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High Speed 2 (Scotland)

Volume 543: debated on Wednesday 18 April 2012

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship for this short debate, Mr Havard. I thank hon. Members for their attendance this afternoon and for their possible participation but, given the short time, I hope there will be only a few interventions.

To assist, I will briefly set out what I plan to cover. First, I will make a short reference to progress made in other countries, but principally I will put forward a case for the extension of High Speed 2 to Scotland, highlight some of the underpinning issues and, finally, pose some fundamental questions to the Minister.

High-speed rail is almost 50 years old, having been initiated in Japan in 1964, from Tokyo to Osaka. In its first year it carried 23 million passengers. Thirty years ago, France, Spain and Germany followed suit with HSR connections between and within those countries. There has been a quantum modal shift from aviation to rail, which has brought economic and environmental benefits. In those countries, passenger percentage to rail has increased dramatically and overall numbers have mushroomed. In addition to addressing capacity shortages successfully, new HSR demonstrated what can be achieved with economic growth and regeneration. In France, for example, HSR not only supported growth in already highly competitive cities such as Lyons, but improved the economic potential of previously declining urban centres such as Lille. There has been a big dividend to those cities and to Paris itself, and expanded tourist travel to Mediterranean countries.

Throughout that period, sadly, the UK seems to have existed in some kind of time warp, which beggars belief. The UK seems to have suffered from a condition called simultanagnosia, more commonly referred to as vision blindness or, as we say in Scotland, “cannae see the wood for the trees”. Despite the undoubted success of HSR in many countries over the past 30 years, successive UK Governments have been reluctant—indeed, remarkably resistant—to grasp the opportunities and undoubted dividends that HSR can bring. The only UK investment in HSR is the 69 miles from London to the channel tunnel.

The fact that the UK has been so slow to adopt more high-speed rail is surely a strong argument for starting to plan work for HS2 to Scotland. If it is left somewhere down the line for planning to start in 15 years, it will be the end of the century before HS2 goes to Scotland.

I thank my hon. Friend for his intervention. I could not agree more with his sentiments. There is huge potential in opening up the gateway to continental Europe, but we have failed so far to fulfil that potential.

It was refreshing to read in the coalition’s programme for government in May 2010:

“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.”

I emphasise the words “truly national network”. I welcome the belated commitment by the Government, and not just the present Government, to the programme, but the current programme seems to lack ambition in both the extent of the network and the time scale for implementation. As my hon. Friend said, now is the time to be bold, decisive and determined to deliver a high-speed rail service that meets the needs of the whole UK, not just south and middle England. Vision without action is sometimes described as daydreaming, so let us be clear that the vision is of an inclusive, first-class, high-speed rail service for the UK as a whole and in a much tighter time scale than has been proposed.

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way. I spoke to him before the debate. He has proposed a powerful case for HS2 to Scotland, and the need for a connection to Stranraer. That is important because it would provide a connection to Northern Ireland from Stranraer via Larne. That high-speed connection would be an advantage for everyone in the United Kingdom.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his helpful intervention. The Minister will no doubt want to respond to his suggestion, because high-speed rail should be for the whole UK, not just part of it.

Any interim measures to speed up conventional transport links on the west coast main line will be welcome, but high-speed rail north of Manchester must be a priority. The second-class hybrid system that was mooted recently will not meet the key objectives of increasing capacity, reducing congestion and reducing passenger travel times to just over 2 hours. Routes to and from Scotland are already significantly constrained, and running hybrid trains will not improve that. Furthermore, if Scotland is not included, Glasgow and Edinburgh will be comparatively further away than their main competitors, which will be served by truly high-speed lines. As the Minister said,

“If we sit back and fail to deal with the capacity time bomb set to explode within the next 10 to 20 years, we will do lasting damage to our economy.”—[Official Report, 2 November 2011; Vol. 534, c. 319WH.]

I congratulate my hon. Friend on obtaining this debate, and I take on board fully his point that a hybrid system is wholly inadequate. Nevertheless, there are some issues, particularly for those of us on the east coast, because the suggestion seems to be that in the first phase the hybrid trains would run from Birmingham up the west coast. I am interested in his views on that. Would it be reasonable to reroute services to the east coast via that route because even a 30-minute reduction would make a substantial difference to some of the environmental choices that people make between rail and air?

I thank my hon. Friend for her comment, and no doubt the Minister will want to pick that up. My view is certainly that we must consider not just the west coast main line option, but the whole UK. The case for high-speed rail is central not peripheral, and is overwhelming. US Vice-President Joe Biden reminded us recently that

“Public infrastructure investment raises private sector productivity”.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this important debate. I agree that extending high-speed rail to Scotland is central and not peripheral. Indeed, I have made similar comments in the House. It is a UK project, and we are in a United Kingdom, so we have the critical mass to ensure that we can deliver it and that it reaches into Scotland to Edinburgh and Glasgow. Does he share my fear that if we ever faced the prospect of Scotland being separated, this UK project would not happen, and we in Scotland could lose out?

My hon. Friend anticipates part of my argument. I will cover that later.

Turning to public sector infrastructure, there has been criticism about Scotland being overdependent on the public sector. Surely a high-speed link to Scotland would enhance the opportunities for the private sector and provide a greater balance within the economy. In essence, if we want to shape the future, we must create it. There is certainly unanimity in Scotland that high-speed rail that reaches the parts that others cannot reach must be a priority—I believe that is called the Heineken factor.

When the Government announced that HS2 would go ahead, a commitment was given to work with the Scottish Government and others on how to improve capacity between north and south. There is overwhelming consensus for HSR in Scotland across the political spectrum, including transport bodies, local, national and multinational businesses, civic society, trade unions and environmental groups. That unity of spirit and purpose stems from clarity about the perceived benefits.

Fundamentally, high-speed rail will bring three dividends to Scotland. First, there is capacity: as well as providing new services for passengers, it will free up space on traditional lines for freight and local passenger trains, reducing delays and congestion. Increased pressure on capacity is already impacting on service reliability and punctuality. Despite the welcome improvements that might be made, there will not be radical improvement on the existing framework. Secondly, high-speed rail would offer huge environmental benefits, because the modal shift from air to rail will dramatically reduce carbon emissions. It would also ensure adequate air slots for planes from the more peripheral parts of the UK, at a time when our airports are experiencing further congestion. In written evidence to the Transport Committee, Transport Scotland and Network Rail stated, significantly, that

“our evidence indicates that the extension of HSR to Scotland would significantly improve the benefit to costs ratio.”

There therefore appear to be huge dividends for the UK as a whole, and a high-speed rail link would also reduce our unhealthy overdependence on oil fuelled transport—a welcome strategic shift that would reduce relative transport costs.

Thirdly, HSR would contribute significantly to stimulating Scotland’s economy and promoting new business growth and regeneration. It would attract inward investment to Scotland, stimulate industry and be a further catalyst to tourism. The central belt contains more than 3.5 million people, a population similar in magnitude to that of the west midlands and Manchester. High-speed connectivity with other major population centres in the UK will be vital to sustain economic activity and promote growth.

Edinburgh is the second most popular destination for tourists from overseas after London, and it hosts a vibrant financial services sector that is the seventh most competitive in Europe. The area is home to a wide array of innovative companies that are investing in research and new technologies such as biotechnology, electronics and renewables. The economy of the Glasgow region accounts for 36% of Scottish exports. Glasgow is the second most popular city in the UK for inward investment, and contains the second largest retail sector. It retains a strong manufacturing base in aerospace, defence and marine industries, and accounts for one in three jobs in the tourism, food and drink and construction sectors.

High-speed rail could play a vital role in making innovative developments in Scotland and ensuring that we champion the business opportunities that we could expect within a new framework. Evidence clearly indicates that the case for high-speed rail in the UK is stronger when Scotland is included. The Scottish Partnership Group, which has representatives from across business, trade unions and the transport industry, reinforces the economic dividends. Iain McMillan from CBI Scotland notes the positive business case for ensuring Scotland’s inclusion in HSR:

“Good transport links and external connectivity to principal markets are vital to Scotland’s economic success. We are encouraged by the report’s focus on ensuring the development of this key infrastructure project, conscious of Scotland’s physical position on the periphery of Europe and the greater consequential need to provide key links to hubs and markets.”

Colin Borland from the Federation of Small Businesses indicates that

“productivity will increase and it will help Scottish businesses to compete.”

Liz Cameron from the Scottish chamber of commerce emphasises that

“we must be beneficiaries, not victims of HSR.”

A host of highly respected companies have added their unqualified support to the extension of HSR to the central belt. They include Dell, Siemens, Barclays and Sistemic, to name but a few. Some 75% of businesses that were recently canvassed were strongly in support of the extension of HS2 to Scotland.

High-speed rail would bring huge economic and environmental benefits to Scotland and the UK, but although there is a strong consensus on the need for HSR, there is, regrettably, huge uncertainty about the future of such a rail link to Scotland. There has been some support for the idea of starting a high-speed link from Scotland at the same time as building from London as a sign of good faith and commitment, but there is a major stumbling block because if Scotland voted for separation, HSR would surely remain on the drawing board. Even if an independent Scotland were to find the resources to finance HSR from Edinburgh or Glasgow to the border, who would pay for the high-speed link from Manchester to Carlisle and beyond? There would be no economic imperative for the UK taxpayer, and no political incentive for UK MPs to extend HS2 beyond Manchester.

I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing the debate and I agree with every word he said. What concerns me is what will happen if the Scottish National party gets its way in Scotland. As a Conservative and Unionist politician, I want a national UK rail network. Is this not a real opportunity for us all to work together? We have had many debates on HS2 in the House, and this is an opportunity for us to ensure that it goes ahead from London to Birmingham to Manchester and to Leeds, and indeed up to Scotland.

Absolutely; I could not agree more. HS2 should be a phased programme, hopefully with an accelerated time scale.

The Scottish Minister for Housing and Transport, Keith Brown, is right about the need for HSR to reach Scotland, but he is clearly stronger in economics than in politics. By implication, he concedes that Scotland would become an economic backwater if it becomes a separate nation, and that it could not deliver a vital link to our biggest export market.

Does the Minister accept that political certainty—in so far as that can ever be achieved—is essential to ensure that any future HSR development comes to fruition as quickly as possible? Completion of HS2 is likely to span the lifetime of several Parliaments, and achieving the vision of a high-speed network will require cross-party political support, a clear commitment from the Government about their intention to proceed north of Manchester, and clarity about Scotland’s position on whether it is to become a separate state or remain within the UK. The key question for the UK Government is whether they would invest beyond Manchester and Leeds if Scotland were to become a separate nation.

What recent discussions has the Minister had with the Scottish Government about high-speed rail? Does she accept the various research findings that indicate clearly that connectivity to Scotland would make the UK business case for HSR stronger rather than weaker, because the maximum dividends would occur with the potential modal shift from air to train? Does she agree that HS2 will bring significant economic benefits to Scotland in particular in terms of inward investment, regeneration and tourism? A two-hour journey time from Edinburgh or Glasgow to London is attractive, particularly in terms of the effective use of precious time.

I have already mentioned the view that without HS2 Scotland could become an economic backwater, and I reinforce the point that although upgrading the west coast main line would be helpful in its initial stages, it is not an overall solution to the problems in the system. Indeed, some would argue that that would be merely tinkering with the system and a token gesture.

To conclude, does the Minister agree that what is now required is a commitment and the tenacity to achieve the preferred network in as short a time as possible? That will strengthen our international economic competitiveness, reduce carbon emissions, transform our internal strategic network and meet capacity demands. For too long we have suffered from what I would call vision blight, and we need such a commitment to take things forward. Surely it is not beyond the wit of the UK Government and businesses to work together with other political parties and businesses to turn into reality the vision of an interconnected high-speed rail network that encompasses Scotland and other areas, and provide a commitment to achieve that well before 2033. Given the weight of evidence, I trust that the Minister will confirm her commitment to considering the extension of HS2 in a more appropriate time scale.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship for the first time, Mr Havard, and I congratulate the hon. Member for Glenrothes (Lindsay Roy) on a thoughtful and well informed speech on an important topic. I, too, thank other hon. Members for attending the debate. I agreed with almost everything the hon. Gentleman said, in particular that successfully delivering a high-speed rail network is in large part assisted by and dependent on maintaining cross-party consensus. We are grateful for the consensus that we have seen on this matter to date, and the attendance at today’s debate demonstrates the support for high-speed rail across parties and in different parts of the United Kingdom.

The ability to travel quickly and efficiently between the UK’s productive centres is vital for commerce to thrive and for businesses to create jobs and invest in our country. High Speed 2 is a core element of the Government’s vision for a transport system that is an engine of economic growth, as the hon. Gentleman highlighted. A new national high-speed rail network will deliver massive benefits in capacity, connectivity and reliability, which will help to underpin prosperity right across Britain and leave a lasting legacy for generations to come.

I fully recognise that there is tremendous support for high-speed rail in Scotland. As the hon. Gentleman highlighted, recent evidence for that is provided by the “Fast Track Scotland” report of the Scottish Partnership Group, which comprises a wide range of business groups, local authorities and the Scottish Government. We all share a vision for faster journeys that bring the constituent parts of our island closer together.

The hon. Gentleman focused strongly on the need to take high-speed rail to Scotland as soon as possible. The coalition agreement makes it clear that our ultimate goal is a genuinely national network, with high-speed services from London to the midlands and the north, including Scotland. We see phases 1 and 2 of the High Speed 2 project as the best way to make progress towards that goal. If we look back over our transport history—we can look at the construction of the first railways, the London underground or the motorway network, for example—we see that major networks have invariably been delivered in phases over a number of years. For high-speed rail in Britain to be an affordable and manageable proposition, the only viable option is a phased approach. Our priority is therefore delivery of the Y network, with London to the west midlands as the first phase.

However, the day after we announced our decision on phase 1 of the network, the Under-Secretary of State for Transport, my hon. Friend the Member for Hemel Hempstead (Mike Penning), was north of the border at a meeting arranged by Transport Scotland to outline the details of the announcement and to discuss the next steps with key Scottish stakeholders; and last month, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State attended a round table with Scottish businesses. She also had very constructive discussions with Keith Brown, the Minister for Housing and Transport in Scotland. She has agreed that the two Governments will step up their engagement on this issue, with a view to establishing an appropriate division of responsibility and putting the necessary governance in place to work through potential solutions.

Working with the Scottish Government, we hope to develop a mutually agreed timetable over the summer for our plans to consider progressing HS2 further. Officials from the two Governments are due to meet within the next few weeks to start that new strand of work. Care is needed in considering the case for extensions. All relevant evidence and options need to be properly assessed. It would be in no one’s interest if work on possible extensions slowed down progress on the Y network. Moreover, it will be difficult to look seriously at the route of potential extensions until we are much closer than we are now to a decision on routes to Manchester and Leeds—something on which the Government have only just received the advice of HS2 Ltd.

Undoubtedly, therefore, there are some practical constraints on the extent of the work that can be done at this stage, but I assure the hon. Member for Glenrothes and others attending the debate that those practical considerations do not mean that the Government will sit back until the full Y network is completed before looking seriously at how high-speed services could be extended.

We are all very conscious that the Government have come in for criticism. People have said, “Why bother taking high-speed rail to Birmingham when it will lop such a small amount off journey times?” Given that the real benefits, both economic and environmental, will come when we get the extension to Scotland, is there not a great deal of value in progressing those plans as quickly as possible, because that will reinforce the argument for the first part of the scheme?

As I have said, we are certainly prepared to start considering the future development and expansion of the network while still in the process of delivering the initial phases. The question has often been asked, including by the hon. Member for Glenrothes today, about who would pay for what were there to be extensions. It is too early to start to design funding packages, although I am sure that hon. Members will be aware that the devolution settlement gives the Scottish Government the responsibility for funding rail infrastructure that is north of the border.

The hon. Gentleman also expressed concern about the impact that a vote for separation and division of our nation would have. I agree that such a huge constitutional change would make it much more difficult to deliver major improvements to our transport network, if only because of the distraction that it would cause. If the entirety of the Government machine is focused on separating itself from the rest of the United Kingdom, that will inevitably have a detrimental effect on efforts to stimulate the economy and to improve the transport infrastructure.

We have already begun work with partners north of the border to ensure that Scotland gets the most out of our current plans for HS2, as well as to explore fully Scotland’s future aspirations for even faster connectivity. We should not underestimate the benefits that Scotland will get from the Y network, which we are already taking forward. It is a fact that the benefits of HS2 will extend far beyond the cities directly served by the Y network. HS2 Ltd’s estimate of the £44 billion economic boost that high-speed rail could produce is a cautious one, and the boost will be felt in Scotland and the north of England as well as in the south.

HS2 will increase capacity and enhance connectivity all the way to Scotland by relieving pressure on the most congested, southern end of the west coast line. The seamless transition of trains on to the east and west coast main lines from the Y network will deliver faster journeys to destinations the length of Britain. Completion of the Y network is expected to slash the journey time between Edinburgh and Glasgow and London to about three and a half hours. That will deliver very significant connectivity and economic benefits. We want those benefits to be delivered as soon as possible—a number of hon. Members mentioned the time of delivery—which is why we are exploring options for bringing forward formal public consultation on phase 2 of the Y network. We will set out our proposed timetable later this year.

The evidence indicates quite clearly that a quantum modal shift from air to train would be achieved if the journey time could be two to two and a half hours. With a journey time of three and a half hours, there would still be a propensity to go for air transport.

I am not sure that I agree with the hon. Gentleman on that. Given the experience with high-speed rail in the rest of Europe, I think that a journey time of three and a half hours will make rail a very attractive alternative to flying, particularly when one factors in the increased time at either end of an air journey. There is quite an intense debate on the issue of an air-to-rail switch, but experience in the rest of Europe shows that a high-speed rail journey of three and a half hours is generally an attractive alternative to the plane.

The claim by opponents of HS2 that better, faster transport between north and south will see economic activity pulled into London and away from the UK’s other great cities is misguided. I have every confidence that bringing Edinburgh and Glasgow closer to London with the Y network—a journey time of three and a half hours—will be a real boost for those cities, as well as for the cities of the midlands and the north of England. That confidence is based on the evidence from our European neighbours, who began their high-speed rail journey a generation before we had even started arguing about the first 67-mile stretch of track from the channel tunnel. The hon. Gentleman expressed concern about how slow Governments have been to take up that challenge.

Faster journeys will see more extensive modal shift between air and rail as the train becomes the mode of choice for more travellers, countering the allegation made by opponents that HS2 is not green. High-speed rail is already greener than flying, but the difference between the two modes will widen as we clean up our sources of electricity generation.

A crucial point to underline is that we are not pursuing HS2 just because of the positive benefits that we believe it will generate. The case for HS2 also rests on the pressing need to head off big problems that are heading towards us and will affect the whole of Britain. The simple fact is that the demand for inter-city transport capacity is growing strongly and has been for many years. If we fail to deal with the capacity pressure that we will face in future years, we will do lasting damage to our economy and competitiveness.

I emphasise that HS2 does not mean that we will stop investing in and improving our current transport networks. We fully recognise the importance of continuing to enhance our existing rail network, and that includes improving links between England and Scotland, not least because of how determined we are that the benefits of the Y network must be felt well beyond the cities that it serves directly. We have therefore embarked on a major programme of rail improvements, including the inter-city express project, which will create new jobs in the north-east and deliver a new fleet of trains for the east coast line. Those trains will start operating in 2018, offering faster, greener, higher-capacity and better-quality services, boosting fast-line capacity from Scotland into King’s Cross and cutting journey times.

On the west coast route, the long-awaited new Pendolino carriages have started service on the Birmingham-to-Scotland corridor. The Manchester-Scotland route is also due to get new trains, with delivery complete by May 2014. The new east coast timetable introduced last May increased the number of through-services between—