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.

  • Anonymous

    Regarding “Preparing for fares confrontation”:The train companies like to portray ‘Advance’ fares as ‘Off-Peak’ with the flexibility they are also available on peak services. This is the argument Virgin uses when asked about how they can justify running the ‘Peak’ Friday afternoon services half full (a pretty scandalous waste of resources) when the early evening services are packed.In the West Coast Consultation process several people (including myself) suggested allowing Off-Peak tickets on all Friday afternoon services (Friday being a special case where some people have the flexibility or desire to travel earlier), but Virgin respond by saying they already do as they offer ‘Advance’ tickets. Of course this is wrong; why do they think these services are still only half full? It’s because people often don’t know in advance when exactly they will travel, and also as you pointed out Virgin’s ‘half the price of a return’ tickets are only available through their web site, and are not available on other operator’s routes.I suspect the DfT have been taken in by this TOC rhetoric as well. Relying on Advance fares as the only mechanism for filling ‘peak’ trains should be used as a last resort; every attempt should be made to offer travel using flexible ‘Off-Peak’ tickets.

  • Paul Holt

    I’ve asked for this before, but a map showing the HS2 route with, for comparison, e.g. the old Great Central route closed by Beeching and e.g. the M40, would make things so much clearer.

  • Fandroid

    I am currently in dispute about online single tickets with Virgin. I was travelling to Birmingham from Euston; I wanted a flexible return ticket as I could not accurately predict my departure time from Euston. I wanted the fastest journey (hence a Virgin service).  I have a national railcard, and knew that these make Virgin’s offpeak tickets valid on nearly every train. However, their website was insisting on offering me only single tickets including these ‘Offpeak singles only valid as part of a return journey’ So I gave in, although I knew there should have been an Offpeak Return on offer.

    In the end, I was in so much of a hurry that I forgot to pick these tickets up from a machine at my home station. The following day, I got to Euston and found that the Virgin ticket machines were happy to offer me an Offpeak Return, which with my Railcard discount, cost me a massive 5p !!!! more than the two singles.  

    Once home I tried to get a refund. Although it had been an entirely on-line transaction, and I had not picked up the tickets, I was forced by the website to phone an ‘agent’. It took her about 30 seconds to sort it out, and then she deducted 2x £10 from my refund. As I had purchased what was, to all intents and purposes, one return ticket, rebadged as two ‘singles’, I was outraged, especially as the whole transaction had involved no printing of tickets, and no physical checking by a human being.

    The next time, I looked at the webpage with all those singles on offer. There is a link saying ‘click here to check if slower routes with cheaper tickets are available’. Having desired the quickest possible journey, I hadn’t thought of clicking that link, but lo and behold, all the normal return tickets are there, those we understand and love, for the fastest Virgin services as well as the slower London Midland and Chiltern routes.

    This is going all the way to Passenger Focus!

  • Fandroid

    Paul,

    it’s not quite what you ask for, but if you go to the HS2 Consultation website, they provide a map which can be converted to a satellite view. You can then zoom in and see the old Great Central rail route which goes from Aylesbury through Brackley then north-north-west towards Rugby. The HS2 route does generally follow this line from north of Aylesbury (south of which the old line is still in regular use) to south of Brackley (where development has swamped the GC route). HS2 then heads in a more north-westerly direction straight(ish) towards Birmingham. Remember that the old GC line goes to Rugby, which is a good few miles east of Coventry on the wrong side from Brum.  It’s a well-rehearsed moan that the very devil incarnate Dr Beeching closed a wonderful line. However it was horrendously under-used and almost certainly never made a profit, ever. In an era of declining rail use, closure was a no-brainer. 50 years on, knowing what we now know, we can only regret that the route was flogged off (as it has been around Brackley). The M40 is clearly shown on the satellite view too.

  • Paul Holt

    Thank you Fandroid.   For everybody else, the link is http://highspeedrail.dft.gov.uk/.

    The problem with Beeching was not so much the closures, but the haste with which the railtrack (and tramtracks in a different era) were ripped out, preventing reconsideration.   GC might have been underused at the time yet, as Dave H points out in http://www.christianwolmar.co.uk/2011/12/the-scandal-of-voodoo-economics/, how many roads are closed through underuse?

  • Fandroid

    The problem with roads is that just about every one serves someone who has no other way in or out. The very lightly used ones are almost maintenance-free too. Some very minor country lanes I have seen even have grass growing in the middle! Unfortunately, old railways have a significant scrap value. The great shame is that even some very well constructed routes (such as the GC line) were not at least preserved as railway rights of  way, but were just sold off to whoever wanted the land.

  • Windsorian

    A couple of recent reports on high speed rail and sustainability that make iteresting reading :-

    http://uic.org/IMG/pdf/hsr_sustainability_main_study_final.pdf

    http://uic.org/IMG/pdf/hsr_sustainability_carbon_footprint_final.pdf

  • J savin Wendover

    It is also worth noting that in the business case, 88% of the benefits happen after 2043. this in not just because of the long time to build. it is more because of assumptions on GDP growth. The whole case rests on an assumption that our third or fourth gerneration removed descendants will be 4-5 fold richer than us in real terms, as populous, and with no new technologies to play with.  Victorians built railways, and they lasted in various forms, but they did nto build for a profit in 60 years time! The other assumption is that we should pay for infrastructure that our richer descendants may value. The use of PV with the absurd Treasury discount rates used disguises this assumption and overvalues far distant and very hypothetical benefits. The other assumption  is that our 4-5 fold richer descendants will not vaue green space. Current trends indicate they will put a very high price on these indeed. 

  • Windsorian

    One of the subjects again avoided by CW is the TransCom recommendation that the Heathrow link proposal(s) be revisited. Amoung the submissions to the Inquiry was one from Heathrow Hub Ltd that made the point that the timings and costings published by HS2 Ltd were wrong –

    http://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm201012/cmselect/cmtran/writev/rail/m150.htm

    Now I see that the Conservative Bow Group (along with the Labour Party) are again pressing for the Heathrow links(s) to be revisited –

    http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/uknews/road-and-rail-transport/8958428/Tory-think-tank-calls-for-high-speed-rail-rethink.html

  • Henry Law

    For the price of HS2 we could have about four times as much new railway.
    There are projects all over the country that are crying out to be done
    and which should take precedence. How about this for a little list for
    starters.
    * Reinstatement Oxford to Cambridge, Brighton to Guildford.* Electrification
    Basingstoke to Salisbury and Reading, London to Birmingham via Banbury,
    Bristol to Birmingham, Cardiff to Swansea, Oxford to Birmingham, Crewe
    to Holyhead, Hastings to Ashford, Hurst Green to Uckfield, Newcastle to
    Carlisle as diversionary route.* Complete doubling Oxford to
    Worcester, Swindon to Stroud, Salisbury to Exeter, Plymouth to Penzance,
    Tonbridge Wells to Hastings.* Brighton main line – completion of 4-tracking of Three Bridges to Wivelsfield.* Weaver Junction to Crewe – 4-tracking

    The
    extra capacity that is the argument for HS2 could be provided, again at
    a fraction of the cost, by reinstating the Great Central line and the
    missing piece of the Midland line to Manchester via Buxton.

    There would still be something left over and the benefits would start to appear long before 2026.

  • Christian Wolmar

    I think the Heathrow idea is ludicrous. As Nigel Harris has pointed out in Rail, only a very small proportion of people want to go there. Mawhinney investigated it and rejected it. The proposed hub would, in any case, be miles away from the airport necessitating a shuttle service.The existing idea of a connection from Old Oak Common is much more sensible.

  • Windsorian

    Xian, firstly and most importantly, a very Merry Christmas to you.

    As we are both aware JG’s delay in making a decision on HS2 until mid-January has led to another bout of intensive lobbying by the pro & anti HS2 brigade; I just wanted to make the point that even TransCom suggested that the Heathrow decision be reviewed.

    As we all know it seems £500M has been found for additional tunnelling in the Chilterns; also another £500M is being talked about for proposed western link from the GWML –

    http://www.thamesvalleychamber.co.uk/uploads/Policy/Transport/SloughBoroughCouncil130911.pdf

    and I think it is worth pointing out the WRAtH proposals are not part of HS2 funding package.

    Also since Mawhinney reported, the BAA Airtrack proposal has been withdrawn. When you add on the additional cost of a HSR spur or loop in 20 years time, even TransCom twigged it might be cheaper to loop HS2 via a GWR/M25/Heathrow hub in Phase1.

    Unlike HS2 Ltd / Mawhinney, I am not saying every HSR train should stop at both OOK and the Hub; International HS trains would probably prefer the Hub, whilst domestic HS trains would probably prefer OOK / Euston.

    Finally I would just like to add that I think it is ludicrous to build a HS2 to Birmingham International, whilst avoiding Heathrow for 20 years.

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