UK: Campaigners Get up Steam to Fight £32bn Railway Project

With the backing of all three major political parties you might assume plans to build a high-speed rail network are welcomed by all.

Yet when the Government announced the detailed route of the first stage running from London to Birmingham, a sizable campaign opposing it sprang up.

In part, it is driven by people who believe the line will ruin landscape near their homes but the campaign has also won support from other political and economic groups.

With details of the route serving Derby set for publication by the end of 2011, opponents have now issued a warning for people here - when you realise the real implications you might want to fight it too.

Penny Gaines, the media director of StopHS2, said: "When the plans for the East Midlands come out I would strongly urge people there to see how they are affected.

"Those whose homes are directly affected will look most closely and the more you look at the plans the more you see the flaws - the Green Party, the Taxpayers' Alliance and the Adam Smith Institute have all spoken out against them."

Ministers want to build a network called High Speed 2 (HS2), running from London to Birmingham in the initial phase. The network would then split, with one arm heading north west to Manchester and a second running through the East Midlands to Leeds.

Construction is to begin in 2017, with the first trains running south of Birmingham by 2025 and the rest of the network operational by 2033.

The Government argues the network is needed because demand for inter-city rail travel in the UK is increasing.

Data from the HS2 Ltd, the body set up by ministers to produce network proposals, suggests long-distance intercity rail travel is growing by 5% annually.

With the costs of road and air travel likely to rise, ministers argue, only a new rail line can deliver the extra capacity needed - plus they claim it will reduce the need for air and road travel, reducing carbon emissions.

Building the equivalent conventional lines would cost about 90% of the price of HS2, they say, but would deliver 33% less of the economic benefits.

Plus, a high-speed line would mean long-distance travellers were removed from conventional routes like the Midland Main Line, meaning passengers on those routes would experience fewer delays and less crowded trains.

In the meantime, Derby passengers using the superfast network would see their journey times to key destinations slashed - London Euston in around an hour, down from 90 minutes to St Pancras at the moment.

And because the network would link with other new routes under development, like the Crossrail scheme joining London and the South East, other destinations also become much closer.

Travellers from the East Midlands high-speed stop would be able to reach Heathrow in under an hour and other key places in the capital - the financial district at Canary Wharf for example - much more quickly.

That would all allow firms in Derby to access new markets and bring more jobs within commuting distance for residents.

The Government points to the Spanish city of Lleida, which managed to gain significant new investment from Microsoft and other hi-tech companies after it got a highspeed rail stop.

Graham Nalty, who runs audio cable firm Black Rhodium from the Derwent Business Centre, in Clarke Street, says HS2 would be a big boost.

"Every minute saved in travelling is a minute that can be spent with a customer or making business calls," he said. "I recently used the train to visit our distributor in Germany and it would make doing those sorts of trips for me and my staff much easier, as well as getting to the extremities of the UK in Brighton or Plymouth for example, by cutting the time to get to London.

"But it would also mean that trade would pick up between Derby and London, in Birmingham and also further north.

"Linking it to Heathrow would also be very helpful, because a lot of the countries where our international distributors are only have direct flights to that airport."

Meanwhile, the Government also claims the construction and operation of a high-speed network would create thousands of new jobs.

HS2 Ltd estimate that about 9,000 jobs would be created to construct a new London to Birmingham line alone, with a further 1,500 permanent new jobs in operations and maintenance.

Michelle Craven, who is vice-chairman of Derby and Derbyshire Rail Forum, said: "Something like this simply has to be good news for the rail industry if it involves UK companies working on the network - whether that be in terms of rolling stock, infrastructure or maintenance."

The Government says construction of the new line will cost £32 billion and would generate benefits with a net present value of around £44 billion, as well as fares revenues with a net present value of around £27 billion. Put in simple terms, the Government claims that for every £1 spent on high-speed rail, some £2 goes back to the British economy.

Yet Ms Craven claims the benefits to the rail industry in Derbyshire could be even greater - she says the region is the only one where the entire network could be produced in one place.

"Whether it's the track, the signalling, the trains, anything, we can do it all right here. We have the skills in place already," she said.

"We tend to work with the figures that for every £1 of the capital cost of a rail project, £4 of investment is generated in the rail industry - for this as a £32 billion project, that's potentially £128 billion, much of which could come to the region."

But if everything about HS2 is so positive, why has the route's first phase from London to Birmingham, which accounts for £17 billion of the capital cost, met such opposition? Financial analyst Nigel Hawkins, of think-tank the Adam Smith Institute, recently wrote an article claiming the Government's economic case for HS2 was "weak".

He said the per-mile cost of the London to Birmingham route may turn out to be four times more expensive than in other European countries.

He wrote: "Even assuming the aggressive passenger growth projections until 2033 of the project's promoters, it is very difficult to see how a commercial return can be generated.

He added: "And, of course, cost and time over-runs are very likely."

Matthew Sinclair, director of the Taxpayers' Alliance, also argues that HS2 should be cancelled, claiming the cost of the London to Birmingham stretch alone is £600 for every family in England.

"With so much pressure on the budgets of families and businesses, it is utterly indefensible that the Government is planning on spending such an incredible amount of money on this project," he said.

Campaigners argue that the Government is exaggerating the benefits to regional cities like Derby, pointing out that no figures have been produced showing how specific cities gain economically.

They also say there will probably be three times as many journeys towards London rather than away from it, meaning most economic benefits end up there.

Meanwhile, what regional benefits there are, say the campaigners, will be sucked towards areas immediately round the stations. The East Midlands station is looking as if it will be outside Derby.

The Derbyshire Green Party has come out against the network, claiming current proposals are economically and environmentally unsound.

The party's county chairman, David Foster, said that, with most UK cities, like Derby, not-connected internal UK flights would not be reduced.

Furthermore, a high demand for electricity from the network and the need to build new infrastructure would negate any significant carbon reductions.

Mr Foster said: "The evidence shows that high-speed rail draws capital away from regions. The Department for Transport admit that 73% of investment associated with this project will be in London.

"All taxpayers will help to fund the project but few will benefit. We fear that the cost of tickets will make it unaffordable for the majority of us."

He added that the project could well divert muchneeded investment from the conventional rail network.

But George Cowcher, chief executive of Derbyshire and Nottinghamshire Chamber of Commerce, is in no doubt of the benefits.

He said: "A high-speed rail stop in the East Midlands would provide significant economic benefits to our area by improving connectivity and substantially reducing journey times between core cities, saving time for business travellers and promoting more inter-trading.

"It would also enhance the services on the existing rail lines that are approaching capacity at peak times and would provide better connections to these."

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