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Beyond HS2: invest in existing rail and reduce rail fares to make travel greener

Richard Hebditch

11th January, 2012

More investment in existing rail lines, joining up the high speed line to public transport and ensuring rail fares are sustainable and affordable are what the government should focus on argues Campaign for Better Transport

So the plans for the HS2 high speed link between Birmingham and London took another step forward yesterday with Transport Secretary Justine Greening's announcement of the Government's response to their consultation on the new railway. The focus of much of the debate has been on the route itself, particularly on opposition in the Chilterns. But equally, if not more important, is how the new line could and should form part of a wider approach to encouraging a shift from car and plane to rail and thus reduce carbon emissions.

At £17 billion for the first stage of the line between Birmingham and London, it's pretty poor if all the Government can claim on carbon is that it will be broadly neutral. At Campaign for Better Transport, we think it can do much more to be part of a truly sustainable transport system. Key to this is proper integration with other public transport and there are three key things the Government still needs to put right to make sure this happens.

Firstly, the rest of the railway network continues to need investment to ensure it provides an accessible and convenient option for more journeys. Reducing carbon emissions from transport will entail an increase in demand for public transport, including rail. The alternatives of relying on switching all cars to electric vehicles won't deliver the carbon reductions we need earlier enough, and the ultra-Green idea of simply rationing all travel right down to a bare minimum is not practical. That means investing in increasing capacity on existing rail lines and making sure that the new high speed line is linked through to the existing network so that more of the country can benefit from reductions in travel times.

It will also be necessary to ensure the reliability of the rest of the network for trains that use both the new high speed line and existing ones to ensure that services on both do not disrupt the tight timetables needed to deliver high speed services.

Secondly, the new stations on the route must be primarily accessible by public transport, walking and cycling. This shouldn't be a problem for the first phase between London and Birmingham, but we are concerned about the location of stations for the second phase north of Birmingham where the Department for Transport may be keen to lower costs by going for parkway stations outside city centres which will be primarily accessible by car. Providing investment for local transport services to access the stations is necessary if already stretched local transport can take full advantage of the service.

Thirdly, the relative pricing of different modes will affect whether HS2 can deliver carbon reductions. Both high speed rail and the existing 'classic' rail services must be attractively priced relative to flying and driving. Since 1997 the overall cost of motoring has declined in real terms while bus and rail fares have increased significantly above the overall rate of inflation. The detailed business case published with the consultation paper on HS2 showed that if rail fares continue to rise above inflation, the benefits of HS2 will be much less - so much less that they will be outweighed by the costs of the project.

Campaign for Better Transport is pleased that the Government is investing in rail rather than motorways to deliver the basis of a new approach to transport, but they still need to do more to reassure those who care about transport's impact on the environment. More rail capacity is needed but it must be on the basis of meeting increased demand from a switch away from flying and driving. Simply providing more capacity to enable more journeys overall will add to carbon, not reduce it.

Richard Hebditch is Campaign for Better Transport's campaigns director. You can read his blog here

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