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It’s official – the north stops at Leeds. Glasgow, Edinburgh and Newcastle are off the map, at least as far as the Conservatives’ plans for a new high speed rail link are concerned.

This is a shame, and not just if you’re Glaswegian. By announcing that they would scrap a third runway at Heathrow and instead invest in high speed rail, the Conservatives have thrown down the gauntlet to the government on a pivotal issue for regeneration in the next decade: how can we counterbalance the unhealthy dominance of London and spread the benefits of economic development across the UK?

Let’s give credit where it’s due, first. Rail is a far more sustainable mode of transport than air travel, and anything that reduces short-haul flights between Britain’s major cities is welcome news.

According to the Campaign for Better Transport, one fifth of Heathrow’s flights serve destinations where rail could be a viable option.

The government’s view that we should expand both air and rail services ducks the issue and fails to send a signal that ministers are serious about supporting a low carbon economy.

But if we really want to use high speed rail as an alternative to air travel, the links with Scotland are at least as important as those between London, Birmingham, Manchester and Leeds.

A solution that fails to improve links to, from and between Glasgow and Edinburgh will do little to unskew the UK’s economic geography.

The second difficulty with the Tories’ proposal is that what it achieves in showmanship, it undermines with its timing.

Work would not begin until 2015 at the earliest – in other words, it’s a project that’s two elections down the line.

And given the scale of public investment already needed to bail out the banking system, nobody knows what will be left in the coffers this time next year, never mind in seven years’ time.

As a statement of intent, though, it’s moving in the right direction. We need investment in high-speed rail and we need it as an alternative to airport expansion.

But even more than this, we need hundreds of smaller-scale projects now that will increase the capacity of local rail and bus services and provide sustainable travel options in towns and cities.

And those approaches will do much more to address poverty and inequality than promising billions of pounds in the future to link the city-regions that are already most successful.

Julian Dobson, editorial director, New Start Online magazine


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