This article is from the October issue of Total Politics

Does High Speed Rail 2 (HS2) deserve the criticism it has received?

PH: Last month we concluded our consultation on HS2, the largest public engagement exercise this department has ever undertaken. We held over 30 public roadshows, regional seminars for business and civic leaders across the UK and put information stands at stations across England and Scotland. Our proposed HS2 network is a once-in-a generation opportunity. It would help build an economy fit for the future, create jobs, spread prosperity and change the way that our businesses work and compete. I’ll give careful consideration to the thousands of responses we’ve received before our final decisions are announced towards the end of the year.

ME: The debate over HS2 has not been sufficiently focused on the reason why a new line is needed – the severe overcrowding on the existing north-south mainlines and the near-impossibility of upgrading a working line. It obviously then makes sense to build any new line in a way that also reduces journey times. To build support for the scheme across the whole country, government should have stuck to our plan to legislate for the whole line from London to Leeds, Sheffield and Manchester, rather than just to Birmingham, as it intends.

To what extent should decision-making on transport be devolved to local authorities?

PH: This government is committed to radically devolving and dispersing power to local communities through our localism agenda. While there will always be strategic national transport infrastructure that must be the responsibility of central government, we’re keen for local business and civic leaders to be responsible for as much local decision-making as possible. I’m keen, for example, to explore how we can give groups of Local Enterprise Partnerships the power to prioritise local projects for central government funding. This would give greater say to local business and civic leaders, rather than everything being decided in Whitehall by civil servants.

ME: There is considerable potential for devolving transport spending and decision-making. Transport for London and the areas of the country now served by Integrated Transport Authorities show what can be achieved. There are huge benefits for local authorities working together, to deliver integrated transport solutions across travel-to-work areas. I’d like to see the rest of the country enjoy similar benefits, and greater devolution of services, including local rail. At the same time, they need greater powers to reverse the failures of bus deregulation.

What can we do to encourage more people to use public transport?

PH: In many places and circumstances, the car is the only practical answer – our focus is to drive the carbon out of cars so that people can, where appropriate, enjoy their car without destroying the planet. We have a huge programme to make plug-in hybrids and other ultra-low emissions vehicles a reality. But for many journeys, public transport should and can be the first choice. In urban areas, investment in public transport and improvements in technology are attracting more users, and, if we go ahead with HS2, I expect the train to become the mode of choice for inter-city journeys.

ME: The government’s decision to cut too far and too fast will make it much harder to enable people to switch to public transport. Local government has lost 26 per cent of its funding for local transport and has less money to fund the concessionary fares scheme. Bus operators will see subsidies to run unprofitable services cut by a fifth in the new year. The loss of more than half a billion pounds of funding this year alone, as a result of these decisions, is seeing bus services cut and fares rise.

Do we need another airport to deal with the volume of traffic?

PH: The aviation sector is a major UK employer, and the introduction of cheaper air travel has been a quality-of-life gain for British families. But we also recognise that the sector can only continue to grow if it does so sustainably. The way forward is to ensure our airports are better, rather than just bigger. Therefore, we’ve announced reforms to airport economic regulation, we’ve put forward measures to modernise the Air Travel Organisers’ Licensing authority, and we’re in the process of developing a new strategy that will set out how aviation can support economic growth.

ME: The government has ruled out any new runways in the south east for this Parliament. It seems sensible to be sure we’re making the most effective use of our existing airports before contemplating a new one. The government’s failure to set out a credible aviation strategy has been widely criticised by business, and we’re in danger of losing vital inward investment and competitiveness as capacity issues make it harder to open up vital new routes. We need now to debate how to increase capacity while reducing emissions, and the contribution that aviation makes to climate change.

What should we be doing to tackle price increases in rail fares?

PH: Sir Roy McNulty’s recent report found that Britain’s has one of the most expensive railways in the world. He also concluded that up to £1bn could be saved without reducing services.
So, we’re building on Sir Roy’s report by working closely with the industry to drive down costs and drive through savings.
Over the coming months, we’ll conduct a review of rail fares policy as a first step towards a simpler, fairer system. As we work to make our railways efficient and affordable, we’d expect to be able to put the era of inflation-busting fare rises behind us.

ME: The government should reverse its decision to allow train operating companies to increase ticket prices by an average of three per cent above inflation every year for three years.
Hard-pressed commuters face getting clobbered just to get to work, with many season tickets outstripping annual rent or mortgage payments.
Fare rises are the consequence of needing to fill the hole in the Department for Transport’s budget caused by cutting too far, too fast. However, the fragmented structure of our rail industry – the legacy of the botched privatisation – is also a major reason why we have some of the highest fares in Europe.

Philip Hammond is transport secretary and Conservative MP for Runnymede and Weybridge. Maria Eagle is shadow transport secretary and Labour MP for Garston and Halewood

Tags: High speed rail, Issue 40, Maria eagle, Philip Hammond, Transport