Rail 556: Shed no tears over loss of rail’s high-speed toy

The Eddington report has effectively killed off hopes of ‘High Speed 2’, claims CHRISTIAN WOLMAR, so the industry should concentrate on pressing for a new freight route instead. Meanwhile, Mystic Wolmar tries to redeem himself with five predictions for next year.

The north south high speed line is dead. And good riddance. Don’t be fooled by the notion that the Eddington report left open the option to reconsider the idea once possible enhancements to the existing railway have been built. The Treasury will always use his logic to veto any future proposals and ensure the project never gets off the ground.

Eddington argued that the cost is prohibitive and the benefits too nebulous, and when the 30 year strategy for the railways is published later this year, there will be no high speed  project as its centrepiece. But that is not necessarily bad news for the railway. In truth, the opportunity to build such a high speed line was lost a long time ago, first when British Rail opted for the Advanced Passenger Train and then, when that did not work, the High Speed Train, and later when the decision to upgrade the West Coast line was made. It might well have been more cost effective to build a pair of new tracks next to the existing West Coast alignment, but that is with the benefit of 20-20 hindsight and the issue was never properly considered.

Eddington showed great antipathy towards ‘grands projects’ in the French style, saying they were unlikely to deliver promised benefits. He reluctantly endorsed Crossrail, though warning it was ‘very expensive’, because of the importance of London and the fact it has a strong business case, but he argues that there is no such case for a high speed line. It is difficult to counter that view in the face of changing circumstances and the difficult questions facing the supporters of the line.

First, there is the issue of where it would go. Greengauge21, the pressure group for a high speed line suggests that a London – Birmingham high speed line would be the first stage because the West Midlands economy is underperforming and ‘will take some pressure off the South East’. Birmingham could be reached in 45 minutes from London says Greengauge21, half the current fastest train but that presupposes the high speed tracks would go all the way into both urban centres. While Greengauge21 suggest there are ‘existing unused rail corridors’ such construction would be enormously expensive and so would finding extra space for stations. The saving on the Pendolino service therefore would be marginal, possibly as little as half an hour, for such a high level of investment. The same applies to Manchester, which would also only have half an hour cut off its current journey time and indeed, if 140 mph working becomes possible on existing tracks, the time savings would be even less. The trip to Leeds, the possible alternative destination, currently takes just over two hours and probably, on a high speed line, there would not be much saving as it would have to westwards to Birmingham or Manchester first. Note, too, that current services stop at intermediate stations – or at least have the potential of doing so – and this is where the idea of a high speed line gets into choppy waters: the more stops, the more areas that will benefit, but the smaller the saving in journey time. Pendolinos – and to a lesser extent the electrification of the East Coast – have, therefore, effectively undermined the case for high speed rail.

So what would a high speed line offer, apart from speed: its proponents suggest regeneration, capacity, and the environment as its major advantages. There is no doubt that a high speed would have major regenerative advantages. Proximity to London, the driver of Britain’s economy is a vital factor, and good connectivity is always conducive to attracting investment. But that cannot be sufficient justification for such a big project. A new line would, indeed, provide a lot of new capacity but it is difficult not to argue that a freight line would be of far more economic and environmental benefit than a high speed line for passengers. Yes, of course, some cars will be taken off the road thanks to the extra capacity offered by a new high speed line but rail represents such a small proportion of overall journeys that this shift cannot be sufficient justification for such a scale of investment.

Interestingly, the third of these factors, the railway’s supposed advantage on the environment, sounds the final death knell for the idea. Rail’s environmental advantage has been eaten away as cars become more fuel efficient (though that has slowed with the trend towards crazy 4 x 4s) and trains less so because of onerous safety and disability requirements and the provision of passenger comforts like air conditioning.

The fact that climate change and the environmental impact of transport is increasingly central to the political debate means that building a line to allow relatively energy intensive trains to run at high speed will no longer be politically acceptable, even to environmentalists who should be the natural supporters of rail travel. As the cost of fuel rises – and we all have hope for the sake of the planet that they do – and the environmental damage of travel is increasingly recognised, a new high speed rail line will seem like an expensive indulgence. That is not to say we should not have built one before, but we simply have missed the boat and it is now politically and economically impossible.

Technologies are only viable for a certain amount of time until other developments or historic events overtake them or make them redundant. This year sees the centenary of the last Tube line to be built in central London, the  Hampstead branch of what is now the Northern, for 61 years until the opening of the Victoria Line. The building of new lines stopped because the motor bus, as opposed to expensive and slow horse buses, began to be used widely in the first decade of the 20th century, eating away at the commercial advantage of the underground trains. Or, to give a more mundane example: my flat, which I bought two years ago, was wired by the developer for a computer connection in every room but wi-fi has already made that idea redundant.  Concorde was a technological dead end, never able to attract the passenger numbers its creators thought would flock to fly on them. In fact, it was a premium product – as a high speed line would have to be – which lost billions and was of use only to megastars and a few rich business people. In terms of social inclusion, the high speed line would be a non-runner, too because it would be a premium product for the affluent

 Even speed, the line’s best trump card is becoming of less interest. The 21st century will not be about speed but capacity, and speed eats up capacity on the railway. That makes the case for a freight line stronger than for a passenger line. Instead of campaigning for a dream that is never going to happen, the rail industry and its supporters should lobby for a project that would have far greater environmental benefit and would attract wider public support: a freight line that would take millions of heavy goods vehicles off the motorways, benefiting both passengers and freight users.

It is time the industry ditched any romantic longings to imitate the French and the Japanese and all the other countries which have adopted high speed rail. They all, without exception, are bigger than Britain and their key cities are sufficiently far apart, with relatively cheap land in between, to warrant the speed of high speed rail. Sure, Scotland is 400 miles from London, but, in truth, passenger numbers between the two cannot justify a high speed line. Eddington told me that he had calculated that flights between London and Scotland use up 0.2 per cent of Britain’s carbon emissions, and that building a high speed line might attract half those people from air to rail: ‘Do you think that spending £30-35bn on reducing carbon emissions by 0.1 per cent is viable?’, he asked, not really rhetorically.

The railway industry should not cry over the fact it is not going to get its new toys. Instead, it should exploit what Eddington said about the need for immediate enhancements and improvements to boost capacity. It should draw up a series of well costed schemes that have a strong benefit to cost ratio – Eddington did say that many transport schemes have the best business cases compared with other areas of government activity – and push the case for these schemes assiduously, as well as for a new freight railway.

Mystic Wolmar’s last gasp

By popular demand (thank you Gary for your support) Mystic Wolmar is going to try one last time. Having flopped in the past two years since readers (thanks again Gary) reckoned Mystic was playing too safe with his predictions, he is going back to pick the low hanging fruit:

  1. Tony Blair will finally go in a blaze of disgrace following terrible May election results and Gordon Brown will move next door (actually he lives there already) with a blaze of  policy announcements, none on transport
  2. The High Level Output Specification and Statement of Funds Available will cut back Network Rail’s budget far more sharply than the 31 per cent reductions expected in the current five year control period
  3. The 30 year strategy for the railways will be a bitter disappointment, with few new schemes and very little vision
  4. Douglas Alexander will be moved in the reshuffle that will accompany Brown’s coronation and he will be replaced by a woman
  5. Crossrail will get the go ahead.

This is Mystic’s last chance. The editor predicts that If he does not get five out of five, then it will be the chop!

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