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HS2 Wrong route, wrong priorities

HS2 Wrong route, wrong priorities

Green Party Leader Natalie Bennett argues the government should improve "Slow Speed 1" regional lines before throwing its cash at High Speed 2

By Natalie Bennett

06 Feb 2013

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With the HS2 project, the government is promising 21st-century rail travel - for a few.

One of the key problems with the plan was illustrated this week by our Green Party Yorkshire and Humber European lead candidate, Councillor Andrew Cooper. We were speaking at a meeting organised by the Young Greens in Huddersfield, swapping rail travel horror stories while talking about the obvious need to renationalise the rail system.

"I travel on Slow Speed 1 all of the time," Andrew said, referring to the Huddersfield-Sheffield route. It was a line that got a wry laugh of shared suffering from the audience.

In fact, all around the country, there are "slow speed" routes - the numbering could reach into the hundreds - important rail routes of varying distances that people need to use to get from home to work, home to school, home to leisure facilities that are hopelessly overcrowded, unreliable and/or slow. And that's without even getting into the dreadful state of privatised bus services that have become byword for failure to meet community needs.

We do desperately need investment in the transport system for the sake of people getting to where they need to go, just as we need investment in renewable energy and energy conservation, in other infrastructure for the sake of our economy and environment - to create the jobs-rich low-carbon economy we need to build an economically and environmentally sustainable future for Britain.

But putting all of our eggs - or rather all of those billions of pounds - into one basket of HS2, while cutting a swathe through the countryside, destroying hundreds of family homes, wrecking important wildlife habitats, and glorious countryside, simply doesn't stack up.

Our first priority for rail expenditure should be schemes to relieve bottlenecks on the existing network and schemes to provide more people with access to rail services. Capacity upgrades to existing lines could be done incrementally, which would be a more flexible and affordable way of increasing capacity and less risky than the HS2 scheme.

The Green Party supports the general concept of a high-speed north-south rail route, but in our current situation, the money can be far better spent on an integrated transport system meeting the needs for more localised transport that would help to support strong local economies.

The government is making much of how it sees HS2 as supporting Midlands and Northern economies, but speeding the route down to London risks not just making parts of Birmingham commuter suburbs for wealthy people working in London, but also further concentrating transport links on London, rather than strengthening intra-regional transport systems. It is telling that today proponent's of a new London "Crossrail 2" scheme are arguing that it would "absorb passengers arriving on the High-Speed 2 rail link from the north".

The overall economic case has also been seriously questioned from a range of sources. The Institute for Economics Affairs points out that the cost of linking infrastructure for the project has not been included in the costings, and there's many causes to question the claim for the benefits of the scheme.

A further important issue is the design speed: currently it is set at 250mph (400kph). This should be reduced to around 200mph (320kph), similar to HS1. The higher design speed requires straighter alignments, which are more difficult to fit into the landscape. A lower design speed would enable a north-south route to follow existing transport corridors and contours more closely. The lower speed would also massively reduce the energy required to operate the trains.

In the latest round of announcements, however, there is one thing to welcome: the government's promise that there won't be an automatic fare premium on the route' as applies on HS1. If HS2 does get the go-ahead, it must, given the financial and environmental cost, be available to all, and while we are still looking at unaffordable peak-time trains, it is essential there is affordability at other times, so we don't have empty white elephants screaming through the countryside. We also need to reshape the Euston plans to avoid massive destruction to a poor but cohesive community, and look again at the rest of the route to reduce environmental damage.

But it's clear that this is a project that shouldn't go ahead. The Green Party is the only national parliamentary party opposing HS2, just as it is the only party calling for renationalisation of the railways. Why that should be the case, when the arguments on both issues are so strong, is something many voters might like to ponder.

Natalie Bennett is leader of the Green Party