Call for national consensus on high speed rail

28 September 2009

Lord Adonis, the Secretary of State for Transport, yesterday called on the rail unions affiliated to Labour to do all in their power to make the idea of high-speed rail popular with the public. He is, he admits, almost evangelical about the idea, as he explained at a fringe meeting organised by ASLEF and the TSSA at Labour’s annual conference.


He said it was a national shame that rail had been neglected so drastically for decades. ‘There has been no electrification for a decade,’ he declared. ‘That is why it is vital that we get public opinion behind us now for investment in the railway.’


He called on ASLEF members to raise the benefits of high-speed rail where they could. ‘We must see it as beneficial for the UK,’ he said. ‘There are still people who think it is beneficial for France, say, because its population is widely dispersed; or attractive to the Japanese because of their fascination with technology.


‘In fact, railway development is a global trend – I’ve recently seen major progress in Korea and China, and the United States is starting to realise it is an undeveloped country in terms of railways. The UK cannot afford to lag behind with an innovation – the railway - that was born in this country.’


He said transport between conurbations was vital – and if the choice came down to rail or road, there was no real debate in terms of pollution and cost. ‘That means developing high speed,’ he said. Other alternative technologies, like maglev, did not bear comparison, especially because they use huge amounts of energy to power.




Lord Adonis also asked why the UK lagged behind in high speed and electrification – and put the blame on privatisation. ‘Most of Europe developed rail through state planning in the 1990s,’ he said. ‘We missed the opportunity because we were wasting our time seeking models of privatisation. We systematically destroyed British Rail which could have taken rail forward.’


The only exception was the Channel Tunnel Rail link – and the UK had been shamed into producing this by the French. An image still remains in many minds of the day the first train sped through the French countryside, slid into the Tunnel and was dragged out painfully by a diesel motor at the English end.


‘This government is committed to high speed rail, but we need to convince all people and all parties so that it will not be affected if there is a change of administration. I urge all the unions here today – ASLEF, TSSA and Unite – to lobby parties and local people, ensuring that all candidates will back it. We want cross-party national support, a national consensus.’ He promised that it would be a central part of the Labour manifesto.’


In questions and comments later there was overwhelming support for Lord Adonis’ enthusiasm for high speed rail and electrification – but on some points the meeting had to differ with the baron. Two points in particular recurred


· If privatisation was to blame for holding back rail development in the 1990s, why did Labour want to persist with it now?


· How could he talk about the need for competition where it didn’t exist? ‘No one waits on the platform for a particular company’s train.’




ALSEF’s vice-president Tosh McDonald stressed the importance of an integrated railway that would also improve freight routs. ‘High speed and electrification must be part of a joined-up strategy that will make rail central to freight as well as passenger rail,’ he said. ‘We must ensure that rail freight is popularised as well if we are serious about reducing carbon emissions.’ He said the lack of a cohesive policy was demonstrated by the fact that Labour had appointed a succession of 34 rail ministers since 1997.


‘And I make no apologies for saying that ASLEF has a parallel task of representing those who work in the industry. We need to defend jobs.’


He was also convinced that only a Labour government would deliver what was needed. ‘The Tories would split Network Rail, drop Crosslink – despite Lord Adonis’ assurance that he would put contracts into place to ensure this could not happen – and stop high speed at Leeds, making us effectively two Englands.


‘The Liberals promise anybody anything, and we have seen what the nationalists in Scotland are doing, never mind what they are saying. They have already cancelled two rail projects – lines from airports to both Edinburgh and Glasgow.’


Tosh also argued for keeping the East Coast line in public hands as a comparator to ‘provide the evidence for whether private or public rail was more efficient’. His Lordship, however, effectively ruled this out – despite his earlier condemnation of how poorly privatisation had served our industry.


TSSA general secretary Gerry Doherty called for a new ‘Age of the Train’. ‘Low carbon is on everyone’s lips – but rail must be central to any climate policy. Boiling half a kettle of water isn’t enough.’


Gerry also spoke about the success of the Spanish high speed developments, was critical of Heathrow airport expansion and dwelt on the ‘continuing scandal’ of rail ticket pricing. ‘Last year the TOCs were told to simplify ticketing. Today there are still over 30 different fares you can get between London and Glasgow!’


Bob Rixham from Unite offered his union’s backing for any campaign to popularised high speed and electrification, but his major concern was that there would be engineering skills to meet the new challenges in the UK. He was encouraged that a new National Skills Academy for Railways Skills was being set up. ‘That needs to be a matter of priority,’ he insisted. Bob also wanted UK firms to be given the opportunity to build new rolling stock. ‘We need a UK train building industry,’ he said.


Simon Weller, the union’s National Organiser who chaired the event, said that the unexpectedly high number of people who had come to the meeting demonstrated the enthusiasm that existed for electrification and high speed lines. ‘Now we have to convince all those people who are not in this hall,’ he said. ‘We need to challenge every candidate at the next election to commit themselves to supporting our aims. We must make it one of the central election issues.’

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