IT is the mid-point of the century and a special session of the Cabinet is being called to respond to a growing public revolt over the railways.
The story is a familiar one. Overcrowding is at unprecedented levels – there are even absurd reports that Pacer trains might be reintroduced on local lines to free up more recent rolling stock to use on major routes in the North.
Meanwhile Ministers are agonising over plans to build a series of high-speed lines from London and the Midlands to the North to ease the capacity crisis. Their dilemma is that it will take decades to complete and land costs, particularly in cities like Leeds, mean that the bill is approaching an inflated half a trillion pounds and is difficult to justify.
And the discussion becomes increasingly forlorn as Ministers ask the most pertinent question of all: What possessed Boris Johnson’s government in 2020 not to proceed with HS2 in full?
This, in essence is the backdrop to the much-anticipated announcement on high-speed rail after the PM ordered a major review into HS2’s escalating costs.
It is imperative long-term infrastructure investment takes precedence over short-term political calculations if Britain – the country that invented the railway – is to have a sustainable and world class public transport network.
And that is why any decision to delay or defer HS2 in the North risks will be comparable to Dr Richard Beeching’s strategic short-sightedness in the 1960s when dozens of branch lines were shut.
Now Ministers are under pressure to reverse the Beeching cuts, the campaign to reopen the Skipton to Colne railway being a prima facie case, and prioritise this over HS2 and Northern Powerhouse Rail – the planned high-speed line linking the North’s major towns and cities. Yet the time has come for a carefully co-ordinated local, regional and national rail revolution so that HS2 does not become the new Brexit.
First local. HS2 will remain a hard-sell if local services remain desperately unreliable. At least Transport Secretary Grant Shapps and Northern Powerhouse Minister Jake Berry recognise this with the decision to effectively renationalise the Northern franchise next month because of poor performance.
They’re beginning to impose a ‘passenger first’ culture, but Ministers – and local leaders – still need to explain how HS2 will make it possible to run more local services in the future. Both Transport for the North and West Yorkshire Combined Authority, and also the DfT, should have done this by now.
In the interim, the Calder Valley and Hope Valley lines also need to be prioritised for investment and the Pacers scrapped – and melted down – so they can never be brought back into use.
Next regional. With the first phase of HS2 already being constructed between London and Birmingham, Ministers would not dare to ask commuters in the capital to choose between high-speed rail and also Crossrail – the much-delayed new line across London that will open in the coming years.
Equally, this region should not be expected to choose between Northern Powerhouse Rail and HS2. Both are essential. They’re also inter-related because they will use the same track infrastructure here in order to maximise the economic benefits.
Finally national. What message will it send out to the world if Britain pulls the plug on HS2 more than a decade after ambitious plans for a North-South line were first proposed and drawn up?
Not only would this reveal a lack of ambition and resolution in this post-Brexit era, but it would lead to decades of weekend disruption on existing routes, like the East Coast Main Line, as new track is installed, and platforms extended, so a handful of extra trains can run. This will not meet future demand.
And it would represent a missed opportunity – this newspaper recently made the case for HS2 to be rebranded as the ‘British Bullet’, and the defining symbol of UK manufacturing and skills excellence, in order to fulfil its potential, justify the £100bn-plus cost and appease its critics.
Building on the existing HS2 college in Doncaster, the ‘Made in Britain: Made in the North’ vision of Professor Keith Ridgway, the founder of Sheffield’s Advanced manufacturing research centre, is a compelling one that should be readily embraced by Ministers.
That is why Boris Johnson must make the most of this week’s historic opportunity to overhaul the progress and promotion of HS2 so that it aligns more closely with the needs, and expectations, of travellers and future generations as the Government looks to make Britain carbon-neutral by 2050. Yes, Ministers need to keep costs under better control but they also need to remember that the cost of inaction could be even greater than the current £100bn bill for HS2 if they fail to look to the future.