There is “no doubt whatsoever” that major projects such as HS2 should continue despite the reduction in travel caused by the coronavirus pandemic, Transport Secretary Grant Shapps has insisted.
The Cabinet minister told MPs that “people will need to meet” and increased transport capacity will be required by future generations.
Department for Transport (DfT) figures show demand for Britain’s mainline rail services is at around 50% of pre-pandemic levels.
This has led anti-HS2 campaigners to call for work on the high-speed railway to be paused.
Giving evidence to the Commons’ Transport Select Committee, Mr Shapps said: “If you think about other railway lines that were built 150 years ago – the West Coast and the East Coast main lines – not two world wars, not recessions and depressions, not the Spanish flu, none of these things stopped the inexorable growth in the need for people and goods to travel.”
He added: “If you look at something like HS2, we’re not building it for what happens this year, or next year.
“It won’t even be up and running until the end of the decade, early next decade, for the first section.
“For the whole thing, much later than that.”
Mr Shapps noted that the virus crisis has led to an increase in the amount of goods being delivered to people’s homes.
“By far and away the most efficient way and the most climate-friendly way to get goods around the country is by rail,” he said.
“Here we will have a big opportunity to clean up some of those local lines and deliver more things via rail.
“I have absolutely no doubt whatsoever, for a whole variety of reasons, that we will need increased transport capacity.
“Apart from anything else, we all know that being behind a video screen is a poor imitation of actually meeting people. People will need to meet for different reasons.”
Labour MP Grahame Morris suggested the decision to continue with transport projects must be based on “more than a feeling” and that it would be “sensible to pause work” until the DfT has a more complete understanding of the impact of the pandemic on travel patterns.
Mr Shapps replied: “It’s a great question but the answer is definitely no.”
He added: “Unless the Department for Transport invents teleportation technology in the next few years, people are going to want to meet and visit people.”