HS2: "a great national cause"

The phone call came out of the blue, and after brief pleasantries the voice on the other end came quickly to the point: “Nigel, it’s Andrew Adonis. If you think it might be of interest to talk to me on the record about High Speed 2, I’d be delighted to meet.”

Does the Pope have a balcony?! Andrew agreed to find time within seven days, and I committed to publication in the next issue. There was some brisk diary shuffling in London and Peterborough, and a sunny, sticky afternoon on July 26 found photographer Paul Bigland and I seeking a very exclusive address between Pall Mall and the Mall. 

We found the grand front door, in a cul de sac I didn’t even know existed, flanked by towering columns, behind which the Institute of Government can be found, where Adonis is employed these days as Director.

Since the General Election of May 2010, Adonis has been all-but invisible in transport terms. The last we saw of him was attempting to do a deal with the Lib Dems to keep discredited Prime Minister Gordon Brown propped up in power. That surprised me, for Adonis is a man of sharp and considerable intellect and it was clear outside the Westminster bubble (and in many areas within it) that Brown was finished. Once the Conservative-Lib Dem coalition took over, Adonis slipped quietly from view.

For such a slight man Adonis cut a huge figure, and he left a void which the highest-profile politician would have found hard to fill. Adonis had deployed a killer combination: sharp political instincts, in-depth Westminster know-how, and a detailed and passionate appreciation of transport. He loved the job and knew how to make the system work.

Labour’s Shadow Transport Secretary Maria Eagle has failed miserably in the opposition transport brief. Adonis was always going to be a hard act to follow, but she has even managed to come across as anti-HS2. That’s some achievement, given that there’s cross-party consensus. Adonis, meanwhile, remained discreetly silent… until now.

His phone call came as the HS2 consultation ended. At Portcullis House, Louise Ellman’s Transport Select Committee was staging hearings, taking HS2 evidence from a wide range of stakeholders. This included journalists and objectors as well as transport professionals, and there had been some entertaining exchanges amid some spectacular displays of ignorance and prejudice that you can find in the online transcripts. 

I observed some of these from the press benches, and can tell you that the TSC is becoming interesting again. Louise Ellman is finding her feet as chairman (after Gwynedd Dunwoody’s death), while former Rail Minister Tom Harris also sits on the TSC. MPs Ian Stewart and Paul Maynard are also shaping up really well, with some pertinent questioning. 

The TSC’s verdict on HS2 will be very important. And based on the evidence I saw and read, the arguments in favour in terms of national benefits certainly outweigh the distorted and often dishonest claims peddled by the well-funded but self-serving Chiltern NIMBYs.

The Campaign for High Speed Rail has been fighting a rearguard action in the public arena - those who will benefit widely in 25 years’ time aren’t as motivated as those who will be affected significantly by the construction and operations, and it is the ‘antis’ who have been dominating the media. The NIMBYs have enjoyed £1 million of public funding from local authorities - the CHSR has had to fight for every penny of financial support.

Adonis is a powerful, articulate and, crucially, very persuasive advocate, so his re-entry onto the field of battle is very significant… and most welcome. So, what’s he been up to since he stepped down as Secretary of State?

“I continue to live and breathe transport,” Adonis fires back, as full of energy as ever. “It’s still of huge interest and concern to me - and it’s good news that a good deal of what we started in government is continuing. 

“I pay tribute to Philip Hammond for taking forward the first part of HS2; for continuing with electrification, which is good; and for continuing with railway modernisation. 

“I was deeply, passionately committed to modernisation, not just because I am personally interested in railways but because it is a national priority. The figures just out on rail passenger numbers in the first six months of 2011 show another 6% increase. 

“It is now clear that post-recession rail numbers are going to escalate very sharply, which further strengthens the case for modernisation generally and for HS2 in particular.”

That didn’t take long - but more on HS2 in a moment. What about railways more generally, in a Britain where economic growth has stalled while inflation remains robust? Has the link between GDP (gross domestic product) growth been broken, or actually reversed? Rail growth now seems to be in inverse proportion to economic activity!

“If oil prices continue to go up, with deeper instability in the Middle East, then you would expect rail passenger figures to go higher still,” says Adonis. “One in six additional passengers are giving high fuel prices as the reason for switching. So you’re getting systematic switching now, and congestion is a part of that, too. If these numbers continue to increase then we will need HS2… and we will need it to be built as fast as possible. 

“We will also need a great deal more investment in the existing network, which means in particular a great deal more capacity in commuter lines and, for example, Crossrail, which should now be named Crossrail 1. And we need to be thinking now about Crossrail 2, as there is going to be a massive shortage of north-south capacity linking in with the commuter lines going north and south in London in ten to 15 years’ time.

“We need to see HS2 as part of an infrastructure master plan for rail over the next 30 years, which includes significant additional cross-London capacity, north-south, and significant investment in commuter lines to raise capacity. And that should be the priority.”

Adonis is scathing about the recent Institute of Economic Affairs report (RAIL 675): “It seems to think the future lies in building a new motorway network in the South East - and that isn’t even in the interest of the people in the South East! How is this going to lead to balanced growth across the country if we are simply investing in roads in the already densely populated and overheated part of the country?” 

Adonis remains committed to rail in general and high-speed rail in particular. And he is limbering up to put the ‘O’ back into Her Majesty’s Opposition. Having lavished praise on his Conservative successor, his tune changes when I ask if he believes HS2 is being planned as a ‘standalone’ or as an integrated part of the network, as the French insist is the case with the TGV routes?

“I’ve been strongly supportive of my successor in taking forward the first part of HS2 - but I am not uncritical,” begins Adonis. “I think Philip Hammond is making a serious mistake in stopping the first stage - the actual planning of the route - at Birmingham.

“It would be a very serious mistake not to seek powers for the full ‘Y’ to Leeds and Manchester in a single hybrid bill, as one project. As soon as Philip Hammond confirms the route to Birmingham (as I hope he does, by the year end), and we’re past the first stage of consultation, I intend to campaign very loudly for HS2 to be built out to Manchester and Leeds as one project,” says Adonis, quietly, but with clear determination.

Adonis is adamant that seeking powers for the whole ‘Y’ will see HS2 reach Leeds and Manchester a full decade earlier than will be the case if Hammond breaks the project into two phases. And he is dismissive of those who claim that applying for powers for the whole ‘Y’ in a single hybrid bill is too ambitious - they are the same people who always said HS2 was impossible in the first place, he claims, and he’ll have no truck with them. Adonis despises small thinking when he is convinced big thinking is needed - and this puts him on a direct collision course with Government, notwithstanding cross-party support for HS2 in principle.

“Look at the three countries which pioneered high-speed rail. In Japan, France and Italy, the core backbone of their high-speed networks link cities about 330 miles apart, which is the precise track mileage that will be built with the ‘Y’ - that is London through to Manchester and across to the east,” Adonis tells me with emphasis. 

“Tokyo to Osaka is uncannily exactly 330 miles, and that was built as just one project in five years, opened as one high-speed line as the core of the Japanese system. Milan to Rome, the core of the Italian high-speed network, is 300 miles. Paris to Lyon, the core of the French high-speed network, was also built as one project in the 1970s - 260 miles. It is not overly ambitious, in international terms, to conceive of the UK’s ‘Y’ as a single project.

Adonis also has major worries about trying to get two complex hybrid bills through two successive parliaments.

“In my view you will NOT get two hybrid bills with massive rail infrastructure projects in two successive parliaments. If you do not put the whole of the ‘Y’ into a single bill then I predict that it will be 10 years until you can move from Hybrid Bill 1 to Hybrid Bill 2 - and that will involve a big delay and a huge escalation in costs in the completion of the ‘Y’ north of Birmingham. 

“And you don’t need a crystal ball in this respect, you just need to look at the history of transport hybrid bills. They are all-consuming in terms of the parliamentary efforts required to pass them. “

Adonis is convinced that it will not take twice as long to pass a bill for the whole route as it will for London-Birmingham only, because a major part of the process will be considering objections in principle. These will have to be heard just once with a single bill, he says, rather than twice. It seems to make sense.

More to the point, a single bill will lock in northern support, with friendships and support cemented from Day One because of the more rapid spread of badly-needed HS2 benefits to the north.

“Where will the great cities of Manchester, Leeds, Nottingham and Sheffield be on a build that stops at Birmingham?” he asks. “At best they’ll be lukewarm, at worst they’ll be opposed because they want the project to go up to Manchester and Leeds and they will want guarantees that the project will go there. And if you start giving guarantees in the first Hybrid Bill you’re extending its scale up towards Manchester and Leeds in the first place.

“This is going to be a project that brings about significant regeneration and social and economic benefits to the north of England, which desperately needs it. So the line needs to get to the north in the next 15 years - not the next 25 years.” It’s difficult to disagree.

Adonis does nothing by halves - and he believes that those who think he’s biting off more than we can chew should look at his record.

“I am often thought of as overly-ambitious,” he says. “It’s been the same in all my jobs - as minister of education, and as minister for transport. Actually almost all my government projects are now proceeding pretty much on the lines that I devised them, I am glad to say. The one exception is Philip Hammond stopping HS2 at Birmingham. 

“I tell you categorically - I would have sought to take this through as a single project to Manchester and Leeds with the Y - that was my firm intention.”

Adonis insists that a single hybrid bill is
in tune with international best practice, to secure best value, parliamentary time and to bring social and economic benefits to more people, more quickly.

I’m interested in the timing of Adonis’ reappearance. HS2 consultation has closed, and now Hammond will assess the consultation and take its findings into account in taking his plans forward. Adonis emerging with his promise to oppose a week or two ago would have been seized on by opponents as evidence of a crack in cross-party consensus. It might have skewed or distorted the consultation, so Adonis kept quiet. But the game has moved on… and Adonis is ‘off the bench’.

“This is my first major interview I’ve given on transport since I ceased to be Transport Secretary, and I’ve done it now very deliberately. I’ve always taken the view that when you agree with people in politics you shouldn’t create difficulties. I basically agree with Philip in taking forward the first stage of HS2 - after all it was my plan, I’d be hypocritical if I didn’t - so I haven’t done anything except be supportive.”

Yet while Adonis again states his ‘admiration’ for Hammond, you can still hear the ‘but’ coming!

“However, once he’s through his initial challenge of agreeing a route through the Chilterns - and I don’t minimise that challenge - I intend to campaign very loudly and with a real determination to bring about a change in policy to see that HS2 goes through to Leeds and Manchester in one go. And as you know, once I get campaigning I don’t do it by halves. This will be, I hope, a very big issue.”

If that isn’t putting the coalition on notice, I don’t know what is!

“The crucial thing is that this is a bi-partisan, national project. I did everything I could when I was Transport Secretary, indeed when I was Education Minister before, to make big reforms bi-partisan - because that is how they stick. 

You can’t change the whole school system or build a high-speed line across a large part of the country over a 15 to 20-year period unless you have a broad national consensus. It’s very important that we don’t play this for cheap, short-term politics - that’s how we’ve always failed in the past to bring about big change. I didn’t make party political speeches about high-speed rail, I always talked about it as a great national project, and that is how I hope it will remain.”

I ask Adonis what’s happened to Labour’s shadowing of transport? Where’s Maria Eagle? Shouldn’t she be doing this? Where has she been during the consultation? 

Eagle is virtually unknown in the industry; she’s never once been in contact with any RAIL journalist; she’s not ‘talked about’ in any positive way that I’ve heard; and she seems to have attracted attention only to ask parliamentary questions which don’t seem exactly supportive of HS2? Adonis is ever the diplomat.

“Remember, Maria is an MP for Liverpool. The great city of Liverpool is campaigning very loudly in favour of HS2, and they want the trains to come there as soon as that first leg of that line opens. Maria is a great friend of mine, she won’t do anything to jeopardise the interest of her great city.”

I ask again why she isn’t more prominent - or even visible - in this debate?

“Maria is behind HS2 and her city of Liverpool will gain hugely from high-speed rail.”

But surely, given the vociferous opposition in the Chilterns and the rising temperature around this issue, she should be more prominent? Even Ed Miliband seems to have been more obviously ‘pro-HS2’ than his own Shadow Transport Spokesman? 

“Labour is solidly behind high-speed rail,” insists Adonis. “We started it, we intend to see it through and, as I say, I see Labour as part of a growing national consensus for high-speed rail, as a national scheme. 

“That’s why it’s so important that the Hybrid Bill enacts the ‘Y’, all 330 miles of it. If the line stops in Birmingham it’s not a national scheme, it’s a scheme for the West Midlands and the South. The West Midlands and the South have not done badly in terms of transport investment and economic prosperity in the last generation, it’s the North which desperately needs a rocket boost in terms of connectivity and investment. Getting HS2 up to the North, in one go, is a crucial national priority.”

So, we’ll be hearing a lot more from you?

“Yes, you will. Unless, of course, Philip changes his mind.”

What sort of window of opportunity does Adonis see, to persuade Hammond to change his mind? Experience tells me this will be a tough call - once Hammond has arrived at a conclusion he’s a difficult man to re-engage. 

“For about a year from December, because two things will be happening,” answers Adonis. “Firstly, the preparation of the Hybrid Bill, presently planned only to go from London to Birmingham. But in parallel with that, there will be consultation on the route north of Birmingham - assuming that Philip decides to start consultation immediately. 

“Now, you would need to start preparing a Hybrid Bill anyway, next year. You also need to consult on the route north of Birmingham as soon as you have a draft route, so the crucial point of decision is summer 2012 when (I assume) if the Government gets on with it, consultation on the routes from Birmingham to Manchester and Birmingham to Leeds will be complete. 

“The Hybrid Bill will be in the process of being drawn up, and it will be possible to reshape that Bill to include route details and powers right through to Manchester and Leeds - so this will be a debate which pre-occupies decision-makers in 2012.”

Adonis has clearly been out and about in the North, and I get the feeling he has a few ‘standing armies’ ready to take up the cudgels.

“I’ve been in these cities recently, and I did a big HS2 event in Edinburgh two weeks ago. The political leaders and business leaders in the cities north of Birmingham are now very energised by the importance to them of HS2 - and of HS2 coming to them in this generation and not the next. So they have been putting in submissions to the consultation - a lot of them. And they will be alongside me, campaigning hard after December to get HS2 extended to the north in one go.”

Even Adonis, however, is more circumspect about Scotland’s chances of seeing HS2 breach Hadrian’s Wall.

“The Scots, of course, want it to go right through to Scotland in one go. But as I pointed out, a bit diplomatically when I was there, if the Scottish government was prepared itself to make a big investment in HS2 on behalf of Scotland, that might help their case,” he tells me, adding that the Scots are nevertheless fully onside with his campaign for the full ‘Y’ in the hybrid bill. This is because the further north HS2 goes, the more extensive Scotland’s benefits will be.

So, you’ll be campaigning in Scotland as well? 

“Oh yes, this is a huge national cause,” says Adonis. “There isn’t a more important thing that we are doing as a country in terms of modernising for the future than HS2. And I feel this passionately as, I suppose, in some ways the originator of the scheme, I have a duty to see this through. That means campaigning for the right scheme. 

“I don’t want a southern English railway - we need a national high-speed network that links either directly or by through services all of the great cities of London, Midlands, the North and Scotland.”

Many railway companies have made financial contributions to the Campaign for High Speed Rail - but I ask Adonis what he thinks of Network Rail? In office he declined to tackle NR reform on the basis that he didn’t want to spread himself too thinly. What’s his view of the departure of Iain Coucher as Chief Executive, and the implicit rejection of much that he stood for? Where does NR sit in his view on HS2?

“They need to be out there campaigning,” he replies. “This is a great national cause. It has to be said, though, that the rail industry itself hasn’t been its own best friend over the past 20 years - it’s still far too inward looking. It needs to engage with the nation, not just with the Department for Transport. 

“David Higgins, for whom I have great respect, is rapidly and radically changing the whole culture of Network Rail, and I’d expect to see David taking on the role which I believe the Chief Executive of Network Rail should take on - that of being the champion for this great industry.

“It is now abundantly clear that it’s rail that is going to lead the debate on modernising the nation’s infrastructure over the next generation. 

“And the leaders of this industry, all of whom are still deeply scarred by the arguments and failures over privatisation, now need to draw a firm black line under the whole experiences of the past 20 years and look to the future. 

“HS2 isn’t only important in its own right, it is also a tree on which you can hang a whole rail infrastructure modernisation strategy over the next 20 to 30 years.”

Is HS2 a done deal? Or could the battle still be lost?

“It could easily be lost,” he replies. “It crucially requires strong political leadership. Now I strongly admire that way that Philip Hammond has dealt with the NIMBYs in the Chilterns. For a Conservative Secretary of State to go into his own political back yard and have this ferocious argument takes a lot of courage and backbone. Philip has both, and I admire what he has done. My concern about Philip isn’t with what he’s done so far - it is what he is not going to do in the future.”

Is it possible that that the Chilterns might make enough noise to shake Prime Minister David Cameron’s nerve? Welsh Secretary Cheryl Gillan has threatened to resign from cabinet because of HS2’s effect on her Chilterns constituency.

“I’d be very surprised if the Government has got this far, not to see this through. Obviously, full account needs to be taken of opinion in the Chilterns, and I am sure further improvements can be made to the route. It is the duty of the Government to look seriously at the concerns that have been raised. 

“But nothing that has happened since the HS2 command paper published in March has damaged the fundamental arguments for HS2. On the contrary, the arguments have become fundamentally stronger, because growth in rail travel has accelerated much faster than previously predicted even though the economy has remained very weak.  

“Let’s be clear what’s happening. We’re looking at, on latest figures, anything up to 10% annual increase in rail passenger mileage, even while the economy is still in the doldrums. Where do you think we’re going to be once growth returns? 

“We - the political class - would rightly be accused of national betrayal if we do not have a fit for purpose rail infrastructure in this country in the 2020s when we have decided, rightly, to stop major road building.”

Are HS2’s opponents setting the agenda?

“No, I think we’re setting the agenda. The agenda has been set in favour of HS2 - everyone else is being reactive. It is part of our national character to be fatalistic and pessimistic, but I’m glad to say the optimists usually win!”

But I thought you said this could yet be lost?

“It will only be lost if the Prime Minister, Chancellor and Transport Secretary have a sudden loss of nerve,” he says carefully. “Now you can never rule that out in politics, but assuming they don’t suddenly lose their collective nerve, then this will proceed. 

“They need to understand that if they DO have a sudden loss of nerve there will be a massive argument on this, and they’ll have no transport policy. There will be no transport policy worth a name beyond patch and mend for the next few years, if we don’t have HS2.

“Let’s be optimistic! I see my role and the role of friends of HS2 is to keep the government up to its mark.”

Would you agree that it’s important to get HS2 past the point of no return before there’s a cabinet reshuffle? If Hammond was to be moved…?

“It is important that we get past that point of no return as soon as possible. I hope Philip stays where he is for now - he is doing a good job as Transport Secretary.”

Adonis pauses, smiles at the irony, and then adds: “Also, I’ll be quite frank, we’ve had far too many transport secretaries in recent years - I was the third in three years! I was only there for a year, so having one for, dare I say it, three years would be no bad thing for the country.”

Would you like to do the job again? 

“If there was another Labour government and I was asked to become Transport Secretary I’d take the job like a shot,” he says, with passion. It is one of the most important jobs in the country. You are responsible for one of the most important social and economic briefs in the country, yet people don’t see it like that…

“It is very important to have a Transport Secretary who is interested in transport. 

“We would think it odd to have an
Education Secretary who didn’t like children, or a Health Secretary who didn’t like
hospitals, but somehow we regard it as perfectly normal to have Transport Secretaries who say they’re bored stiff by transport and have no real interest in it.”

Having dealt with previous incumbents such as Geoff Hoon and Ruth Kelly, I know exactly what he means!

You mentioned earlier about ‘Crossrail 2?’

“I’m taking a keen interest in what was known as the Chelsea-Hackney line. We need to start thinking really seriously about planning a line from the south west of London to the north east, linking in with the commuter lines, north and south.”

A distant bell rings. I recall during GNER’s bid for South West Trains many years ago, Christopher Garnett had talked about a new route from Clapham Junction and then burrowing up towards the north east.

“Indeed. I am starting to think quite seriously about route options and what should be done there, and I’ve been doing quite a lot of talking to my friends in the transport industry.

“A third or more of passengers will transfer to Crossrail 1 at Old Oak Common. Even so, the Tube is already carrying record numbers of passengers and we’re still in the economic doldrums. 

“There is a massive shortage of north-south capacity on the Underground, and once HS2 is open in 2026, the Euston through to Central London corridor is going to be massively congested. We need to start planning for that now, and not doing the typically British wait-and-see job and then being astonished when the whole system proves to be congested in the late 2020s.”

Our time is suddenly up and as we prepare to part he returns to his current priority - HS2.

“If they try to stop HS2 north of Birmingham I will be unstoppable on the case for taking this line right through to the North in one go - there’s a massive national interest at stake.”

Unstoppable Andrew. Coming to the HS2 debate. Soon…

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