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Labour shadow rail minister Tan Dhesi has reaffirmed the party’s commitment to High Speed 2 (HS2) and long-term investment in the railways despite the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on passenger numbers.
Speaking at an online seminar hosted by the Rail Industry Association as part of the Labour Party conference Dhesi said that HS2 was a project “conceived and proposed by the last Labour government”.
He said: “We firmly believe that it [HS2] is the only way to bring our nation into the 21st century. Countries across the world have developed these [high speed] networks and we’ve seen the impact of HS1 on St Pancras, that belief has become firmer [since the pandemic] in my opinion [...]
“We do not think the government has been doing a good job in terms of how costs are ballooning out of control. That will cost public support [for the project].”
According to Dhesi, Labour would take the railways back into public ownership on a permanent basis, but would continue to work closely with the private sector, stating that private investment and work in rail had a future. He dismissed suggestions that rail strategy may need a rethink due to the impact of the pandemic, stating that Labour planned long-term commitment to the network.
He said: "We want to see a very strong rail system, whether in terms of the economy, jobs or skills and apprenticeships the rail network is so important to our way of life going forward that's why we are firmly committed to it [...]
"There is no firm evidence that people's use of public transport [has contributed to the virus]. If they are wearing masks and taking precautionary measures, that the spread of the virus is coming from there. If we have health systems in place people will come back to rail."
Commenting on Labour’s plans to introduce rolling electrification programmes he said: “We cannot have this stop-start situation which is not good for suppliers.
“One thing which is apparent is that people are not happy that one year there are hundreds of miles of electriciation [work] and then there's a lull for two, three or four years.
“In Germany there is a consistent programme which shows that each year several hundred miles of electrification works are undertaken, which is not just good for the firms but also good for the workforce and that's where we think the government has gone wrong as it hasn't taken that approach.”
Dhesi also backed renewed investment in hydrogen trains to fill gaps in the network which are unable to be filled via electrification. The said: “I think 100% that [hydrogen] is part of our green industrial revolution. If you look at Japan we need to be learning lessons on what is going on elsewhere in the world, but unfortunately we are not cutting edge. There was a time we were leading the world in rail but in recent decades we have begun to miss out [...]
“We are firmly of the opinion that where we have diesel trains we need to be investing in hydrogen technology and bringing ourselves into the 21st century.”
Dhesi noted that since the election of Sir Kier Starmer as leader of the Labour party in April, members of the shadow cabinet with transport-related roles had held meetings with their opposite numbers in government as well as Transport for the North, Network Rail and other stakeholders in the industry.
The shadow rail minister however criticised the government for failing to bring the western Heathrow rail link into use despite approving the scheme a number of years ago. The scheme, which would have an impact on Dhesi’s Slough constituency, is considered vital for connecting the airport to the west of England and Wales. Dhesi said: “It [the link] is one of the few things that my neighbouring MP Theresa May and I agree on.
“Anyone who comes [to Heathrow] from the South West, Wales or the West has to either go to Paddington, or get off a Reading and catch a coach. By the time we build four miles of rail link the Chinese will have built 4,000, The pace at which decisions are taken is ridiculous. Don’t forget this is something the government committed to eight years ago.”
This article first appeared on www.newcivilengineer.com
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