Maria Eagle: Coalition moves slowly over high-speed rail for North

ACROSS the world, our major competitors are investing in high-speed rail. When Labour was in government, we were determined that Britain should not be left behind in this race for faster connectivity. That’s why we built Britain’s first high speed line between London and the Channel Tunnel, the first major new railway to be constructed for over 100 years.

The next great challenge is how we can ensure that the benefits of faster journey times can be enjoyed by the whole of the country, not just in the south east. That’s why we developed plans for a high-speed rail network linking London to Birmingham, Manchester and Leeds.

The development of this 335-mile, Y-shaped 250 miles per hour network would bring our major cities closer together and with it the potential to boost investment and economic growth in the North. Birmingham will be less than 50 minutes from London, Leeds and Manchester no more than 80 minutes away.

Sign up to our daily newsletter

The i newsletter cut through the noise

Connections onto existing tracks will allow high-speed train services to other cities including Glasgow, Edinburgh, Newcastle and Liverpool. This would bring Scotland within three and a half hours of London, genuinely competitive with travelling by air.

A new high-speed network would resolve the severe overcrowding already being experienced by passengers on the West Coast Main Line without the disruption of upgrading the existing route, and address the capacity issues we will be facing on our other mainline routes.

Of course this all comes with a major price tag attached – more than £17bn for the London to Birmingham section and over £30bn to complete the lines to Manchester and Leeds.

This investment will have to be found by whoever wins the next election as the current government will spend just £750m during this Parliament on pre-construction costs. Therefore, the Tory-led government is not being required to make a major financial commitment to high speed.

Neither is it making the legal commitment that we planned. If we had won the election, we would have taken the powers needed to deliver the high-speed network to Leeds and Manchester.

Yet the Transport Secretary, Philip Hammond, is insisting that he will only include the London to Birmingham section of the network in the bill he plans to bring forward.

The Government keeps saying they are committed to taking the route to the North, but their failure to back that up in law must raise doubts about their long-term commitment.

Increasingly, the promise of high-speed for the North seems more like a fig leaf for the absence of a growth strategy at a time when they have axed regional development agencies, the Future Jobs Fund and the North is bearing the brunt of public sector job losses and government-forced cuts to local government services.

When the high-speed rail legislation comes before Parliament, Labour will be arguing that if we are to proceed then we must realise the full benefits that only come from constructing the northern half of the Y-shaped route.

The Tory-led government is also hoping that their apparent enthusiasm for the new high-speed network will disguise the disastrous cuts they are making to other vital investment. Labour accepts the need to reduce the deficit and had a plan to halve it over this parliament – that’s why we have accepted the nearly £2bn cut to spending on roads.

Yet we would not have cut as far or as fast. We would have been able to go ahead with the rail electrification schemes, new carriages and station improvements that have been cancelled. We would not be letting rail fares spiral out of control, with some commuter routes facing fare rises of over 30 per cent across the next three years.

The Government should not have given back to train companies the power to average out price limits by hiking fares on popular routes traded off by reductions elsewhere. And they should not be raising the cap on regulated fares from one per cent to three per cent above inflation next January.

Whoever wins the next election will therefore not only need to find the £30bn cost of the new high-speed network but will also face a backlog of vital investment in the existing network and fares at levels that will be making travelling by train simply unaffordable for many.

That’s why Labour is launching a major review of our transport policy, including a serious look at the best way to improve Britain’s rail network while maintaining affordability for the many not just the few.

In the meantime, we will be pressing the Tory-led government to prepare for a high speed rail network in a way that benefits the whole country, essential if it is to deliver the economic benefits promised.

Maria Eagle is Labour’s Shadow Secretary of State for Transport.