This week Labour’s Shadow Transport Secretary Maria Eagle reaffirmed Labour’s commitment to HS2. We now have all three main political parties on-board.
This is progress and makes the likelihood of successfully delivering this vital piece of national infrastructure – which disproportionately benefits Birmingham – all the more likely. What we now need to do as a city is to get behind HS2 as project – and get it built earlier.
The first HS2 trains are not due till 2025. Given the cross-party consensus in favour and the national importance of this project, I invoke the spirit of Baltimore’s transformative Mayor William Donald Schaefer and implore the government: do it now.
Every day that passes without HS2 trains is a day during which the benefits of HS2 are forgone. The failure to reap these benefits is an economic drag. Time is money.
When combined with local and regional rail enhancements, KPMG estimates the benefit to the West Midlands of HS2 at £1.5 billion per year and 22,000 jobs.
Easing capacity constraints are an important part of this benefit. Local and intercity routes, for both passengers and freight, increasingly lack the capacity required to meet the demands which increased rail usage has placed upon them.
Rail is growing at six per cent per year and we have the highest number of passengers since the 1920s, and there was twice as much rail network then.
Put simply, we are quickly running out of capacity for passenger and freight services. As well as providing a new network between our major cities HS2 would release capacity on existing lines for more local and regional trains to run.
Without it, our manufacturing future is threatened by inability to get goods to market and supplies to factories.
While we in the West Midlands need to make sure we deliver local and regional rail improvements, it’s also the case that the longer we wait for HS2 the longer we wait for the full jobs and growth impact.
We’re being told to wait longer than other countries have waited for comparable projects. In 1976 the French government made funding available for high speed rail and five years later it was in operation between Paris and Lyon.
Work began on the Rome to Florence high speed line in 1970 and it opened in 1977. The high speed line between Madrid and Seville was built in 24 months.
In 2005, the Spanish government committed to extending their high speed network such that by 2020 90 per cent of the Spanish population will live within 50km of a high speed rail station.
By the time HS2 trains are due in the UK, we won’t just be far behind Spain, but a high speed train route between Baghdad and Basra will be running.
The UK shouldn’t be playing catch-up with Iraq. If our infrastructure degrades relative to our competitors, then we are a less competitive participant in the global economy.
Critics suggest our country is too small, but after Tokyo-Osaka, Frankfurt-Cologne is one of the most economically successful routes in the world. Interestingly, the length of the route is similar to Birmingham to London.
There are steps that can be taken to bring forward the delivery of HS2. The Bill and planning processes should be streamlined as far as possible. Of course, these processes should both be full and proper. But these processes will be exploited as far as possible by those who oppose HS2. Legal challenge to the consultation may be brought.
Ministers must insist that the institutional memory of their departments on the Channel Tunnel and Crossrail is fully deployed. These crucial infrastructure improvements also had their opponents. They also required complex Hybrid Bills and large-scale consultations. The government’s lawyers should be pushed to draw upon these experiences to minimise the elaborateness of the HS2 Bill and the risk of long-running and/or successful challenges to the HS2 consultation.
In July, the Committee of Public Accounts in the Commons reported that Network Rail lags behind the most efficient rail operators in Europe. If Ministers can get Network Rail up to the standards of efficiency achieved by rail infrastructure operators elsewhere in Europe, then this would free up public money to be reinvested at an earlier stage in HS2.
And HS2 truly is investment: spending that will reap a return. Getting our economy moving requires both efficiency in public spending and a re-prioritisation of public spending upon that which will reap a return.
Most things in Government could be done twice as well; almost everything can be done in half the time.
HS2 is a wonderful opportunity for the West Midlands. We will be at the heart of a transport network connecting our region with London, the North and Scotland, as well as European cities.
I will be doing all I can to speed up the arrival of HS2 in the West Midlands.
* Sion Simon is a former Labour MP for Erdington and prospective candidate to be Birmingham’s elected mayor