorter distance rail journeys are not so clear. The CBI’s proposal means there would be some lowering of VED (vehicle excise duty) rates and fuel tax, with revenue-raising transferred to road charges, such as tolls, to provide an income stream for the motorway and trunk road operators. Lower VED and fuel tax could make motoring less expensive for journeys on local road networks, including journeys to work — but congestion at peak times may continue to keep rail travel attractive for many commuters.
But for longer journeys rail could well have the competitive edge, becoming much more attractive to existing drivers when High Speed Rail is able to provide increased capacity and offer attractive journey times with direct access to city centres without having to worry about finding parking space … and the ability to work on the train that is quite impossible while behind the wheel of a car.
HS2’s ability to close the North-South gap, not to mention its ability to link together cities such Birmingham, Manchester and Leeds in little more time than it will take to travel via Crossrail from Heathrow Airport to Canary Wharf, could well be the desired transformation which underpins current political thinking, I believe.
It is just that this political thinking is not widely broadcast, as politicians fear many people will reject the future alternatives because they seem so far removed from the transport systems they are familiar with now, such as driving on toll-free (but very congested) trunk roads and motorways.
We now have the Coalition Government’s third Transport Secretary in only two-and-a-half years. But, despite these ‘revolving door’ appointments, there has been no wavering in each Secretary of State’s commitment to the HS2 project. And all three main political parties continue to support the scheme.
As the Transport Secretary Patrick McLoughlin said last week, when he announced he wanted to ‘fast track’ the HS2 legislation: “There has been a huge change in the way we look at transport since the Birmingham-to-London line was built almost 200 years ago. At one stage it looked like the age of the train was dead. But the age of the train is not dead.”
Even before Justine Greening was moved to International Affairs, there were signs of a growing desire to complete the whole HS2 ‘Y’ network in one go, rather than in two phases as originally proposed — the first between London and Lichfield, with a branch line into Birmingham, in 2026, and the second, in 2032, providing a north-west arm to Manchester and connecting to the West Coast Main line in the Warrington/Wigan area, and a north-east arm serving Sheffield and Leeds with a link to the East Coast Main Line near York.
The two phases were said to be necessary because of the complicated Hybrid Bill procedure required to get the project authorised by both Houses of Parliament. Phase 1 would be dealt with in Parliament in 2013-14, before the next general election, while phase 2 would have to be dealt with in the next Parliament.
But there have always been concerns, especially among Northern MPs, that the next Parliament may baulk at passing the legislation for the north-west and north-east arms of the ‘Y’. So much so that the Transport Select Committee has suggested wording to be included in the first Bill that would seek to commit a subsequent Parliament to continuing with the second Bill. But that could never be assured.
However, while the arguments about necessary Parliamentary processes were continuing, Justine Greening had put her foot on the accelerator and got HS2 Ltd working faster on planning the route extensions beyond Lichfield so that they could be published for public consultation around the end of this year — a year ahead of the original plan. This is still the intention, confirmed last week by Patrick McLoughlin
Advancing the timetable has also been called for by the construction industry, basking in the success of completing projects such as HS1 and the Olympic Park at Stratford. making the point that contracts awarded for major infrastructure projects create new jobs and quickly feed benefits into the whole economy.
But the construction industry, while desperate for long-term work, is being hit by the continuing recession. Only last week, the Department of Business, Innovation and Skills revealed that while apprenticeships across all industries increased by 10 per cent last year to just over half a million young people, construction industry apprenticeships dropped by 18 per cent — down to 12,840 in 2011/12, compared to 15,600 the year before.
Yet without the necessary future skills, the construction industry will be unable to meet our increasing needs for new and replacement infrastructure, including across the rail network.
The construction industry has also been keen to point out that if the deflationary pressure on its activities is eased it will have capacity to construct the whole HS2 ‘Y’ network more or less simultaneously. The determining factor in the time it will take to build the new railways is not the capacity of the construction industry but the extent of ground excavation — with around one fifth of the southern section, mainly in Greater London and Buckinghamshire, now proposed to be in tunnels or deep cuttings. So it is likely that the first 50 or so miles of HS2 will take around seven years to excavate and construct. But the remainder (unless some substantial tunneling is unexpectedly included in the final proposals for the northern arms of the ‘Y’) can probably be constructed in four or five years.
This means that if the Stage 1 Hybrid Bill is passed by Parliament before the 2015 General Election and then a second Hybrid Bill is introduced immediately into the next Parliament, as a result of commitments contained in the first stage Bill, construction of the northern sections could be completed, as well as the southern section, by 2026.
This would have considerable benefits, including bringing the full advantages of High Speed Rail to Greater Manchester, the East Midlands and South and West Yorkshire at the same time as the West Midlands, including providing fast links between Birmingham and the Northern cities from the outset, as well as with London.
This would also make much sense in terms of creating a counter-balance to London and the South East by bringing England’s ‘Core Cities’ closer together and improving economic competitiveness, which is a key Government aim.
According to Greg Clark MP, the Financial Secretary to The Treasury: “By 2050 it is projected that cities will account for three-quarters of the global population. It is therefore no exaggeration to say that cities are the future.
“The eight largest English Core Cities outside of London collectively contain sixteen million people, almost a third of the population of England – more than a quarter of our highly skilled workers – and half of the country’s leading research universities.”
Greg Clark adds: “They generate a huge part of England’s wealth – 27 per cent, which is more than London. And, yet, there is strong evidence that, compared to the national average, most of our core cities are doing worse than the equivalent cities in Germany, France and Italy.
“For instance, in Germany all eight of the biggest cities outside Berlin outperform the country in terms of GDP per capita. The same goes for all but two of the Italian core cities. In France, three of the eight outperform the national average and none falls significantly below it.
“But for England, seven of the eight core cities under-perform — with Bristol as the only exception.” It is noteworthy that the remaining seven ‘core cities’ — Birmingham, Leeds, Liverpool, Manchester, Newcastle, Nottingham and Sheffield — would all be served directly by, or extension from, HS2.
By completing HS2’s ‘Y’ network to Greater Manchester and Yorkshire by 2026, as well as to the West Midlands, would also mean that far fewer expensive-to-build-and-maintain ‘classic compatible’ trains would be required, and that trains of European structure gauge with maximum capacity could operate as far as Manchester and Leeds straight away (including from/to destinations in Continental Europe).
And Glasgow and Edinburgh would then enjoy journey times to and from London from 2026 of little more than three-and-a-half hours — enough to probably put an end to most internal flights between the Scottish cities and airports around London.
At last week’s Conservative conference, Patrick McLoughlin said he would be working with the Scottish Government to see if HS2 could be extended north of the Border — so the scenario set out in this blog could mean that instead of HS2 not reaching Manchester and Leeds until 2032, it could instead be extended all the way to Glasgow and Edinburgh by then.
That would be a considerable achievement — and would transform the way people travel between most of our largest cities.