Rail 676: Dishonest arguments by both pro and anti HS2

The end of the period for responses to the High Speed  Two consultation process offers a time for reflection. Unfortunately, misleading arguments are coming so thick and fast from both sides of the debate over HS2, that far from making the issues clearer, a miasma of posturing rhetoric and dishonest analysis threatens to cloud the air. Let’s start with the antis, who have been getting more and more vociferous in recent months and claim, somewhat misleadingly,  that public opinion is firmly with them.  The most recent example was the suggestion by several anti HS2 people in the Twittosphere and the Blogosphere (these new worlds are increasingly dominating the media and we have to adapt to them) suggesting that the high speed rail crash in China raises safety fears about any line that may be built in Britain. This really is fatuous and dangerous nonsense. This was, in fact, the first ever fatal high speed rail accident since the one in Eschede in Germany involving high speed stock in 1998 in Germany, when there were 101 deaths and 88 injuries, was on a classical line which shows that the overall record is very safe, indeed far safer than any other transport method including conventional rail. Given the death toll on the roads, there would have to be such crashes every month or so to equal the per passenger rate of fatal crashes for pedestrians and motorists. Moreover, we still do not know what happened in China and, indeed, we may never know. The official story is that the first train broke down because of a lightning strike and for some reason the second one slammed into it, because the signalling system had failed. The line was that : ‘After the lightning strike caused a failure, an interval signal machine that should have shown a red light mistakenly upgraded it to a green light instead’. That is not very reassuring but nevertheless this has got nothing to do with any line that may be built here. The technology would undoubtedly be far more advanced than was being used in China, and so would the operating procedures, again about which we know very little. Then the anti HS2 bunch started suggesting that the Spanish high speed lines were a white elephant. On their website, the anti-HS2 Alliance said that the Spanish would be axing ‘the high speed train running between Toledo, Cuenca and Albacete’, suggesting that the  €3.5bn spent on the line was all wasted. Again, this is proved to be not true when I checked it out with my contacts in Spain. The line to Albacete is a spur off the main high speed route to Valencia, and similarly, Toledo is a branch on the line down to Sevilla and Malaga. AVE, the high speed service,  was running services between the two via Madrid but they proved little used, so the service was broken into two halves, cancelling one of the three trains per day between Albacete and Madrid. And thirdly, the Antis have been making rather dubious use of survey evidence. They produced an advertisement citing seven surveys purporting to show the British public as being against HS2. However, five of these surveys were merely online polls, which are notoriously unreliable since lobby groups can mobilise their supporters to respond. Of the other two, one was an open ended question asking what aspects of transport spending should be prioritised, and not surprisingly few answered high speed rail since that is a long term project with no immediate impact. The other was a survey for the Taxpayers’ Alliance which asked whether plans for the line should be cancelled. Interestingly, despite the Alliance’s strongly anti views, its survey could not get a majority against the plans. It had to add in the antis and the ‘don’t knows’, which are usually omitted in such surveys to muster a majority against. So overall, the survey evidence was, at best, mixed and difficult from which to draw any conclusions. It was noticeable, for example, that a recent any questions audience was firmly in favour of the line, though it was at the RAF Museum London in Colindale, well off the route of the line. There is no shortage of good reasons to oppose HS2, but reducing the argument down to this level is shameful. However, the pro HS2 supporters are not behaving much better. I won’t even dignify the appalling ad which showed a John Le Mesurier lookalike in a bowler hat below the caption ‘Their lawns or our jobs – support high speed rail’ with a comment, other than to say that the jobs argument is by no means proved. That was brought home to me by the dubious use of a survey on future employment trends for the Core Cities, a lobbying group of England’s major cities. The Yes to HS2 website has a banner across the top which says: ‘Create 1 million jobs, support HS2’. The evidence for this comes from the Core Cities report, produced by Volterra, the consulting arm of Arup, Interim report to core cities group. The report suggests that an additional 400,000 jobs within the Core Cities, and 1 million in total in their wider (Local Enterprise Partnership) areas, could be achieved over a decade. This apparently depends on having the right rail infrastructure but also on a variety of other factors, including the general trends in the economy and a host of other supportive measures from government.. The report says: To support the creation of 400,000 jobs for the Core Cities, and 1 million in total for their wider urban areas, weekly rail volumes into the Core Cities stations (and therefore the infrastructure required) will need to increase by around 70 per cent  over the next 20 years, supporting at least 150,000 new arrivals per day. This represents around 80,000 additional trips per day on a High Speed line. ….This increase in capacity is not possible without HSR, which is therefore required to achieve these jobs growth forecasts.’ Whoa, whoa, hold on a minute here. This argument is jumping several steps at once. Very few people will actually commute daily on high speed rail – the first serious stop will be Birmingham and a season ticket would be in the order of £10k by then, rather prohibitive. But even if we accept the argument, it does not say that the high speed line will create these jobs which is what the pro-HS2 website is saying, but merely support them. Moreover, the report is talking about all rail improvements, such as electrification. Bristol, for example, is one of the areas included as having an increase in jobs – 80,000 in fact – but the high speed line will go nowhere near the West Country. In justification, we get this fatuous statement: ‘For Bristol and Cardiff, which will not be part of the HSR network, electrification and capacity improvements to the Great Western Main Line will be vital to maximise their economic potential and contribution. The electrification of the Midland main Line is another example of how the benefits of HSR can be captured more broadly.’ In fact, the money devoted to HSR may well result in the Midland Main Line not being electrified. Bristol, the report says, could benefit by better links to the North via the High Speed line, but that is a tenuous argument as it seems unlikely that people will travel from Bristol to, say, Manchester, via London and the new line. Indeed, a counter argument could be that Bristol would lose out because so many other cities were connected by high speed. Later in the report, clearly the researchers began to worry about how strongly they had put across weak arguments as they then say: ‘Much of the research undertaken on the benefits of HSR appears to demonstrate that the indirect effects can be seen to be redistributed within a region. In this sense when significant new jobs are being created in the area surrounding a high speed station it often appears to be as a result of them (sic) being relocated from another centre in the same region, which does not experience the same level of connectivity. However, there is relatively little information available that specifically quantifies the economic benefits that can be generated through high speed networks.’ (my italics) The million jobs argument, therefore, is completely fatuous. No one has any idea what the real impact of the HS line will be. Indeed, in France Lille remains an unemployment blackspot despite the arrival of the high speed line. There is evidence, too, that some of the new jobs there have migrated from other parts of the region. Of course, Lille might well have been worse off without it, but a high speed line is no guarantee of economic success. The deployment of dodgy arguments on both sides risks dragging the debate down to the level of the school playground. I am, as readers know, very sceptical of the case for HS2 but nevertheless I see it as vital that the debate is framed in the right way and that the arguments are put forward in an honest way. So please, nothing more about Chinese high speed lines, or about a million jobs. Thanks. The lessons of the PPP The Tube Public  Private Partnership is dead but the lessons are still to be learnt. This is clear from an analysis just published by Transport for London which like everything else to do with the PPP is difficult to read but utterly fascinating in demonstrating the craziness of the whole idea. The report, which has the distinctly unsexy title of Role of the PPP arbiter and lessons for future monitoring and  can be found on the TfL website, suggests that the fundamental failing of the PPP was that there was never enough information and data for it to be properly assessed. That sounds boring and banal but is absolutely crucial. Without clear information on how the contractors are performing, their costs, and their outputs, it is impossible to police the contract. Indeed, the report shows that the whole short life of the PPP was an endless battle between the three parties – the infrastructure companies, Transport for London and the Arbiter – over the provision of information. Yet billions of public money were at stake and indeed wasted through lack of proper oversight of the contract. Unfortunately, I do not have enough space for a full analysis of the report – and hope to look at it in more detail later – but its conclusions are absolutely fundamental too, to the relationship between the Office of Rail Regulation and Network Rail. I have never been convinced that sufficient information is made available by Network Rail and ORR in a comprehensible form, and I am pleased to hear that the new boss at ORR, Richard Price, has decided to prioritise the provision of clear data. As for the PPP, by coincidence I have just arranged for my 2002 book on it, Down the Tube, which correctly predicted its demise, to be available for a small fee for downloads on Amazon. Go to http://www.amazon.co.uk/gp/aw/d/B005ENTAG8/