As I See It: Terry Murden
Transport has a long reputation as one of the Cinderella departments of government, a ‘junior’ posting for ministers who rarely get the office chair warm before they are either elevated to one of the big offices of state, or dumped for the sort of failures that seem to be built into the brief.
Whether at Westminster of Holyrood, the minister handed the transport baton has to ensure they have a hard hat, and that they keep it handy at all times. From ghost ferries and pot-holed roads, to bridges and rail extensions, it provides critics and headline writers with more than enough ammunition to keep the revolving door spinning.
Grand projects are often talked about, rarely delivered. Aside from the Channel Tunnel there have been few flagships in which transport ministers have been proud to sail since the hey-day of the late 1950s and 1960s. A more innovative and bolder era gave us the motorway network, Concorde, hovercraft, the transition from steam to diesel locomotives and the first electric trains.
Since then we’ve had muddled strategies, tinkering with road-building, delayed promises on airport expansion and a messy and ultimately flawed privatisation of rail.
Boris Johnson wants to put a stop to all the dithering. His Brexit Britain will invest in infrastructure, create a newly-connected nation that will lead the world. It will cost billions, and it will require a huge leap of faith.
It is two months since he was handed a huge majority to put flesh on the bones of his plans and already he’s confirmed the HS2 project will go ahead and has revived talk of a £20 billion bridge across the Irish Sea. Next up? Heathrow’s third runway must be decided soon.
That is a tricky one for a Prime Minister who, as mayor of London, said he would lie down in front of the bulldozers to stop it being built. But this is politics, and Mr Johnson is no stranger to breaking his pledges. Don’t bet against the new airstrip being the latest project to get the thumbs up.
Tied in to this upgrading of transport connectivity is a desire to unite the nation, not only to reward erstwhile Labour voters in the north who put him in power, but to protect the union.
The HS2 project, the one big project so far moving from the drawing board, has been dogged by controversy over its cost, the environmental damage and to what extent it will reach the ‘north’. If it goes to plan – and it is bound to suffer further delays – it will not reach Leeds and Manchester for 15 to 20 years. Supporters say it can be extended beyond the Lancashire-Yorkshire belt more easily, perhaps bringing high speed rail to Newcastle.
What about Scotland? That is at least 30 years away and may never happen. One study has shown that some parts of the UK, far from being ‘connected’ will actually suffer from HS2. The north of Scotland, the south west and east of England fear being further marginalised as economic activity is increasingly focused on the new Lancashire-Yorkshire-Midlands spine.
Some studies have shown that far from benefiting the regions, the high speed lines in other countries, such as Spain, have sucked investment from the regions into the capital and a concern over HS2 must be that it makes London easier to reach and assumes London is where everyone wants to be.
Critics say this misses the point of connectivity. That it would be far more beneficial to spread the investment around to improve local lines. One transport expert in Manchester said new spur lines to places such as the airport had brought huge benefits.
However, that opportunity may have been lost now that Mr Johnson is looking to build his ‘grand projet’ and find ways of bringing down costs closer to the original budget.
This may also reduce the prospect of extending HS2 to Scotland. While he may be tempted to announce new lines and stations in the central belt as part of his ‘union dividend’, the maths are not in his favour.
Costs apart, the benefits of bringing high speed rail north are marginal. Trains serving Glasgow and Edinburgh may give planes some competition, but air travel will always be quicker from Aberdeen and Inverness.
Then there is the independence issue. Should Scotland go it alone, Westminster may wash its hands of an HS2/3 extension, or else it would be bogged down in arguments over who should fund it.
In the short(er) term, Scotland may see some benefits from the building of the high speed train factory at Longannet. Spanish firm Talgo has denied that approval of HS2 was conditional on its plan for a 1,000-job plant, but the decision has just given the project a bigger chance of going ahead.