Sheila Gilmore: HS2 rail link has extra benefits

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Last week Labour’s Shadow Chancellor Ed Balls said that while Labour still supports the idea of a new north-south rail link, we need to be sure it’s the best way to spend £50 billion budget.

I think it is, and here’s why.

Under current plans, an initial line from London to the West Midlands is set to be up and running by 2026. This will be extended to Leeds and Manchester by 2033-4. Trains will travel at speeds of up to 225mph.

Passengers in Scotland will benefit immediately as the high speed network will be linked to existing lines, meaning trains will continue up to Edinburgh and Glasgow at conventional speeds. Once the second phase is complete, the Edinburgh to London journey will be cut by an hour to three hours 30 minutes.

On an economic level this will allow Scotland to benefit from the strength of the south-east. And on an environmental level it should encourage people to switch from planes to trains, which could reduce our carbon emissions. Opponents of the project have suggested building HS2 means forsaking investment in existing lines. This isn’t the case, as a huge amount of investment is happening now. For example the track is being improved on the East Coast Mainline, making services between Scotland and England more reliable.

However, as we bring the “classic network” up to scratch, we get less and less extra capacity for every pound we invest, and the work becomes increasingly disruptive to passengers. By building HS2 we get a huge capacity boost without years of rail-replacement bus services.

Others have suggested reducing the speed to cut costs. But the reality is, building a new line to a reduced specification would only reduce the cost of the project fractionally, while also sacrificing all the time savings.

Of course, there are alternatives to HS2. We could build more roads, or push people onto short-haul flights. But for anyone that acknowledges rail’s advantages – such as being able to travel right into city centres – HS2 is still the only answer.

Sheila Gilmore is Labour MP for Edinburgh East