The Liberal Democrats are in Birmingham for their party conference, which makes it even more pleasing to hear their rousing support for High Speed Rail.
This is not the case. The Association of Train Operating Companies’ latest figures show that passenger numbers are rising at 6% per year, despite the recession and internet usage.
Capacity is critical, so it is great to hear the Liberal Democrats making the point that UK railways are busier than they have been since the 1920s.
Liberal Democrat Minister for Transport, Norman Baker MP’s, speech follows. You can click here for the complete speech.
We in the Department for Transport are promoting a new domestic high speed rail line, north from London to Birmingham, then on to Leeds and Manchester, and I hope thereafter to Glasgow and Edinburgh.
Let me be clear why we need HS2. There are three reasons, the most important of which in my view is the desperate need for more capacity north-south. You know, we now have more people travelling on the rail network than at any time since 1929, and on a network around half the size. Furthermore, rail has proved to be recession proof with numbers rising every year bar one over the last 20 years or so.
Even after the £8.8 billion upgrade to the west coast main line, some trains – local or freight – still cannot find a path. Nor can we sensibly upgrade that line further. It would cause massive disruption to services, cost a fortune, and affect far more people than HS2 will. So we need a new line, and it is then only a marginal extra cost to make it high speed rather than conventional speed.
The second reason is economic development. Evidence from other European countries is that high speed rail reaches the parts other transport modes can’t. We need to ensure prosperity is shared round the country, not just concentrated in London and the south-east.
Thirdly, there will be carbon gains arising from modal shift from domestic air to rail.
I recognise, of course, that those who live close to the proposed line are somewhat less enthusiastic about the idea than the rest of us. I recognise there are understandable concerns at the London end in particular. But along the line and particularly through the Chilterns, I do believe that the Department for Transport has taken great steps to minimise both noise and visual intrusion. That of course has not stopped some of the alarmist horror stories in the press. But those of us with long enough memories recall similar stories when HS1 was planned to run through Kent. I suggest those worried about the impact of HS2 might take some reassurance from how HS1 has turned out.
So the Lib Dems are delivering on rail – big time.