High speed rethink is good politics but still a fantasy

THE coalition Government is learning that being in power is a very different matter to opposition. Plans have to be properly formulated and ideas have to be more than mere musings. That’s why the Conservative concept for the proposed north-south high-speed line has been changed radically from the form it took in opposition.

The news that Philip Hammond, the Transport Secretary, has now agreed there should be a Y-shaped route rather than an S-shaped one crossing the Pennines marks a radical u-turn – but one that is eminently sensible. The Tories were the first to support plans for a north-south line when Theresa Villiers, then the shadow Transport Secretary, announced it at their annual conference exactly two years ago. However, they subsequently got into a muddle over the route that seemed to contrast with the Labour government’s suggestion merely for the sake of looking different.

Lord Adonis, the Labour Transport Secretary, persuaded his colleagues to support the construction of a new line – despite opposition from Alistair Darling – but then formulated a very coherent scheme based on a year-long study led by Sir David Rowlands, the former permanent secretary at the Department for Transport. It suggested that the main core of the line would link London with Birmingham and then branch out to Leeds and Manchester in a Y-shape.

The Tories wanted, instead, to run the line up to Birmingham and Manchester and then across the Pennines to Leeds. While the notion of extra rail capacity through the Pennines might have been welcome, the idea of an S-shape simply did not make sense. Nor did the Tory plan of running the main high-speed line via Heathrow, rather than straight up to Birmingham, and that has already been rejected by a committee chaired by the former Conservative Transport Secretary Lord Mawhinney.

In contrast to the solid basis of Labour’s scheme, the Tory plans, despite claims to the contrary, had very much a back-of-the-envelope feel to them. They were widely derided as impractical by transport analysts and were becoming something of an embarrassment to the Tory transport team.

What Mr Hammond has done, by ditching the Villiers concept, is some clever politics which will please large swathes of the country.Yorkshire, the North East and Scotland had felt rather left out of the high-speed plans because the deviation to reach Leeds

via Manchester meant that the new trains would be at best a mere 30 minutes faster than the existing service of just over two hours between Leeds and the capital.

Given that fares on the high-speed line are expected to be higher than on conventional services, few people would have used them to travel to London. Moreover, the S-shape route through Manchester and Leeds would have added 30 minutes to the journey time to London and Scotland, making it more difficult to attract air passengers, one of the principal aims of building the high-speed line.

At the moment, however, all this is about politics. There is still a very long way to go before the first high-speed line opens, let alone reaches Yorkshire. The current plans are that the line between London and Birmingham would be built first, at a cost variously estimated at between £20bn and £34bn. Determining the precise route, and obtaining planning permission would take well into the next Parliamentary term with 2017 the likely starting date for work – though the Tories have promised they could bring that forward by a year.

With an eight-year construction period, the first trains between London and Birmingham would not operate until 2025, although these would then run on conventional lines through to Leeds and Manchester. The branches connecting these two cities with Birmingham would take another 10 years to complete.

All this assumes that the funding is available. The Tories have suggested that there could be considerable private sector investment in the scheme but this would require Government guarantees or else it would be prohibitively expensive.

Supporters of the plan, such as Jim Steer, of the transport consultancy Steer Davies Gleave, reckon that the money would come from a different pot. Writing in the current issue of Rail magazine, he said that “some transport decisions are of such national significance and scale that when the decision is taken to proceed, they cannot be done within normal departmental spend levels”.

 Mr Steer is being optimistic at a time when Ministers are cutting back on Government spending. Even though major investment wouldnot be required on the high-speed line until 2016, already compensation is having to be paid to residents on the route, money that is in desperate short supply.

 Moreover, many of these are strong Tory supporters who are mounting fierce campaigns against the plans. By altering the scheme, Mr Hammond has cleverly ensured that Yorkshire is now included in the route of a high-speed line. Now he has to make sure that the biggest engineering project the country has ever seen is actually carried out, and is not just a fantasy

  • Peter Hooper

    Firstly my apologies for transposing the Liverpool / Leeds flight numbers, this was a mistake on my part. The figures for Heathrow short haul flights I had first seen published in November 2006 and had been republished in June 2008.

    I don’t know if anyone has a more up to date listing ?? However as I pointed out before, the recession may have led to some services being temporarily suspended.

    Although Osborne’s Comprehensive Spending Review yesterday included a reference to continuing with HS2, there was no update on the London end proposals; in particular whether a HS1/HS2 and Heathrow link would be included.
    HS2 Ltd had reported (Newsletter 11) that their work on these proposals were now with the government.

    In yesterdays CSR Osborne made mention of a statement next week by Hammond, possibly on the coalition’s “Major Infrastructure Plan”.

  • Richard Hare

    I like the way the Germans think big and also ensure the financial benefits are kept to themselves.
    So Siemens make some nice new trains. Deutsche Bahn buys them. They decide to use the Chunnel, So Allianz bids to buy it as it will now be opened up to more use. More use means more trains, maybe from Siemens. Allianz insures Siemens.

    Meanwhile in good old GB I’m struggling to think of any infrastructure actually owned by a GB company!

    How long before St Pancras can’t cope?
    I hope Crossrail is built to a big enough gauge. It would be nice to see some trains peel off at Dagenham Dock, pick up the Great Eastern at Forest Gate and run right through, Joining a new HS line somewhere west of Paddington. I think someone thought this once before. Watkins, about 130 years ago!

  • @Rhydgaled “the idea of using much more of the existing Great Central route sounds much better to me than an all new route. However, can additional tracks (and platforms) be laid between High Wycombe and London, and between Rugby and Birmingham, to avoid these constraining overall capacity?”

    I wouldn’t see the re-opened GCR as being for Birmingham and wouldn’t connect it with the Birmingham line at Rugby, but with the Trent Valley line towards Lichfield. (And maybe also with a reopened Midland line from Rugby to Leicester, which somebody said recently in a letter to Modern Railways is also still intact, unlike the GCR between those two cities.)

    For London-Birmingham we can already look forward to extra capacity from Chiltern’s Evergreen 3 upgrade and, it is to be hoped, electrification of the Chiltern main line. As far as what happens between London and High Wycombe (or, actually, Ashendon Junction), I don’t know how much spare capacity there is now or how much more could be provided by suitable works, and that would of course have to be looked into.

    I don’t necessarily see all this as precluding the building of a completely new high-speed line at a later stage. It’s just that we keep being told the main problem is capacity, and this would be a way of getting more capacity more quickly, and without that vast expense and hassle.

  • peter jarai

    hi its peter jarai
    i.d like to sujust we keep to st pancras london and drop euston london and give it virgin trains . we need to use the midland railway line used and disused railwayline.
    west midland stations at Bushbury fordhouse road wolverhampton Heath town wednesfield willenhall stafford street short heath Bentley north walsall walsall ryecroft junction no station hare and station at pelsall brownhills hammerwich lichfield city we can go to birmingham from hare lichfield trent vally Alewas and on to st pancras london i cannot lisit every station on the railwayline.
    we can also use Glasgow -Carlisle-Settle-Leeds-manchester-and on to north staffordshire and use all of the midland railway line to st pancras london.
    i belive this is the best idea
    ps i love trains and the railway
    from peter jarai fordhouse road bushbury

  • David

    Going off-topic, apparently Alstom have gone to the High Court asking that Eurostar be stopped from entering into a contract with Siemens for new trains; see:


  • Peter Hooper

    I think there was a better article in the FT on 26th October re the Eurostar court case –


  • Peter Davidson

    @Peter Hooper / @David

    I see the dispute between Eurostar and Alstom going nowhere fast as it becomes mired in increasingly complex technical arguments – the lawyers are no doubt rubbing their hands with glee right now and planning how to spend the millions they’ll accrue in fees! A bill that will inevitably get passed on to the consumer in higher fares and/or taxpayers in some form of subsidy to the operators?

  • Peter Hooper

    Advert from Modern railways magazine :- £89 return tickets to Cologne and Amsterdam

    Eurostar, the high-speed rail service between the UK and mainland Europe, has announced the sale of more than 80,000 tickets at the guaranteed price of £89 return to either Cologne or Amsterdam.

    The special fares, which are now available for booking, have been released to encourage travellers to ditch the plane and experience the comfort and ease of high speed rail travel to the Netherlands and Germany.

    Tickets are available from eurostar.com or by calling 08432 186 186.

    The promotional tickets are on sale now and are for travel between 19 November and 29 January.Promotional tickets are eligible for travel to Amsterdam or to any other station throughout the Netherlands (any Dutch station). Previously available through the Eurostar contact centre, the ‘Any Dutch Station’ tickets are available for the first time at eurostar.com.

    The 80,000 £89 tickets are for travel between the UK and Cologne on Eurostar connecting with Thalys at Brussels Midi and the UK and the Netherlands connecting at Brussels Midi with traditional Benelux services (non-high speed). Tickets for travel to Amsterdam with Eurostar and Thalys high-speed trains are available at eurostar.com and start from £116 return.

  • Michael Weinberg

    What issue was this advert in? I’ve got the latest one and cant find it anywhere.

  • Windsor Thomas

    Thanks for an entertaining spot of what sounds like railway industry war horses having fun gossiping – both illuminating and entertaining for me! However, you all know that we live in a real world. As a retired engineer from an entirely different industry, I studied the DfT’s HS2 documents and within a few hours of concentrated review found them to be woefully inadequate. One sees in HS2 the same classic errors of HS1 being repeated by the same DfT, which in the late1980’s /early1990’s forecast Channel Tunnel HSR passenger demand at 24 million/yr, which has never ever reached much over 9 mp/yr i.e. 37% of forecast. LCR has never made a profit and the whole scheme was ever going to be uneconomic. Moreover, Adonis for the departing Labour Government, wrote off over £5 Bn of our taxes that went into HS1, the white elephant hatched between Maggie and Mitterand all those years ago. Today we see DfT, hiding behind its quango and making the same overblown forecasts of passenger demand for HS2, in a desperate effort to make the whole thing sound more appealing, one supposes. And so it goes on throughout the key areas of the HS2 documents. HS2 Ltd’s flashy documentation is more full of holes than any kitchen sieve I have ever used.This comes after 21 months work and some £10m spent so far!. Without doubt this is a deeply flawed project with no sound business case, it is uneconomic and will be an environmental catastrophe for hundreds of thousands of unspoiled acres of British countryside, including our Chilterns AONB, plus urban and residential areas either side of the line. And we already have at least two existing fast railway routes to Birmingham! As someone who lives in the Chilterns, I am actively opposing this government vanity project and will dedicate my own efforts (along with those of many other like minded souls up and down the line from Primrose Hill to Litchfield) towards getting this one stopped dead on its unbuilt tracks. Rail Package 2 will upgrade the WCML for around £2Bn to increase capacity (due to run out in a few years time) by over100%, with 2/3rds of the improvement coming just from extra rolling stock, re-classed carriages and longer trains, to be followed by some de-bottlenecking e.g at Stafford and some station platform lengthening and signalling/ATP improvements. Unlike some of you chaps, who are evidently very keen on European wide integration of HSR , I want our government to concentrate our presently very scarce treasury funds first and foremost, on completing all our own desperately needed upgrading, improving and full electrification of the existing UK domestic railway network for, say, some £10 to £15Bn to be spent in successive smaller units of expenditure over the next two decades.That will be far less of a gamble and will maximise the benefit to UK railway works, and to UK manufacturers and contractors, and it will create as many as possible real UK jobs. By mounting a carefully planned and well managed project that is sustained over,say, two decades, with the project run in continuous but successive incremental stages, sector by sector, a significant learning curve plus a retained skills base would bring the greatest benefit to the UK. HS2, by contrast is a high risk gamble, with high upfront costs that mainly will benefit European manufacturers and contractors. Once that UK domestic railway infrastructure priority project has been fulfilled, the UK could revisit the question of whether HSR is actually needed at all in these beautiful, small and densely populated islands, which already have a very well developed network of fast railways which, having been been starved of real investment for decades, will by then be, I believe, more than adequatefor the UK’s needs. I rest my case.

  • David

    The ‘Railnews’ website is reporting tonight (Friday, 29th October) that Alstom has failed in its effort to get an injunction to stop Eurostar entering into a contract with Siemens for its new trains.

  • Peter Hooper

    @ Michael Weinberg

    I found it one their internet page under latest news 20th October 2010


  • Michael Weinberg

    Many thanks for that,Peter, I’ll keep an eye on that site in future!

  • Peter Hooper

    Letter from Cameron to a constituent re HS2 and Heathrow 21.10.10


  • john

    A large number of HS2 documents can be found on http://www.scribd.com/HighSpeedRail including evidence of the benefits and disbenefits of HSR

  • nick

    The commentators who state that hs2 is a waste of money and then go on to list all the other railway projects that may offer better value for money are assuming that if hs2 were cancelled that the money would be made available to the railway industry anyway. It may not be, as the Treasury may consider that the alternatives offer poorer value for money.

    At the moment there is a political consensus from all major parties and most councils to support hs2. There is a large degree of evidence that it is required and will help in the congestion and pollution debate.

    We must stop thinking of hs2 as being a branch line that will just bring Birmingham 20 minutes from London. That is only the first stage and completely ignores the fact that it would eventually form a direct link from the north of England to Europe !

    HS1 is set to have increased usage with extra services from both Eurostar and Deutsch Bahn on the cards. HS1 has had increased usage steadily since the second half of the line to St Pancras was completed. So to say that we shouldnt have hs2 based on the usage of hs1 is a bit distorted as the building of hs2 would increase usage also on hs1. It is what you call a network !!

    Also the fact that the wcml update cost £9 Billion is conveniently shunted into a siding by those who say we should upgrade the existing network instead. The fact that these upgrades will also cause disruption and visual and noise pollution also is conveniently ignored to fit the argument against. Finally the layout of the classical network and the subsequent development of roads and urban sprawl means that if we upgraded the existing lines we would be recreating a Victorian network and not one that meets the needs of modern day Britain

  • Dan

    Nick is spot on – as I’ve said before it is never about a building what is best value once political battle lines have been drawn. It then becomes a grand project that must go on or loss of political face (do you really think Cameron is going to have said all the way up to the election ‘we will build this’ and then turn round and say ‘we made a mistake’ – he’s not Nick Clegg you know when it comes to election promises!)

    The 10m spent has been spent to make it look like it will stack up – the more people oppose it – the more will be spent making it look like it stacks up!

  • RapidAssistant

    But equally – you can argue that the botched WCML upgrade is another argument for saying that HS2 is a project that cannot be trusted to not go over-budget as well (in much the same way that we got stuck with the PPP of the London Underground on the back of the JLE cost overruns).

    Will building a new railway really be less disruptive than upgrading an old one? Based on the fact that the proposed HS2 route broadly mirrors that of the GCR once it is into Greater London, how can these new tracks be blasted through (very expensive) suburbs and into Euston without affecting anything else?

    It’s worth mentioning also, whilst on the subject (another fact that has been conveniently buried in all the excitement) is that the proposed rebuilding of Euston Station has been put on hold until a decision on HS2 has been made. This of course means that we will be stuck with this hideous monstrosity of a railway station for a lot longer than originally expected.