Leader: Labour is back on track with its high-speed rail promise

Andrew Adonis's ambitious high-speed rail project proves that there are still good ideas coming from

After Andrew Adonis, the Transport Secretary, outlined his plans for a high-speed rail network to the cabinet on 9 March, he was applauded by his colleagues. At a time when Labour is accused of running out of ideas in advance of its unlikely attempt at a fourth term in office, Lord Adonis stands out as a minister of energy and vision.

There is no doubt that our transport system - and our railways in particular - are in urgent need of reform. Lord Adonis's proposals are a good, if belated, start. Britain has only 68 miles of high-speed rail, linking London, through the Channel Tunnel, to France. Although any fully modernised rail network would not be completed for another 20 years and would require billions of pounds of investment, there will be more immediate benefits. These include the proposed 250mph routes and extensions to Birmingham, the north of England and Scotland, cutting journey times by up to two hours to the north of the country.

High-speed rail is not just about speed, as Lord Adonis has said. Britain suffers from the acute connectivity limitations of the Victorian rail network, with three separate and inefficiently connected main lines from London to the north, which have survived virtually unchanged, each with its own separate London station. Other countries have used new networks to transform route connections between major cities, and there is no reason why we should not do the same.

However, given the likelihood of widespread and deep cuts in public spending to reduce the Budget deficit after the general election - whichever party wins - it is likely that a change of government would curtail the proposals, which could cost as much as £8bn. Yet the costs of such a project are surely worth paying, even during a time of austerity. Experts predict that the economic benefits would ultimately be worth as much as £125bn, which would outstrip costs by a ratio of 3:1. Estimates from Network Rail forecast at least £30bn of net benefits. Some of the poorest regions would benefit most, through investment in local economies.

The cold and clinical language of "cuts" hides the reality of our crumbling transport infrastructure. Why is it that our hospitals have improved so much in recent years? Because the government, during the boom years, spent billions on improving them. Why is it that our European neighbours have better roads and faster and more efficient trains than we do? Because they invest in their transport infrastructure.

Our railways were hugely damaged by the Tories' botched privatisation, which, as Lord Adonis conceded in an interview with James Macintyre for this magazine last year, should have been more rigorously opposed by the Labour Party in opposition, if not reversed in government.Lord Adonis's proposals have, so far, received support from opposition parties on "environmental grounds" and, in the case of the Conservatives, as an alternative to building a third runway at Heathrow. Is the support sincere? At a time when the Conservatives are fast becoming the "English party" - expanding on their majority in England at the 2005 election - Gordon Brown is keen to present Labour as the patriotic party of the Union. Private discussions between Lord Adonis and the Prime Minister are said to have revolved around presenting the proposals as "pro-Union", by making movement between Scotland and England easier.

No wonder Downing Street has described Lord Adonis's proposals as one of the government's "big national ideas". Not for the first time, the "Blairite" peer, who backed public- service reform under his mentor, has helped place Labour in a position where the Tories are in a muddle. The Tories have long sought to persuade Lord Adonis to defect. That he remains in Labour shows that, even at the eleventh hour, there are still good ideas coming from this government.

This article first appeared in the 15 March 2010 issue of the New Statesman, Falklands II