There are concerns with High Speed Rail but it’s still worth doing

For all the legitimate concerns with High Speed Rail, it's still worth pressing ahead with, writes Richard George, roads and climate campaigner at the Campaign for Better Transport.

Richard George is a roads and climate campaigner at the Campaign for Better Transport

The battle to defend west London – and, somewhat indirectly, global climate – from the expansion of Heathrow airport was notable for many reasons. But it was the cross-party alliance between environmental organisations, community groups, local residents and businesses which really made the headlines. Suddenly it wasn’t just hippies or people directly affected challenging the plans, but the former CEO of British Airways and the head of B&Q attacking BAA’s plans to bury Sipson under tarmac.

Is that same alliance forming against the government’s plans for a high-speed rail line between London and the Midlands?

This morning, 21 businessmen, CEOs and parliamentarians wrote to the Telegraph, describing the rail scheme as a “vanity project” which would cost every family in Britain £1,000 and take money away from more socially-necessary public services, “such as education and scientific research”.

Their letter comes hot-on-the-heels of a barrage of criticism from across the environmental movement. The Green Party’s Caroline Lucas wrote in the Guardian that HS2 “does not deliver objectives on climate change or sustainable development”, and the Campaign to Protect Rural England has condemned the consultation process as having “changed little since the days of 19th-century railway barons”.

Even pro-public transport groups, including the one I work for, the Campaign for Better Transport, have expressed our concerns about the proposals.

It is therefore tempting to see today’s letter in the context of Heathrow’s equitable alliance. But that would be a mistake. It is, instead, an attempt to subvert what should be a positive and sustainable proposal – and still could be, if only the government could refrain from dismissing anyone who voiced concerns as “NIMBYS” – and to redirect surface transport policy towards new motorways, climate change and endless traffic jams.

The 21 signatories claim to be standing up for families and businesses across the country, struggling with rising taxes and public service cuts. But many of their businesses are inextricably connected to road or air transport.

The signatories comprise two CEOs of road haulage firms, Keltruck and Cadogan Tate Group; Dawsongroup, which rents out lorries and other vehicles; a company which sells electronics to the aviation industry, H R Smith Group; and an oil and gas exploration company, Serica Energy.

They’re joined by the heads of the TaxPayers’ Alliance and the Institute of Economic Affairs, and Lord Lawson, each of whose views on climate change and the need to mitigate it are well known; John Hoerner, a former head of Philip Green’s Arcadia group; and a spattering of companies who distribute their products primarily by road.

That is not to dismiss their arguments out of hand, of course. That someone makes their living from moving goods by road does not automatically render them unable to comment objectively on the merits of rail (just as living near a proposed high-speed line shouldn’t disqualify you from commenting on it). Certainly their suggestion that over-crowded commuter lines should be an investment priority bears consideration.

But their proposal that we should spend even more money widening the nation’s motorways belongs in the dustbin of history, where the transport secretary has rightly placed it.

Similarly, their argument that the rail service between London and Manchester is so great that there are few flights between the two cities is simply untrue. Manchester is the fourth most frequent destination from Heathrow, with 32 flights a day, as well as daily flights from London’s other major airports, Gatwick and Stansted.

Factor in the potential to encourage people flying (or driving) further north to travel instead by rail and HS2 should be an opportunity to fundamentally redress the present bias towards air and road for domestic travel.

High-speed rail is not without its problems. The government would be well advised to engage with opposition groups and those affected by the plans. It should also look to other countries with high-speed lines, such as France, Germany and Spain, for guidance on integrating faster trains with more prosaic public transport. It also needs to reverse retrograde plans to drive people off the railways through a 3 per cent above inflation fares hike.

But to scrap the plans altogether, as this letter urges them to do, would be to throw out the baby, the bathwater and indeed the bath, simply because there is an issue with the colour of the taps.

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