Rail upgrades, with a hint of lies, incompetence,
bribery and blackmail.
The coalition have just been on a massive PR drive to punt the benefits of their 'new' £9 billion rail investment package, with Minister after Minister lining up at railway stations throughout the country which would benefit from these upgrades.
While we now know that the £9bn which was touted is in reality only around half of that as the announcement included things which had already got the green light, such as electrification to Cardiff and the East-West Line, the part that got the most attention was the electrification of the Midland Mainline from Bedford to Sheffield. Minister for non-travel Norman Baker was sent up to Leeds, where he was clear that Sheffield would be the big winner. Sheffield, along with Derby and Nottingham will as a result have journey times to London St Pancras cut significantly and have the potential for more regular services too.
This is of course great news for the Stop HS2 campaign, because if there was ever to be a climbdown from HS2, this is one of the compromises which would surely have to happen. Not only that, but improvements on the MML tear another strip off the HS2 business plan, as passengers will be able to have quicker journey times from existing city-centre stations in those three places, opposed to out of town HS2 stations. In the round it is likely that London journey times, once you have factored in actually getting to the station will be comparable between HS2 and MML, with HS2 certainly being the more expensive option.
The most interestingly bizarre statement on the rail package came from Secretary of State for Environment, Caroline Spelman who was sent to Coventry. We know that the Government have been working hard on Coventry, trying to see what they can do to neuter their opposition and Spellman bizarrely said that under the package, Coventry would get a direct link to HS2. This was slightly confusing as of course on inter-city journeys, Coventry is the next stop from Birmingham International, where passengers wanting to get on HS2 would take a monorail to get HS2. The direct link is already there and the only way to make it any more direct would be to have a 'Birmingham International Bypass'; branch line coming off the West Coast Mainline roundabout where it would cross HS2 around Hampton-in-Arden, which just happens to be Spelman's constituency.
Of course this was not the case, with the Coventry Evening Telegraph getting to the bottom of it printing;
"The Department for Transport last night qualified Mrs Spelman's remarks by saying it would not mean a direct link between Coventry station and HS2. A DfT spokesman clarified a new £140million national fund for the "development of rail schemes and innovation" would be open to industry bidders, who may seek to develop connections with HS2."
Political Editor Les Reid went further on what actually happened in his blog;
"Tory transport secretary Justine Greening's department eventually got back to me shortly before 6pm. What followed was straight out of the political satire spoof-documentary The Thick Of It. The air turned blue, as a senior government press officer made the TV comedy's famously sweary not-so-fictional spin doctor Malcolm Tucker seem like the Pope." He added: "It is not her (Mrs Spelman's) fault. It was an inept briefing on the part of our team."
As it turned out, the £140m for HS2 links is actually the monorail/tram/whatever from Birmingham International to the proposed HS2 station, about a mile and a half away, across the M42. It is not guaranteed that this will be the solution for how people get from one station to the other, despite everyone being told this is the plan from day one.
The thing which Coventry is meant to benefit from would be electrification about ten miles either side of it, from Nuneaton to Leamington. The City Council, along with Warwickshire County Council have for a long while bee lobbying for improvements to this line under the 'NuCKLe' (Nuneaton, Coventry, Kenilworth, Leamington) plans, but of course electrification isn't actually what they wanted, new stations, a regular train service and some double tracking is.
Stage 1 of NuCKLe has got the go ahead, with plans for the once-hourly train from Nuneaton to Bedworth & Coventry to go up to 2 and planning permission for new stations in Nuneaton at Bermuda Park and Coventry at the Ricoh Arena (being called 'The City of Coventry Stadium' for the Olympics) going in this week. Of course the Ricoh went through without a public inquiry on the nod of John "Integrated Transport Policy" Prescott on the basis that there would be a train station. The stadium opened in 2005 and what would be the simplest of stations is still not there.
Whether double tracking of the section through Kenilworth to Leamington is going to be part of this upgrade is completely unknown at this stage and Warwickshire County Council have been unable to find out whether this or a station in Kenilworth would be part of the deal. Mr Reid did manage to get the DfT to go as far as saying there was 'potential' for doubling this track. The plans which have been proposed locally by the DfT so far it seems have ignored the proposals from not only the local authorities, but Network Rail too. What is certain is that the new plans raise more questions about any HS2 solution past Kenilworth as HS2 would have to get past this specific railway line as it is planned to go through Millburn Grange Farm.
To finish off, there was just a hint of blackmail from Spelman, saying that some of the upgrades are dependent on HS2 going ahead, but if these upgrades ignore what the local authorities and residents want, why should they care?