Rail 652: the arguments mount against HS2

The launch of the compensation scheme for people affected by the High Speed Line between London and Birmingham shows that the Coalition government mean business in pressing ahead with the scheme. Real money is being spent with an initial £50m expected to be paid to people on the route although that is a guesstimate since legally the total amount cannot be capped and it could end up being much more. This shows that people’s lives are being affected and there is clearly an attempt to create a perception by the government that HS2 will definitely happen despite all the doom and gloom around.

 However, just as momentum builds up, the case set out in the HS2 document published earlier this year by the government is already unravelling with the publication of the National Travel Survey for 2009 showing that demand for travel is falling. The principal justification for the new line is the prediction of a massive increase in travel demand. And this will have to be on a massive scale. The HS2 document suggests that rail demand on the route will rise by 267 per cent by 2033  – in other words by more than double – while long distance car journeys and domestic aviation will go up by 44 per cent and 178 per cent respectively.

 Yet, remarkably, in recent years, the trend has been the other way: people have been taking fewer trips annually and travelling less distance. Despite the economic boom between the mid 1990s and 2008, there was a marked decline in travel, not something that the supporters of big schemes like HS2 tend to mention. The newest figures from the National Travel Survey, issued in July and covering a period of downturn in economic growth, not surprisingly confirm the trend. So overall in 2009, there were 973 trips per person per year and an average of 6,775 miles travelled compared with, in 1995/97, 1,086 trips per person per year and 6,981 miles, representing respectively falls of 10 per cent and 3 per cent. According to the press release ‘most of the fall in overall trips rates between 1995/97 and 2009 can be accounted for by a fall in shopping, visiting friends at private homes and commuting.’

 In other words, it is beginning to look like transport demand is saturated. Rail use, of  course, went up for most of that period – by an average of 3.7 per cent annually – until growth slowed almost to a standstill in the past year. This increase in rail usage is, therefore, a result of modal shift as people become more affluent and choose rail. Being able to work on the train and having more comfortable and faster modern trains, such as on the West Coast Main Line, account for much of that increase but continued growth will be undermined, as I mention below, by above inflation fares rises.

 Moreover, there are bigger societal factors at play which ultimately make the predictions in the HS2 document untenable. The widespread availability of broadband, together with the development of internet shopping may at last be having an effect on our desire to travel ever further. Therefore the link between economic growth and transport demand, which has been strong ever since the start of the industrial revolution, may be decoupling.

 This would fundamentally and fatally undermine the viability of the line. As a very thorough piece of research produced by two consultants, Hilary Wharf and Bruce Weston, for the HS2 Action Alliance shows, any reduction in this projected growth makes a significant difference to the so-called ‘business case’ for the line. Currently, the benefit cost ratio for the new line is around 2.4. Reducing the predicted growth to just 214 per cent would knock that benefit cost ratio to 2, the crucial threshold that is needed to obtain DfT support, which would make it impossible for a rational government to support. Certainly the figure for the Channel Tunnel Rail Link – High Speed One as now it is – passenger forecasts was out by much more than that as by now, according to predictions when the scheme was given the go-ahead, there should be well over 20m passengers annually compared with the 9m being carried by Eurostar. That is why the line that cost upwards of £5bn – and much more if everything is properly accounted- will be sold for about a quarter of the cost when it is privatised.

 The accuracy of the predictions is, of course, irrespective of the fact that the whole methodology of ‘business cases’ is based on ludicrous assumptions about the value of time to people on the move. As I have mentioned before (Rail 640), because most of the benefits are made up of small time savings by millions of people, which makes the whole science of ‘business cases’ a mere fig leaf for guesswork, and while possibly valid as a way of comparing schemes, it has no intrinsic value in terms of expressing societal benefits. Saying a scheme is worth a net gain of, say, £30 bn to the country as whole simply does not stand up to any kind of scrutiny and in their honest – private – moments transport economists and consultants will admit that.

 Significantly, the other expressed benefits of the scheme are undermined too by the consultants’ analysis. Take the notion of capacity which is the core of the case for the line. The consultants explain that through the simple measure of changing the composition of the Pendolino trains on the West Coast so that two of the four first class carriages were given over to standard class passengers and extra seats installed, there would be a 50 per cent increase in standard class accommodation. Of course the franchise negotiations would be horrendous and there would be claims of loss of income, but now that government officials and other public servants are under great scrutiny to reduce their spending, demand for first class is bound to tail off anyway. Certainly, before £15-20 billion is spent on a high speed line, such cheaper alternatives need to be worked through. Note, too, that even in the HS2 report, simply upgrading the West Coast Line, at a cost of a mere £3.1bn which would also allow an increase of 50 per cent in capacity, would have a cost benefit of 2.2, hardly different from building HS2 – and considerably cheaper.

 Then there is the oft quoted – by ministers – justification for the line that it would take planes out of the sky. Again, ignoring the fact no one flies between London and Birmingham or Leeds, and that Virgin already has an 80 per cent share of the market between London and Manchester, according to research by John Whitelegg, experience in Germany suggests that even connecting airports to high speed line railway stations does little to damp down demand. Germany has a well developed high speed rail network but despite a tenfold increase in its use over the past two decades, domestic passenger numbers have risen steadily from 18m passengers annually in 1993, to 24m in 2008.

 Finally, there is the issue of fares. The HS2 report published earlier this year does not say what assumptions are made about fares but not only have the fares on HS1gone up by 3 per cent above RPI for Kent domestic services at the insistence of the Treasury, but Philip Hammond, the transport secretary, is clearly considering increasing fares by more than the RPI plus 1 per cent which prevails on the remainder of the network. Any such increases are bound to damp down future demand making the assumptions appear even more ludicrously optimistic.

 If this were a time of plenty with no shortage of funds for basic investment in the railway, I would probably argue that it is not too important that the government is pressing ahead with what is clearly a scheme with a very weak case. However, that is not the case, as we all know. The railway is bracing itself for cuts of an order that not been seen since Beeching.  The crucial electrification plan is in danger. Other investment schemes are bound to be sidelined. Franchises may be relet on unworkable terms. Yet, blithely, the industry is, for the most part, backing a scheme that will suck up any spare cash available for investment for a generation to come. Make no mistake. This is a zero sum game. Money being spent on HS2 will not be available elsewhere in the industry. We cannot have it all. Let’s work to protect what is essential, rather than trying to reach for the moon. 

BTP taking bike theft seriously

I managed to thwart a bike theft the other day and was impressed with the reaction of the police, who did take the matter seriously, and sent out a couple of squad cars to try to catch the thieves. I followed the thief through the streets of Kings Cross while through to 999 on my mobile for a good ten minutes and eventually managed to get the bike back.

 You can read the whole story on my blog, but pleasingly it prompted a response from a John G who had a very good experience with the British Transport Police. He said that he had components stolen from his bike a few months ago while it was locked-up at the bike stands of a large station in NW England. The station CCTV images weren’t good enough to identify the thief but the BTP were able to see the trains he used and contacted the TOCs for on-train CCTV footage: ‘A good facial image of the thief produced – which was then printed in my local press and also sent to local newspapers at his journey start and end points.’ Unfortunately, no arrest was made, but he says: ‘Nevertheless, 10/10 to BTP – as far as they were concerned a crime had been committed and they wanted to catch the person they thought did it – and many thanks in particular to PC Shoan’. That’s very different to the bad old days when the CCTV coverage was never clear enough or the police simply could not be bothered.

  • a train driver

    How can you dare be so outspoken on railways when as you were traveling on a train as a passenger one day I was doing the same on, I had to listen to you slagging off every TOC’s Managing Director, by name saying they didnt have a clue what they were talking about! Question? do you actually know the operating logistics of a railway??

  • Christian Wolmar

    Not me guv, I have never done that. Must be someone else. And yes, actually, I do.

  • RapidAssistant

    Take heart – I’ve had plenty of the same “f-off and mind your own business because you know nothing” rebukes from some railwaymen whenever I’ve expressed my criticisms online. I’m sure other regulars on this site have also.

    It’s nothing to do with knowing or not knowing the intricacies of the industry – most people with passionate opinions about railways read extensively in the railway press so are not complete laymen. Equally the taxpayers and passengers who fund the industry observing some of the decisions and policies being followed – you don’t need to be a rail expert to see that they are just plain madness.

    On balance, out of all the railway people I know personally, I’d say that 1 in 5 is only vaguely supportive of the industry in its current state. Most others want it reintegrated or renationalised – or a combination of both.

  • Peter Davidson

    If your mind is set against something no doubt you’ll find sufficient evidence to support your opinion whilst suddenly developing a severe case of selective amnesia when it comes to any facts contradicting your stance – and Christian Wolmar proves this old adage repeatedly in these columns with his constant sniping at HS2

    In order to demonstrate this principle in action, readers might like to review a sentence in this very article:

    This would fundamentally and fatally undermine the viability of the line. As a very thorough piece of research produced by two consultants, Hilary Wharf and Bruce Weston, for the HS2 Action Alliance shows, any reduction in this projected growth makes a significant difference to the so-called ‘business case’ for the line.

    So Hilary Wharf is presented in this article as a consultant commissioned by the HS2 Alliance to produce “thoroughly researched” arguments against HS2. Well apart from the fact that ‘he who pays the piper calls the tune’ might tend to have a biasing effect on their findings, Mr. Wolmar also conveniently omits to advise readers that Hilary Wharf does in fact live in a house affected by the proposed HS2 line, so in reality she is anything but an impartial (consultant) voice, providing “thoroughly researched” arguments in this highly contested arena?

    Food for thought on the apparent impartiality of Mr. Wolmar?

  • Christian Wolmar

    I don’t really claim to be impartial. I have views and opinions, and back these up with facts and analysis. I do on occasion even change my view, but the idea of journalistic impartiality I think is much overblown. I try to argue things coherently and cogently, and look at the real story behind what people tell me. But just because research is commissioned by a biased body does not make that research invalid. It just needs careful examination. The work in question raises a lot of issues,and was also used by Chris Stokes in his article in the current issue of Modern Railways.

  • Peter Davidson

    Thank you for responding Mr. Wolmar

    Let’s be candid here, I have no axe to grind against you personally but I am fed up to the back teeth with negative sentiment about HS2, emanating from commentators residing in the Greater London area, already well connected to the High Speed Rail revolution, courtesy of a short taxi/tube ride to St. Pancras – these critiques routinely ignore the source of state funding essential to the original construction of HS1 and its rejuvenated terminus.

    Many of the numerous anti-HS2 campaign groups (but not your site I might add) blithely regurgitate a plethora of straw man arguments masquerading as rational debate, eg. how many short haul flights will HS2 save between Birmingham and London, well none of course!

    Taken in isolation the first stage of HS2 cannot rebut all of the economic arguments ranged against it but a comprehensive UK-wide HSR network (fitted into a pan-European framework) acting as a sustainable, post peak oil generation, state of the art mass transport system, does answer this challenge – the problem is how to reach that enviable position from where we are now – the answer of course is, incrementally.

    I’d like to believe that our children and grandchildren will live in a profoundly more integrated Europe than its present day precursor – a sustainable borderless environment in which the journey between Birmingham and Barcelona, Manchester to Milan, or Leeds to Lausanne is just as quick/easy to undertake by rail as its current airborne equivalent is today.

    Finally, whilst I’m no railway anorak, I just love railways as means of transport and would back them over an airborne alternative every day of the week. When you add in the environmental aspect, support for a robust, comprehensive rail network becomes a no-brainer
    I know that notion might seem like a fantasy right now but with vision, perseverance and commitment, precisely this kind of future, say 50 – 100 years from now, is perfectly feasible, but only if we start building the foundations now.

    A root cause of the malaise afflicting 2010 Britain is found in its highly centralised nature, the entire fabric of British society seemingly revolves around a London-centric axis, with consequent economic disparity between a relatively affluent London/SE nexus and UK peripheries inexorably growing with each passing year. If Britain is to become a fairer, more equitable and sustainable place to live during what’s left of this century, a vibrant, convenient, reliable and cost effective rail network will play a seminal role in delivering that long term laudable goal – HS2 is therefore simply the first piece in a much larger and more complex jigsaw – let’s not baulk this challenge at the first hurdle?

  • Dan

    Well put Peter

    There is a strong case for regenerating regions through this sort of investment (would it not have been better value to regenerate the housing market in South Yorkshire or Stoke for example, by spending the money given to the Housing Pathfinders on HS rail and putting it towards HS2? for example).

    But more to the point – this link should not be just about the value of linking Brum with London – it’s about linking Brum with Paris / Amsterdam / Frankfurt etc – London’s should just be a stop on the route (so planning a through station might be a good idea – just a thought).

    This of course is why so many poeple are excited about the scheduled DB ICE test soon to happen. That gives a glimpse of the potential – and if that happens the UK regions will be further disadvantaged. As Christian has written on before – if it was not for certain rather daft regs DB and at least NS would have been running through services years ago.

    I realise the arguments about the money might be better spent on various upgrades here and there (as Rapid puts well) but then if you go down that route it might be ‘better spent’ on say equipping everyone with high speed Broad Band. Although both HS and existing upgrades are clearly transport issues – they are not linked as closely as people are keen to think.

    It’s about developing the equivalent of a motor way network and we should have got on with it years ago – many years before deciding to spend 10 bn on WCML to only achieve higher frequencies and 15 mph top speed increase.

    The PM talks much about localism – and I doubt he really believes it – but the point is it is a good idea – but localism means power being devolved down away from London – and that should be economic power as well as political power – as Peter advocates.

  • Ian Raymond

    Agreed, well said Peter.

    I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again (because there seems to be an awful lot of narrow-minded nimbys in the SE): The value of projects such as HS2 lie not just in their levels of passenger use; nor even in how much of existing infrastructure they free up, though that too is very valuable. The fact is that for a region or a city to claim it has such connectivity as a high speed link makes it a much more viable proposition for companies to invest in. This is fact, and will do far more to narrow the N/S gap than the breadcrumbs which currently are being thrown down. When talking to investors, mention of “fast pendolinos to London” is all well and good, but a high speed link with a european angle – that elevates the potential of a location to world-ranking, and can just give it the edge.


  • RapidAssistant

    When Ian mentions investors – it’s a good point – but if we are using foreign investment as an argument for HS2, you’d then possibly be better to build it as a branch from HS1 somewhere in Essex which then heads directly north, bypassing London completely, therefore the provinces can directly access the Channel Tunnel and therefore Continental Europe!

    I’m building a castle in the sky admittedly, because no self respecting leader of British government would dare suggest a multi-billion major infrastructure project that didn’t go into the capital now would they?

  • Dan

    You’ve got it Rapid – this is really the solution – bypass London – it’s like a blod clot on an artery when you think about it (in terms of population movement). This would really be the way to regenerate UK regions! I like it – of course there will be few with the vision to see this idea clearly – but I do like it. Put London on a Branch line off the main Paris north of England – Scotland route!

  • Keith

    Rapid is definitely on to something – how about North to a station somewhere near Cambridge – for all those high tech European industrialists – (with freight trains from Felixstowe joining at that point, perhaps) – then non-stop across to the West Midlands. No equivalent of the Chilterns or Primrose hill to worry about. Plus, a future Yorkshire branch is a doddle via a connection onto the ECML.

    We would also, at last have a use for Stratford International – change there if coming southbound and needing St Pancras!

  • nsandersen

    > Then there is the oft quoted – by ministers – justification for the line that it would take
    > planes out of the sky. Again, ignoring the fact no one flies between London and
    > Birmingham or Leeds, and that Virgin already has an 80 per cent share of the market
    > between London and Manchester

    Which is good news. But people do fly from Scotland and HS2 could help there. Especially if plane fuel stopped being exempt from fuel duty. (Exempting domestic flights from fuel duty, but insisting on duty on train fuel is crazy).

    As Peter Davidson said, this is the first step.

  • Peter Davidson

    Many thanks for the encouraging feedback

    I remain convinced of the soundness of the long term policy shift I am advocating and yesterday’s announcement from Eurostar International only serves to reinforce my stance.

    If you look search around this news story you discover some crucial background information

    1. Technology is constantly improving – delivering a range of benefits such as:
    • Higher speeds for less energy input
    • More Reliability
    • Greater Safety
    • Vastly Improved Customer Experience – see references to on board entertainment and Wi-Fi access

    2. Interoperability combined with the EC competition directive will open up the intra-European market to serious commercial strategies, which boil down to the potential to deliver a much more cost effective ticket price tag to consumers – so comparisons with the overpriced domestic marketplace are simply not relevant

    3. The link between network extension and range of services offered to consumers is profound – the evolution of a pan-European HSR network seems to have developed a momentum of its own – whether or not a critical mass threshold has already been reached is open to debate but what is certain is that with each new link added, new commercial opportunities arise

    What this all means is that HSR is fast developing into a credible challenger to the ubiquitous short-haul intra-European flights UK consumers are allegedly wedded to – the contrast between mainland Europe and the British Isles could not be starker in this respect – if you live in a large provincial (non-Capital City) on mainland Europe, such as Barcelona, Cologne, Lyon, Milan, Sevilla, Frankfurt, Liege, Geneva, Marseille etc. etc. you’re already linked into the HSR revolution

    Compare that outcome with this side of La Manche where provincial equivalents; Birmingham, Leeds, Manchester, Bristol, Leeds, Newcastle, Glasgow and Edinburgh, are effectively excluded from direct connection to the HSR network, with consequential negative impact on long-term economic/geo-political/social prospects – what does this outcome say about 21st century Britain?

    If the UK purports to function as an inclusive, homogeneous National society it’s time for a serious reappraisal of how govern ourselves – HSR boasts the capacity to act as a catalyst in beginning that long overdue debate!

  • Can we debunk the red herring of no duty on airline fuel? Avtur can’t be dutied (?) by International Treaty so the Governmint has imposed APD instead. What is APD? Does that even up the tax treatment?

  • Dan

    Well APD is pretty small – I doubt it would put anyone off booking a flight – even if you compare (car) petrol duty per litre vs APD in relation to likely fuel litres used by aircraft. Not that this makes it easy to levy tax on airline fuel.

  • @ Dan, Does £12 or £24 per pax per flight (depending upon class!), for a journey comparable to rail or road, seem small to you?

  • David

    HS2 will connect stations at Leeds, in South Yorkshire, the East Midlands (probably located somewhere between Derby and Nottingham), Manchester, Birmingham, and close to Birmingham Airport/NEC with London and HS1; if we ignore the present security/immigration control/etc restrictions, via theHS1 connection through trains to mainland Europe from these provincial centres will be possible.

    So if we consider the airports serving the areas served by the proposed stations – say Birmingham, East Midlands, Robin Hood, Manchester, Liverpool and Leeds/Bradford – does anyone know which Continental airports they serve and which could be reached by rail in say four or five hours from the Midlands/North of England? Moreover, does anyone know how many seats are provided by airlines to these destinations, flight times, aircraft sizes, load factors, etc?

    Through trains from the provinces to destinations in mainland Europe would certainly be nice-to-haves; but is there the demand for them?

    As an example, Amsterdam Schiphol is linked to many British provincial airports. However,whenever I have flown there I have always been transferring to another flight, and most of my fellow passengers seem to have been doing the same; by my observations, a similar situation applies at Dusseldorf and Frankfurt, but at Brussels, Paris and Zurich most of my fellow passengers seem to have either been going to those destinations or continuing their journeys by other means. Aircraft used on my flights have varied, but on my most recent ones I guess most flights to these destinations have been by aircraft like the smaller Boeing 737 varieties or Airbus equivalents.

    I think it unlikely that air passengers using an airport in near Continental Europe only as a tranship point will transfer to rail; I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t (unless there was a significant cost benefit from so doing). Consequently, although a HS2 linked to Continental Europe via HS1 and the Channel Tunnel will physically link Leeds with Lyon and Manchester with Milan, based upon my personal observations over a period of about 15 years traveling by air for work, I just don’t think the demand exists for the operation of a commercial service north of London, unfortunately.

  • Dan

    Well Peter – I’m assuming that said journey would have to be at least London – Scotland and thus yes, it’s small as a % of cost of fuel in car or fare on train – if it was Lewes – Brighton, well then no, obviously (but it would not be)


  • Dan

    David – I’m not sure – your examples are for work related flights so they are less price sensitive (as you do not pay as it were since it is an expense) – plenty of flights form regional airports to regional continental airports – and these are to places that claim to serve cities but in fact are in the middle of nowhere – priced correctly why would the people who go on stag w/e from East Mids to Amsterdam not go on stag does by train from Derby to Amsterdam?

  • David

    Regarding Dan’s comment about correct pricing, DB are handing out leaflets today (19th October) at St Pancras in connection with their ICE3 presentation, and one states that fares between London and Cologne start from 49 Euros; I’ve posted more info about their plans elsewhere on this site.

  • Dan

    One only has to look at The man in Seat 61’s summary of timetable changes across Europe for the Dec 12 TT change (which is pretty much a long list of HS train service led improvements) to see how far UK is out of the loop:


    Mind you – despite DB high profile St Pancras escapade this suggests they and their partners have not got their acts together using current systems:

    “Sadly, Eurostar, Thalys & DB have not co-ordinated their London-Brussels & Brussels-Cologne timetables at all. In fact, from 12 December the London-Cologne timetable will be the worse it has been for years. The last train from Cologne to London, currently 17:44 arriving 21:33, becomes 16:44 but still arriving 21:33 with an extra hour wasted in Brussels. As a result, some journeys, such as Copenhagen-London in a day, London-Prague in a day, London-Vienna in a day, cease to be possible without an overnight stop or using a sleeper train.

    “Perhaps the worst example is this: On Saturdays, if you arrive in Cologne at 08:42 on the sleeper train from Vienna, the earliest you can get back to London will be 19:03, a remarkable 11 hours from your arrival in Cologne! When this sleeper train used to run through to Oostende, connecting with a 4-hour ferry crossing to Dover, then a 90mph boat train to Victoria, you also arrived in London around 19:00, so what is the point of all the expensive high-speed infrastructure?

    “The start of direct London-Cologne services in 2013 will help resolve this, but in the meantime the fragmentation and lack of co-operation between European train operators is beginning to show. Billions of euros of investment in high-speed lines is being wasted because services aren’t being properly co-ordinated as a network.”

  • Simon

    But, the thing is, HS2 will not be linked to HS1, will it? There won’t be any direct services from Birmingham to Paris. You’ll have to change trains in London.

  • Setchel

    is it not strange that Hilary Wharf is a railway consultant … who is likely to have helped to develop railways schemes that have had an impact on people. She therefore has grown her wealth out of railway proposals. Rumour has it that she lives in the Chilterns and that the Government’s proposed route goes straight through her very extensive grounds and right across her tennis court. Of very, very, very dear!!!! And I wish I had a tennis court!!!!