Rail 684: Commons HS2 report raises numerous issues

As Justine Greening steels herself for the flak over the publication of the results of the consultation process into HS2, she would be well advised to read carefully the very thorough report  produced by the transport select committee.

The report has a bit for everyone.  While it gives broad support to the project, which was to be expected since all three main political parties favour HS2, there were as many caveats as train types running around Britain’s rail network. The headlines intimating that the committee endorsed the plan rather missed the point. Indeed, it would not be outlandish to suggest that the committee endorsed the project prima facie and then set about examining the other side.

As Phil Haigh’s expert analysis suggested in the last issue, this debate will run and run. Ms Greening, has already had to face down a hostile bunch of MPs in a parliamentary meeting (although interestingly only 20 turned up) and she can expect a rough ride from sections of the public when the results of the consultation process are published.  Already since the publication of the HS2 report, a survey by the Institute of Directors has been published suggesting there is widespread scepticism among business people of the need for the line. In a survey of 1,200 members, 38 per cent thought it offered poor value for money and 30 per cent feeling it was good value. The majority against was possibly even less significant than the high number of ‘don’t knows’ who might be characterised as ‘don’t cares’.  Admittedly, company directors active in the IoD a miserable bunch who always want more amenities for less tax, but nevertheless if boosting business is the principal purpose of HS2, its main beneficiaries remain to be convinced.

Watch for similar findings from other organisations. Indeed, at the Conservative party conference in October, I was struck by the attitude of the Tory faithful which ranged from indifference to hostility, with very few, other than true loyalists, expressing much interest in the project and a very strong current of antis. As the Tories founder on the economy, there is a genuine risk that the HS2 project will be sidelined.

It is the lack of detailed information about the scheme that is providing so much ammunition for its opponents. Some of these issues may be cleared up by the results of the consultation process, but I suspect there will still be a lot of major questions left unanswered.  In particular, the Transport Committee highlighted several areas where Ms Greening is going to have to find answers quickly in order to retain credibility in the scheme.

First a central issue to which the report refers several times is the failure to consider the whole high speed scheme, the Y shape that includes Manchester and Leeds as a whole rather than simply the line to Birmingham. Studies on the impact of HS2 all suggest strongly that the whole Y is far more beneficial than the first section, but as the committee states: ‘we believe there should be an urgent strategic appraisal of Phase II before a final decision on Phase I is taken.’ And the northern MPs on the committee clearly got their way, as the report also recommends assessing whether construction should start from the north and head south.

Secondly, there is an issue which I am sure the protestors will eventually win on, the notion that the line has to be built to 250mph rather than 200mph. This not only makes it more expensive, but by requiring a straighter alignment means less flexibility over the choice of route. As the committee suggests, the decision to design the line to this extra high speed seems to be tied up with the calculation of the business case with its emphasis on the supposed time savings of using the line.

This exposes the wider doubts about the methodology being used. If there is one thread running through the report, it is the scepticism of the MPs over the nature of the business case. The report by Oxera commissioned by the Committee shows a range for the benefit cost ratio between 0.7 (in other words, costs exceeding benefits by 30 per cent) to 2.7 (high but not spectacular). Supporters of the scheme know this is the weakest link in the case as they suggest that the business case does not include all the real benefits. Therefore, the government, in presenting the scheme, should focus on the capacity issue, its main purpose, rather than these ludicrous and contentious time savings.

That highlights a third point. The committee found that alternatives to HS2, based on improving existing services, had not been properly examined. That’s because the project has never been set in the wider context of Britain’s transport needs. Indeed, as Phil Haigh mentioned in the last issue, when this was done for the Eddington report five years ago, the result was equivocal on the need for HS2. The Committee was very adamant about this. HS2 only makes sense by looking at the overall transport situation.

Then there is the other key weakness, the lack of an environmental case for the line. At the outset, the scheme was presented as green, but the original HS2 Ltd report demonstrated that this was not the case. As the report says, ‘HS2 should not be promoted as a carbon-reduction scheme’. When I tweeted something to that effect, I received a reply saying that transport schemes can never be green. I’m not sure I agree with that, but it does raise an important point. Is HS2 worth proceeding with just because it is less worse than the alternatives, such as an extra motorway lane?  That’s the case which needs to be examined.

Finally – though this is all I have room for, as there were several other key points – the committee reserved some of its strongest ire for the silliness of the debate and singled out the futility of the ‘jobs versus lawns’ argument from supporters of the campaign. Professor David Begg, the publisher of Transport Times and director of several transport companies, defended the campaign to the Committee saying it was a ‘creative poster campaign’ suggested by a PR company.

However, the point is not that spending £17bn of public money will result in more jobs – it could hardly be otherwise – but precisely how many and at what cost. It is disgraceful the campaign which has Professor Begg as its director has continued to show on its website ( http://www.campaignforhsr.com/ ) a banner claiming that the line will create 1 million jobs which, as I have mentioned before, is absolute nonsense (Rail 676) not even backed by the research on which it is purportedly based. Yet, by continuing to keep it there, all the arguments in favour of the line appear equally fatuous (when actually that is not the case). Come on Professor Begg, stop using this tawdry piece of propaganda: as the committee says, ‘We urge the Government to desist from disparaging opponents of HS2 as NIMBYs and for both sides in the debate to show respect for each other and to focus on the facts’. Absolutely spot on.

Preparing for fares confrontation

The other controversial area which poor Ms Greening has been plunged straight into is the fares debate. I was on the platform last month at ‘a meeting at the House of Commons on the issue of fares and it is clear that there is a lot of anger which the government is going to face in January. Yes there are more pressing matters such as the wider cuts and even, for many people, car fuel rises, but fares are an emotive issue. More and more people are realising, as I mentioned in Rail 678, that the government has used legislation designed to protect  commuters to exploit them.

While it is difficult to see how the complexity of the system can be tackled easily, there are things which can be done. Take this small example. I’ve been booking a lot of trains recently on both east and west coast, and the complexity never ceases to amaze me, especially in comparison with Ryanair or EasyJet. Virgin now offer single tickets at half the price of the off peak return, but only online and then only if they are used as part of a return journey. Why and how on earth can they check that? Do they have spies to check out that you have not actually been given a lift along the motorway to get back to your original departure point? Or that you have not died en route?

The key point, though, is that these tickets are actually valid on any off peak train but that is not explained properly to the purchasers. Therefore, to get this across, websites should be made to include  the standard fares on the journey which is the subject of the search, stating both the peak and off peak cost. Many people, my student daughter among them, think that all tickets are only valid for the particular train they intended to travel on when it was purchased. Moreover, people are lured into saving perhaps just a couple of quid to buy an ‘advance’ which limits them to a particular return journey when, in fact, it would be much more convenient for them to have the flexibility of not having to specify the precise return. This is the kind of minor improvement that is designed to make life easier for passengers and can be undertaken at virtually no cost.

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