Ian Swanson: HS2 must stretch into Scotland

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IT’S expensive, not due for some time and could be further 
delayed – but why should HS2 be different from any other train?

The UK Government’s plan to build a £43 billion high-speed north-south rail line is at the centre of controversy again after senior Labour figures voiced doubts and a new business plan revised the cost benefits downwards.

The project has already provoked furious opposition from people living in the Tory shires where construction of the new line threatens to destroy acres of countryside.

But political leaders and business people in the north of England and Scotland are generally in favour, hoping faster connections will bring an economic boost.

So is it worth the money at a time of austerity? As the News reported yesterday, city economy convener Frank Ross thinks it would be good value at three times the price because of the benefits it would bring to Edinburgh.

And a survey found almost three-quarters of Scottish businesses believe it would attract new investment.

The first phase of HS2 should see the 225mph trains travelling between London and the West Midlands by 2026 and to Leeds and Manchester by 2033-4. There is no formal commitment to bring the line to Scotland, but politicians at Westminster have backed plans to do so.

The Scottish Government has previously signalled its willingness to invest £9bn in the project if the UK commits to extend the line north and also argued for work to begin building it from this end at the same time as work starts in London.

As Edinburgh citizens know only too well, thanks to the Scottish Parliament and the trams, major construction projects have a bad habit of running late and soaring over the original price – and despite massive “contingencies” being built into the HS2 estimates, there are still fears the cost could spiral out of control. Former Chancellor Alistair Darling has warned that “political visions can easily become nightmares”.

But it is also clear that failure to invest in infrastructure stores up major problems for the future and the HS2 scheme could be seen as sensible planning to ensure there is a fit-for-purpose rail system for the next generation.

Big construction projects also have the short-term benefit of creating lots of jobs and when the economy is in a bad way that is a plus.

Supporters of HS2 argue passengers travelling to and from Scotland will see benefits as soon as the first phase is up and running because of the quicker journey times on the southern leg of their journey. But they also point out the business case for the project gets better and better the further north the line is extended.

It is also easy to see that a high-speed line that stopped at Manchester or Leeds could leave Scotland at a 
disadvantage.

So if the line is to be built, it is vital that it continues up to Edinburgh and Glasgow – and without returning to the outdated arrangement of splitting the train at Carstairs, as has been suggested. If it goes ahead, a direct HS2 link to Edinburgh could cut the journey time to London to less than three hours. Some question whether faster travel is really so important. But if the government is right that Britain’s rail network is reaching capacity, there may be no choice.

This week’s warning that improving existing lines instead would mean 14 years of weekend route closures may be enough to get everyone behind HS2.

ian.swanson@edinburghnews.com