A computer generated view of the HS2 line at Polesworth

Devolve transport powers to improve HS2 integration says Labour

Devolving London-style transport powers to the regions could improve integration of HS2 with rail links in the north, shadow transport secretary Mary Creagh has said.

The Labour frontbencher said the party was "very, very keen" to look at how more responsibility could be handed over as part of the wider devolution debate emerging after the Scottish referendum on independence.

She made the comments during a fringe event at the annual party conference in Manchester when asked about the need to improve connectivity between proposed HS2 stations and existing infrastructure and between transport networks more generally.

She said: "It (HS2) has to be better integrated with rail in the north, that's for sure. The parkway stations ... it has to link in better with our rail system and our bus system. The problem we have outside London is that no other region or transport authority has the same powers that London has to integrate.

"So we are very, very keen to look at how – as part of this devolution debate which has been triggered by the Scottish referendum – we enable city regions, regions to have London-style transport powers. We will be laying out proposals on that. There is a massive appetite, (an) unleashed pent-up desire from the city regions to get their hands on transport."

When asked at the event, chaired by Sky News, why the project could not be put on the back burner given other pressing transport priorities the former shadow environment secretary stressed that some train services were at bursting point and said if the project was scrapped the money would not be spent on transport.

She said: "It is really important that we listen to the transport planners who are telling us about the way the railway is growing at 5 per cent a year and the fact that some of our train services are already operating at 175 per cent capacity.

"We have got very, very big problems ahead on the railways if we don't plan to increase our capacity. It's not popular in my constituency. I'm not out of touch. There is no Westminster elite in this room.

"(But) Nobody says that about the Channel Tunnel rail link now though there was absolutely years of planning, of fights, of challenge, of blight around that process. Nobody now says we shouldn't have built the Channel Tunnel rail link through to Brussels and Paris.

Creagh also criticised the current "fragmented" approach to large infrastructure projects which she claimed had "held the country back".

She added: "We have to work out how to have a better conversation about infrastructure ... there will be environmental loss (in relation to HS2), just like there was when we built the M1, (and) dynamited up through the Chilterns for the M40. We have to be very clear about how we are going to build infrastructure in the least environmentally damaging way possible."

When asked whether Labour had plans to renationalise the railways, she replied: "The short answer is no, but the longer answer is we have had 20 years of privatisation and the limits of what we can do with a private sector railway as it currently stands have been shown over the last six years.

"Two failed franchises on the east coast mainline, a directly operated railway which we had to set up – we had no choice but to keep the trains running – that has demonstrated we can run a state-operator, we have got over a billion pounds back off that state operator since it has been running and why shouldn't the state bid?

"Why should our state operator be the only operator in the world barred from bidding for our own franchises? So we are trying to go beyond kind of nationalising-privatising and saying how do we get a railway that puts the passenger at its heart, not the profit motive."

Asked why Labour had not pledged to take the railways back into public ownership, the shadow minister said the plan would be to review the franchises as they came up.

She highlighted the advantages of a model similar to that of London Overground, a heavy-rail concession run on an existing network that has been revamped, although she admitted it was a more challenging system to operate in areas with less frequent services.

She went on: "One size fits all is not necessarily the right answer for everything on the railways. We want to devolve services down ... to nations and regions to make their own decisions."

Creagh also claimed Network Rail needed to be reformed to ensure greater transparency and said keeping fares down would be a "top priority" if Labour was elected next year. She added that efficiency savings could be used as a means of capping ticket prices.

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