We’ve had a significant day today in the history of High Speed 2, as the High Court delivered verdicts in the numerous judicial reviews brought by various groups and bodies that have banded together in opposition to the project, for various reasons. I don’t propose to go into any significant detail about the different things that Mr Justice Ouseley ruled on, as you can look at the summaries as they’ve been published on the DfT website. The significant point to be made is that, of the ten different areas the judge had to rule on, he found in favour of the government in nine of them. Only in the ruling regarding the fairness of the consultation process over compensation payments did he rule against the government. Naturally, both sides are claiming “a great victory”, although I do find it a little hard to understand how the anti HS2 brigades can justify their relative good humour over this, as none of what the judge has said today will stop the construction. Hell, it won’t, as it stands, even delay the construction, given that, as far as compensation for property that has to be removed because it stands along the route goes, we’re still in the discussion phase as to how it will work, and the government has plenty of time to re-run the consultation, following the advice the judge has given in his ruling about what was wrong with it last time. Ofcourse it’s important that the government gets this right, but given that we’re still five years from shovels on the ground, I feel fairly sure that they will come up with a package that is acceptable to those that are affected. For those who are fundamentally opposed of course, the fact that they have lost in the action they themselves have brought is not the end of the war, merely a setback. In an interview with BBC News, Richard Houghton, speaking for the HS2 Action Alliance (a group that seems to have an inordinate number of different websites, so many in fact that I can’t decide which to link to – I’ll leave you to decide that dear reader), warns us all “not to believe the spin coming out of the DfT”, because of course his group doesn’t spin at all; according to his colleague Hilary Wharf, a director of HS2AA, the judgement is:
…a huge victory for the hundreds of thousands of people whose lives are blighted by HS2.
Not spinning the one victory they got out of today for all they’re worth there then. Richard Westcott, the BBC’s transport correspondent, made the suggestion that all the antis can do is to undertake The Birds strategy – keep pecking and pecking until the government gets fed up or decides that HS2 isn’t worth the hassle. The problem with this strategy is that HS2 is now embedded as major policy for both the Conservatives and Labour, meaning that dropping it will be politically very damaging. And once it gets to the stage of being shovel ready, then it can’t be dropped, because that would be suicidal. There will be appeals, certainly. Indeed, the 51m group of local authorities have been given leave to appeal on two counts. But the government will press ahead with HS2. And it will be built.
There is a body of opinion that believes the removal of Justine Greening from the DfT to the backwater of the Department for International Development is a means by the Prime Minister and the Conservative members of the government to smooth the road ahead of a u-turn on a particular policy, namely the construction fo a third runway at Heathrow. Justine Greening was a vocal opponent of this proposal, representing as she does the constituency of Putney, which lies under the flightpath. Her successor, the somewhat unknown (up to now) Patrick McLoughlin, does not appear to have such strong opinions on the issue. One might claim that this means he will be open to the body of evidence that should be accumulated. Conspiracy theorists may say it simply means he’ll be more amenable to the Prime Minister and the Chancellor of the Exchequer (who it seems is in favour of a third runway) changing the policy. Now, I have read in parts of the conservative press by various commentators that a third runway is the panacea, the silver bullet that will do away with all of our troubles, and that to oppose and suggest anything else it is “economic illiteracy”. Hence the ever present vocal opposition to High Speed 2 (although how many of these commentators live somewhere along the proposed route of HS2 I wonder?). Now, I claim to be no expert, but is it not the case that building a third runway is not the end of the matter? By increasing Heathrow’s capacity to accept more aeroplanes, you increase the number of people coming through, and that would likely mean you would need greater capacity once the aeroplane has come to a stop, and what this would mean is the construction of Terminal 6. The problem is that Heathrow is an old site, constrained on many sides by residential areas that make expansion difficult in the extreme, which is why Boris Johnson favours a brand new, purpose built airport in the Thames Estuary along similar lines to Chek Lap Kok in Hong Kong.
The government’s plan is to have an independent commission, chaired by Sir Howard Davies, investigate airport capacity and what can be done to expand and improve it. This is where the question of high speed rail should be taken into account, and where serious studies should be made looking at domestic and short haul flying in the UK. The argument about airport capacity is always made in terms of international travel – that Heathrow needs to retain its place as a world leading air hub to compete with both European rivals like Charles de Gaulle, Schiphol or Frankfurt, as well as those in Asia and the US. So why then is capacity at Heathrow (and other airports around London) taken up with domestic flights, and flights to destinations in Western Europe that are reachable by train? While in Edinburgh, I was asked whether, once the tram route to the airport is complete and running, whether I’d fly up from London, and my answer was a categoric “no”, for the simple reason that the United Kingdom is a country that is small enough, and well connected enough, to be able to get to most places by train in a reasonable amount of time. We already have 125mph running on most of the main routes. The electrification of the Great Western Main Line will potentially allow this to be increased to 140mph. And then there’s HS2 (which is not, as Frederick Forsyth continues to claim, simply a way to get from London to Birmingham 15 minutes faster), which will allow passengers to get to the major economic hubs in the north as fast by train as it would take to fly. Not to mention the extra capacity going begging on High Speed 1 to get to the likes of Paris, Brussels, Amsterdam and Frankfurt. The first thing for this independent review to do is see just have much of Heathrow’s existing traffic (and Gatwick’s come to that) is short or very short haul and say “where can we move this?”. Because in addition to the rail network, and the forthcoming improvements to it, there are also other locations where small, short haul flying could be transferred; Southend Airport has had a major passenger upgrade, and is directly connected to the rail network, while both Oxford and Lydd are looking to expand. Only once this evidence is gathered and studied should the question of third runways or Boris Islands be looked at.
Yet again, the DfT seem to be coming through and doing things to improve the lot of the frazzled commuter. At least in London they are anyway. This time they have made it possible for South West Trains to obtain an additional 60 vehicles that will be used to lengthen trains from eight to ten cars. This will be the implementation of the proposal that first came about in February 2010, which will see the Class 460 units formerly used by Gatwick Express integrated with the similar Class 458 fleet. This will allow five-car Class 458 units to be coupled into ten-car trains, which (it is presumed) will go to be used on Windsor Line trains, which can then allow a cascade of other rolling stock within the operator that can see other trains also lengthened. Of course, that’s not the only thing. To make room for these longer trains and planned extra services, Platform 20, part of the Waterloo International complex, will finally be brought back into regular use. There will be investment in South West Trains’ facilities, all of which will go to the creation of new jobs. All super duper. For not a huge amount of cost, potentially significant economic benefits are created – new employment, better frequency of services allowing more people to get into their workplaces quicker. Everyone’s happy. Is this what McNulty had in mind? Of course, investment in London and the South East is one thing – it does often seem that it is, to coin a phrase, “piss easy” to get more money for the commuter railways into London. The trick is getting money to stregthen the rail service in other cities that are (or have the potential to be) major economic drivers. The Northern Hub for example has been estimated at in the region of £550m, and will be a series of works all around the north of England aimed at improving services into Manchester and Leeds. £550m is around the same as is being spent on the refurbishment of Kings Cross, and yet the case for it is still having to be made. Thankfully, slowly, it is starting to move, with the various electrification projects and construction of the Ordsall Curve. One hopes that this will be the start of a snowball effect of investment, otherwise the government will lay itself open to accusations from the north of favouring London. Again.
Obviously, the fallout of the resignation of Liam Fox as Defence Secretary as an isolated incident matters very little to the wider aspects of transport policy in general, and the railways in particular. But, because government is interconnected, we must take note of it as it has led to the departure of The Roads Man from the DfT to take over at the MOD. Of course, I still call Philip Hammond “The Roads Man”, a nickname I bestowed on him when he became Transport Secretary because I viewed him as being particularly akin to the roads lobby. However, as time has gone on, the nickname has taken on more of an ironic edge. While we could never say that Hammond had the same kind of interest in transport (and railways in particular) as his predecessor Lord Adonis, he does have an economic background and at least recognised the value of maintaining and investing in the transport infrastructure as part of the country’s wider economic development. And it is also fair to say that he has been a vocal champion for the construction of High Speed 2. So we wish him well at the MOD. And we wonder about his replacement. I will freely admit that I didn’t see that appointment coming – I was sitting in the Ashcroft Theatre at the Fairfield Halls in Croydon, in the interval of the play I was watching, and was scrolling through Twitter when it became apparent that Justine Greening had been promoted to the post. As with Philip Hammond, Justine Greening has an economic background (Hammond twice shadowed the Chief Secretary to the Treasury while in opposition) having served as Economic Secretary to the Treasury since the last election, so hopefully she will similarly be aware of the importance of the transport infrastructure to the economy. It will be interesting to see what her take on the issues are. Given the story that emerged yesterday, with a quote from Willie Walsh, the Chief Executive of British Airways, who claims that there is a conflict of interest given that her constituency, Putney, is under the Heathrow flightpath. As a consequence, based on Willie Walsh’s view, she will be even less inclined to look favourably on expansion at Heathrow. Never mind the fact that not expanding Heathrow is actually government policy.
Will she look upon the “Heathwick” idea favourably as a means of expanding capacity without building anew at Heathrow. This is an idea floated to build a high speed railway line connecting Heathrow and Gatwick, essentially to act as a people mover, turning the two airports into essentially a single hub. This is the last major story to come out of Hammond’s DfT, and naturally is something that Willie Walsh also disapproves of.
The government has plenty on its plate as far as the railways are concerned, and Justine Greening is likely to need to display a sizeable pair of cojones to stand up to the various pressures that will no doubt be making their way across her desk from Monday morning.