We have before that the Government has been slow to make a decision on the future of Britain’s rail network.
There has been progress, with the announcement that New Street station is to be refurbished and improvements to the West Coast Main Line taking place on Labour’s watch,
But rail industry leaders such as Network Rail and Virgin Trains are adamant that major steps are needed, not just to improve what we already have but to add significant new capacity to the rail network.
Commuters are already well aware of the effects of growing passenger numbers, as they experience overcrowding on carriages and above-inflation fare increases – partly a deliberate attempt by rail companies to control demand by pricing some travellers off trains.
While this is going on, ministers have insisted there is no hurry to make a decision about new lines. They even argued that extra lanes on the M6 might solve the problem instead.
This has now changed, with Transport Secretary Geoff Hoon announcing a new inquiry into the case for high speed rail.
While the Government has not gone as far as announcing its support for express rail lines, Transport Secretary Geoff Hoon’s comment that they “have great potential and it is important that we start now to plan for future growth” is a clear sign that the Government has warmed to the idea.
No longer are ministers talking about either improving existing services, such as rail and motorways, or building something new. Instead, they talk explicitly about investigating two issues – improving what we have, while also looking at “longer term solutions” with a specific focus on high speed rail.
The Conservatives have gone further, and committed themselves to building a line.
We welcomed their announcement when it was made, but it is reasonable to conduct a detailed study examining all the technical, financial and environmental issues involved before making a firm commitment. In practice, this is probably what the Tories would do first if they formed a government, even if they give the impression that the decision has already been made.
Now, Lord Adonis is to carry out this work on behalf of the Government. So we are not yet in a position where we know that high speed rail will go ahead, but we are at the first stage of the detailed inquiry which will lead to a definite yes or no.