Patrick McLoughlin knows the Midlands well. Born in Stafford, he delivered the Birmingham Mail – the Post’s sister paper – in his paper round as a Cannock schoolboy.
As an adult, he was a coal miner at the Littleton Colliery in Cannock.
Now representing a Derbyshire constituency, the Secretary of State for Transport has the difficult task of overseeing the high speed rail project known as HS2 – or, as it is increasingly rebranded, the North South Line.
And he insists he is determined to the get the line built despite opposition from what he calls “London commentators” who are happy to see billions poured into the capital’s rail network but object to a scheme which will improve transport links in Birmingham, Leeds and Manchester.
Speaking to the Birmingham Post at his offices in the Department for Transport, Mr McLoughlin said the planned line was essential for Birmingham’s future prosperity.
He said he wanted to cut the cost of building it, currently expected to be up to £50 billion, including the cost of the trains themselves. This includes £16 billion in contingency funding.
And he insisted that the cross-party consensus in favour of the project remained intact – despite Labour Shadow Chancellor Ed Balls questioning whether it was good value for money.
Mr McLoughlin also predicted that the line could be extended further northwards once the phases currently planned are complete.
The London to Birmingham leg is due to open to passengers in 2026 while the Birmingham to Leeds and Manchester legs will open in 2033.
But he insisted he understood the concerns of people who were genuinely worried about the impact the new line would have on their communities. Big and expensive infrastructure projects are bound to be controversial, but I asked him what he thought explained the level of opposition HS2 is experiencing.
In reply, he highlighted two major rail schemes under construction in London, saying: “What I do find is there’s a lot of Commons commentators who are against HS2 – who are very happy to see us spend money on Crossrail and on Thameslink, which if you put those two schemes together is over £20 billion, yet actually they resent or are against us spending money which connects eight of our ten major cities in this country.
“And I want Birmingham and I want Manchester and Leeds to be able to get the kind of investment that we are seeing around Kings Cross and St Pancras at the moment, because it’s a well-connected transport hub.
“For all that Birmingham has done a lot to attract investment, it needs to have those good inter city connections.
“And I find it ironic that I can go from London to Brussels on high speed rains and London to anywhere to Europe on high speed trains but I can’t go from London to Birmingham on a high speed train.”
The main reason for building the high speed line was to increase capacity on the rail network, he said.
“Particularly for Birmingham, it isn’t just about speed. In fact, actually the speed part is not that over important.
“What‘s more important for Birmingham is the capacity issue.
“Every day at the moment we get 5,000 people standing as they arrive in New Street station.
“New Street station is currently undergoing a massive refitment and it’s very important it’s done and it increases the capacity for passengers at New Street. It doesn’t actually increase the capacity for more platforms for more services.
“Investing in the new North South line, High Speed Two, what we are talking about is a Government that is looking to the long term future. This isn’t an easy win, it’s not a quick win. But if we want Birmingham to be able to compete in 15 years time, in 20 years time, in 30 years time with other major European cities, what we’ve got to do is make sure it’s well connected.”
The entire West Midlands would benefit from high speed rail, he said – and cities such as Coventry which are not on the line would still get a better service as a result.
Providing a new way of delivering long distance services would free up capacity on the West Coast Main Line to provide new services between other towns and cities, he said and it would also take freight off the roads.
“One of the things that’s happened with the railways is we’ve not only seen a doubling in passenger numbers over the past 20 years on our railways, we’ve also seen an increase of 60 per cent in the amount of freight using our railways. So I want to see more services and I want to see more freight on the rails and off the roads.”
Critics of high speed rail sometimes ask whether the money could be better spent on improving existing rail lines but those improvements were already going ahead, Mr McLoughlin said.
“Over the next five years on the railways we are going to spend £35 billion on the current railway network across the United Kingdom. That brings some very big improvements.”
One thing we don’t yet know is how exactly the high speed line will be paid for, but the Transport Secretary indicated that the Government would try to bring in private funding as much as possible.
“Where we have got stations, we will be able to get more private sector investment in those stations. I want to see the cost of HS2 come down. But once its operating, we will be wanting a company to operate it. They will have to pay us to operate it.”
So does that mean the franchise will be sold in the same way as existing rail franchises?
“Those decisions have not been taken yet. I’m looking at private sector investment in stations, I’m looking in the long term at how we might run the railway.
“Those decisions have not been taken yet. But those are options we could look at to reduce the cost to the taxpayer.”
Labour’s support for the project appeared to be in doubt when Ed Balls told his party’s conference last month: “The question is – not just whether a new high speed line is a good idea or a bad idea, but whether it is the best way to spend £50 billion for the future of our country.”
But Mr McLoughlin insisted that as far as he was concerned, Labour still backed HS2.
Asked if he was disappointed by Mr Balls’ speech, he said: “What did he actually say? We have to look at costs.
“Well I always welcome converts. I’m looking at costs all the time.”
The Transport Secretary pointed out that Labour politicians in local government, such as Birmingham Council leader Sir Albert Bore, were adamant the project should go ahead.
He conceded it would be difficult to get the Hybrid Bill authorising construction of phase one of the line through Parliament before the general election, as currently planned – but pointed out that unlike other legislation, a Hybrid Bill did not automatically fail once an election took place.
And Mr McLoughlin suggested that the construction of phase one, due to begin in 2017, could be brought forward – an ambition of Sir David Higgins, the incoming chairman of HS2 Ltd, the Government-owned business overseeing the project.
“He wants to look at whether there’s a way we can do certain parts of it quicker and I’m all in favour of that.”
“Look, in certain respects the easiest thing for a Government to do would be not to build this. Just walk away from it. There’s certainly no short term gain.
“But is it in the best interest overall for the country? I strongly believe that it is.”