It is tempting to split discussions of rail policy onto two parallel tracks. Following the privatisation of the early 1990s, that has tended to mean that we talk about the infrastructure and the services separately. Since the publication of the High Speed Rail white paper more than a decade ago, there has been one conversation about HS2 and another about the rest of the network. And let’s not forget that there are two fundamentally different types of journey that take place by train: short, urban, commuter-type journeys and (generally) less-frequent, long-distance, intercity journeys.
The Integrated Rail Plan (IRP) published this week has deliberately avoided these important distinctions but not, as its name might suggest, in the service of integration. Rather, it has conflated and confused them in a clumsy sleight of hand that few in the Midlands and the North are buying – and neither should Londoners.
HS2 trains will now travel on existing infrastructure between the East Midlands and Yorkshire, whilst conventional lines in the north get upgrades that are described as “high speed” (all lower case). There is something darkly amusing in the promise of “a study to look at the best way to take HS2 trains to Leeds” when the same announcement is taking away the HS2 infrastructure designed specifically to take HS2 trains to Leeds.
In short, much of the new, transformational, long-term infrastructure investment that was pledged has now been cut. The UK’s high speed rail spine will now only run between London, the West Midlands and the North West. If this helps to overcome the north-south divide, it will create a new east-west divide, with half the country being left to make do with Victorian infrastructure.
We must not forget why we are building HS2 in the first place. Imagine you are feeding tennis balls down a drainpipe. The balls can’t be allowed to touch one another so you have to wait, say, five seconds between balls. If it takes 30 seconds for each ball to reach the other end, after a minute you’ll have six balls at the other end and six balls still in the pipe.
Now imagine you have a ball that moves twice as fast. To get that one ball through the whole pipe by the end of the minute you could feed three regular balls into the tube, wait until the last one is nearly out, add the high speed ball and then add another three balls after it before the minute has elapsed. So instead of six balls at the destination and six in the pipe, you end up with four at the destination and three in the pipe. That’s how our railways work today.
It’s been six decades since the Japanese worked out that there was a better way, and 40 years ago the French followed their example by creating segregated infrastructure for high speed intercity rail services. New, segregated, infrastructure triples rail capacity. Taking high speed intercity services off the existing network creates more space for more reliable commuter (and freight) journeys – that’s the real magic trick.
That is why it is disingenuous to focus on journey times or to suggest that the (relatively) small financial savings that these cuts produce will have only a small impact on the benefits. The reverse is true. Small savings will have significant negative impacts and continue to for the decades, if not centuries, in which HS2 is operational – unless, of course, a future government decides to re-include the eastern half of the country in the plans after further years of avoidable delay at, no doubt, a much-inflated cost.
It goes without saying that this is not what was promised to the Midlands and the North – civic and business leaders from those regions have not held back in expressing their sense of betrayal – but the implications for London and for the next three weeks of negotiations about Transport for London’s funding should cause concern for all of us who care about the capital.
It reveals two corrosive attitudes in government decision-making that don’t bode well for TfL.
The first is a desire within the Department for Transport to limit capital investment in public transport until the full effects of the pandemic are understood. This could take years and might be defensible if we were working with up to date infrastructure. But we are still, in far too many places, north and south, east and west, operating on crumbling (often Victorian) assets that should have been updated decades ago. This should be an opportunity to catch up on the backlog.
The government’s attitude also ignores the fact that the decisions that are taken now will help to shape the post-pandemic recovery. For example, if services are cut due to a lack of funding, people’s work from home habits are likely to become more deeply entrenched as their initial attempts to return to work and leisure activities in person turn out to be a degraded and dispiriting experience. This is not an abstract threat, as shown by the latest plans for managing significant bus and Tube reductions – not to mention the risks of regular strategic road closures due to a lack of maintenance – if a funding deal is not reached by early December.
Furthermore, while last month’s Budget was an oratorical rejection of a decade of explicit austerity, it contained a new infrastructure spending limit of three per cent of GDP. That self-imposed cap is forcing the false dichotomies and trade-offs. It is likely to put a comprehensive and sustainable deal for TfL next month out of reach.
The government trumpets “London-style” transport systems for the Midlands and the North. Let’s be clear that funding to follow TfL’s leadership on contactless payments and price caps in other cities is very welcome indeed. But without a proper funding deal, London itself won’t have “London-style” transport services for much longer. Instead, a period of “managed decline” for the UK’s economic engine will be given the all clear.
The substantial benefits of a well-funded and well-run TfL that accrue to regions outside the capital are well rehearsed, and true. But the reverse also matters. At present, every Londoner contributes more than £4,000 to the Treasury each year that is spent outside London. Every region in the Midlands and the North has a net deficit with the Treasury. More of London’s money should be spent in London, but that kind of increased devolution would be a much more popular solution if other regional economies were stronger.
Ultimately, a more productive Yorkshire (for example), in a more united Kingdom, is better for London too. Not least because our real competitors are overseas. In the long-run, in an international and interconnected economy, all of Britain’s great cities level up or level down together. But the IRP was not an attempt to deliver the best long-term outcome. It was a choice to deliver less, but sooner.
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