High-Speed Rail United Kingdom

With New Government Settling into Power, U.K.’s HS2 Project Could be Radically Reworked

» New government, set on fiscal austerity, could limit transport expenditures in face of the recession. New minister declares an end to “the war on motorists.”

In power for thirteen years, the British Labour party had a mixed record when it came to transportation investments. While it greatly expanded funds committed to public transportation operations and maintenance, especially in London, it did so while pushing private ownership of bus lines and PPP control over construction programs. While it brought the nation’s railroads back from the abyss caused by John Major’s hugely problematic privatization of British Rail, it made few investments in high-speed rail even as virtually every other developed country was doing so.

Only last year, after enduring intense pressure from the rival Conservatives, did Labour finally come around, agreeing to fund a new line heading north from London. In March, Secretary of State for Transport Andrew Adonis finally revealed that program’s first phase, which would according to that government’s plans connect London and Birmingham by 2026 at a cost of more than £16 billion. Future extensions would head north to Manchester and Leeds, with eventual future phases to Glasgow and Edinburgh. It would have no direct link to Heathrow Airport, allowing the Crossrail commuter rail program that’s currently under construction to fulfill that role.

The British national elections held earlier this month, however, may have permanently altered the government’s strategy in relation to its rail program. The newly ruling coalition of the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats, putting Labour into opposition, has meant the definitive end of the proposed third runway at Heathrow (certainly a big step forward), but the former government’s relatively well thought-through high-speed rail plans are also on the cutting block. The Conservatives’ obsession with connecting Heathrow directly to the rail line — not, in my estimation, a particularly useful idea (and an expensive one, since it would require a detour) — will mean that the environmental reviews Labour had already performed will have to be restudied, potentially delaying the project.

But at least both parties now in power are in favor of the continued investment in the project. But at what cost?

Setting a new message, new Transport Minister Philip Hammond staked out his government’s position on transportation rather starkly at his first press conference. Arguing that Labour had given too much of a priority to transit during its more than a decade in control of the House of Commons, Mr. Hammond declared that he and his compatriots would “end the war on motorists.” While the high-speed rail project may be moving ahead, other future public transportation projects may be under threat — especially since the new government has committed to putting Britain on a fiscal starvation diet.

According to Christian Wolmar, a prominent British transportation commentator, the announcement by Mr. Hammond, who was previously the Conservatives’ “Shadow” Chief Secretary to the Treasury, means that there will be little influence of the Center-Left Liberal Democrats in the new government’s transportation strategy. That party, unlike the right-wing Conservatives, had been in favor of substantial measures to increase use of the country’s abandoned railroad rights of way and exert increased fees on motorists. Yet Mr. Hammond has refused to introduce any road pricing under his mandate, a significant problem if his government is to commit fully to the public transportation programs Labour had pursued.

Potentially the most affected immediately will be the £16 billion Crossrail program, which was supposed to be a RER-type commuter relief line for London. Though the Conservatives have said they would complete it, they haven’t promised that they would do so on schedule, despite the fact that it is vital for the stability of this crowded city. Does this mean funding for Crossrail — whose own completion was holding up Labour’s high-speed rail construction schedule — is to be extended and re-prioritized for high-speed rail?

Will funds currently allocated to rail projects be moved into the construction of new highways?

What is clear is that the Conservatives expect to find new sources of funding; Mr. Hammond said thatthe era of easy public money is over” — a reflection of the fact that the kind of mammoth improvements seen in the U.K.’s transport system over the last ten years may be a relic of the past, lost to different priorities in a new government.

It may be too early, however, to guess how the new government will approach the complicated issue of funding high-speed rail and other transportation projects already underway. But the new coalition certainly won’t have it easy attempting to assign priorities in the midst of a major downfall in revenues.

5 replies on “With New Government Settling into Power, U.K.’s HS2 Project Could be Radically Reworked”

Well no one was going to introduce countrywide road pricing. Attempts to introduce it in Edinbrugh and Manchester died a grisly death at the polls.

While Mr Woolmar is probably is the most well known transport journalist in the UK (the first to be used for rent a quote by TV news) he is also partisan for the Labour party.

Another view is provided by He posts much more frequently than Mr Woolmar but is more focused on industry gossip and certainly more humourous.

The new government has just made BAA cancel its planning applications for new runways at Heathrow and Stansted.

The roads budget is likely to be cut not expanded. Any new roads are likely to end up as toll roads financed privatley.

To quote a few parts of the coalition document.

“We will reform the way decisions are made on which transport projects to prioritise, so that the benefits of low carbon proposals (including light rail schemes) are fully recognised.”

“We will establish a high speed rail network as part of our programme of measures to fulfil our joint ambitions for creating a low carbon economy. Our vision is of a truly national high speed rail network for the whole of Britain. Given financial constraints, we will have to achieve this in phases.”

“We support Crossrail and further electrification of the rail network”

Now because of the budget crisis rumours are flying about sections of the crossrail project being phased, i.e. west of the airport or East of Canary Wharf.

The split on left and right is not the same in the UK as the US. The parties stance is not that different. The Uk road building program began to falter in the 70’s as public opinion began to change about road building. Since then it has fluctuated up and down with budgetary realities, pretty much the same as public transport investment.

The conservatives bedrock is in the London suburbs and the commuter counties surrounding it. So conservative voters are heavy users of public transport.

Who knows how everything is going to turn out. The budget deficit is the first priority. Crossrail will scrape through in some form but no other major project will start for another five years. which by coincidence is when a high speed rail line could start construction at the earliest.

What “war on motorists?”

It will be funny seeing how the Conservatards plan to improve the UK’s economy with fiscal austerity.

rational plan – what party if any are you a partisan of or for and does that make his or your thoughts more or less valid ?

Looking at the modal share of intercity rail and cycling, for example, ending the war on car dependency (not motorists) sounds a bit early to me.

Stopping the Heathrow expansion sounds good, the money for HSR is still to be found anyway — but it would be an enormous mistake to not build Crossrail asap, as well as to start more motorway programs.

It will be interesting if the Mawhinney report on HS2 access to Heathrow is adopted by the new Government. The conclusion that Heathrow will not generate many HS2 passengers and is poor value is quite convincing. Crossrail can provide that link to Heathrow and the most recent business case indicates a project which has even higher benefits.


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