HS2 case based on dodgy methodology

Given the scale and cost of HS2, the case to build the line rests on remarkably shaky foundations.
The government relies very strongly on what it calls the “business case” which is, in fact, a complex and fairly flaky methodology that tries to assess the wider long-term costs and benefits of the project and ascribes monetary values to aspects such as environmental degradation and business.
A complex equation then gives the crucial Benefit Cost Ratio figure which determines whether the scheme is viable or not.
The benefits largely consist of time savings as people use the high speed train instead of their cars or conventional rail services.
But even taking the government’s calculations at face value, the BCR for the new London to Birmingham line is just 1.7 — an estimated £1.70 return on every £1 spent on the project.
Normally such a low figure would mean the project failed at the first hurdle since many other schemes, notably roadbuilding and, ironically, some of the alternatives to boosting capacity on the West Coast Main Line, have far higher BCRs — in the region of £5 or £6 for every £1 spent.
But any assumptions about an increase in future rail passengers or the final cost of the HS2 scheme may be well wide of the mark.
Moreover, the method is fraught with flaws. For example, it counts times saved by business travellers at a higher rate than leisure travellers, but this neglects the fact that actually many people now do work on trains and therefore the value of the time savings may be illusory. Therefore, it is not the business case that has determined the outcome of the consultation, but rather the politicians’ hunch that this is a scheme worth pursuing. It is a gamble and one that might rebound strongly in ministers’ faces given the widespread opposition and scepticism about the project.
There is no shortage of alternatives. If one started with the notion that there is £17 billion available for transport schemes — let alone £32.7 billion final — and used the BCR concept to assess the best way to spend it, the result would not be HS2.
If the idea was to get people out of their cars, then a series of tram schemes in major cities would do the job much better. Alternatively, to attract more people onto the railways, the money would be to keep fares down, put on lots more suburban carriages and sort out various bottlenecks in the system. All these, though, are too mundane for politicians intent on leaving their mark.
  • I think you are just rehashing anti HS2 campaign comments on the value of time. If the value of time saved for business travellers on trains is zero, i.e. business travellers spend 100% of their time on trains working at 100% efficiency, then the value of transferring a business traveller from road to rail would increase, offsetting much of the reduced “value of time saving”. However, the idea that it doesn’t matter how long a journey is to business travllers, and that they would not be willing to pay for a shorter journey, seems a bit weird!!! 

  • Rich

    The government relies very strongly on what it calls the “business case”..

    It doesn’t though really, does it? Let’s be honest. They have to produce some figures to placate people like you who don’t want to see us take part in biggest shift of railway evolution after steam and deisel. HS2 is so plainly the right thing to do and personally, if the government have to resort to a bit of subterfuge to get it done, I’m all for that. The anti campaign think nothing of lying incessantly to get their way, so fight fire with fire I say.

  • A Royle2

    If it is really more about providing extra capacity (and getting people to switch from other modes) rather than faster travel then there shouldn’t be a fares premium, whatever the arguments about recouping the building costs. Why did the HST prove so successful back in the 70s? Because BR didn’t charge people extra to use it. Perhaps HS2 would be received with less general apathy if the government also committed to building the trains in this country (which the Germans, French and Japanese have done). Chinese-built trains would prove that we are no longer an advanced democratic nation.  

  • Tom

    You may think it’s OK to slag off HS2 based on cost or BCR, but as a supposed wise (and in some cases, pro-rail) journalist, I am disappointed that you are not looking at the wider benefits HS2 might bring.

    The fact it will (so we are told) seamlessly link to existing lines, together with the shorter journey times presents a perfect opportunity to eliminate the unnecessary and carbon spewing regional flights from Heathrow and London City to Manchester, Newcastle, Glasgow and Edinburgh. If Manchester to London via HS2 is 1hr 8 mins as claimed, they why on earth would anyone want to fly between airports that are not in city centres like railway stations are?

    As Mr Royle points out, HS2 will help free up capacity on the WCML. Not only that, you seem to ignore that key fact that some parts of the WCML cannot be upgraded for trains longer that are presently planned. There are plans for thousands of new houses in the Milton Keynes, Bletchley and Winslow areas of Bucks, and there’s a fair chance many of those new residents will need to travel on the WCML. Why are Virging extending Pendolinos to 11 cars, and London Midland running 12-car trains to Northampton – because the capacity is needed. 

    The anti-HS2 arguments patently ignore the fact that capacity created by the WCML upgrade will be used up within 5 years.

    And for Stop HS2 to claim the line would be an environmental disaster is a bit rich with the M40 carrying thousands of polluting cars every day running through the Chilterns. Where were their voices when that was being built?

  • Chris

    Which is precisely why HS2 isnt planned to have premium fares…

  • Chris

    Great Christian, Trams will really help to deal with the demand for people travelling between London, Birmingham and Manchester.

  • A Royle2

    I think Christian was just asking whether spending multi-billions on a single project is the best way to benefit the whole of the country. Many cities are crying out for a tram system but do they stand a chance of getting the money from government now? The HS2 debate has suffered badly from soundbites and people being very selective in their arguments  eg ‘What’s so special about getting to Birmingham more quickly?’, ‘This will create a million jobs’ etc. etc. As ever, all we seem to hear are the noises from those fully in favour and those completely against. That’s a pity.

  • Anonymous

    Keeping away from the debate over whether HS2 will or won’t happen – which seems to ignite the same (getting tiresome) debate over and over – lets assume that the politicians WILL get their way; how can it take 21 years in total to build a railway, consider it only took a relative fraction of that time to build the original classic lines?  Not to mention how quickly other nations have slapped down a high speed network in comparison.

  • Percy

    I think the current build time coupled with the high cost is the Elephant in the room. I doubt the conventional  railway can wait 25 years for HSR to achieve any significant UK network milage, classic is going to need some fixes itself in that quarter of a century and with so much money going into a HS fix that wont come on stream fully for a quarter of a century it will be hard to get the money and if you do bang goes the argument that the HS2 fix will stop any upgrade distruption to the classic route. If the contribution of rail is so important to UK PLC I  just cant see the classic lines soldering on and stagnating for that length of time. If we are going to build this line once the planning has been passed it should be done within a decade all the way to Manchester & Leeds, after all the China would still consider 10 years to be an excessive amount of time for a few hundred miles of HSR. Many people are saying if we dont have HSR we cant be called a modern top of the table economy, I say if we cant get to Manchester & Leeds in 8 to 10 years we aren’t and we either need to get ourselves up to speed – no pun intended – or get off the the high speed train.

  • Paul Holt

    For all the fuss about the cost of HS2, for comparison what was/is the cost of the M40?

  • Richard Crompton

    I see they propose to connect to the WCML just north of Lichfield.  That would mean that all trains continuing to the Northwest and Liverpool will have to be funnelled through the two track bottle neck between Colwich and Stafford and past Norton Bridge with the classic WCML traffic.  Usual civil service short sighted planning.

  • Percy

    except thoses that turn right at Colwich and go via the Potteries to Manchester, currently two out of the three Manchesters each hour go that way.

  • Anna

    It has been announced that we are in debt to trillions and the coalition and Labour are still pressing ahead for HS2.  Are they hell bent on political suicide when pushing ahead with this waste of money whilst grinding the public sector into the ground.  The economic benefits of HS2 will be for the fat cats, the setting up of companies calling themselves HS2 Injury Lawyers for You or something like that.

  • Allan

    Fundamentally I’m in favour of HS2 even though it’ll pass within half a mile of my house.  More tunnels through urban areas and pretty landscapes would be welcome but if tastefully designed, engineering structures might even enhance the views.  However my big objection is the bypassing of Heathrow.  Independent panels have recommended the serving of the airport directly on the initial route but this has been ignored.   Later spurs and junctions will cost more, confuse travellers, risk imbalance of train loadings, be awkward to operate, be more subject to failures and delays at inaccessible locations, and are liable to be completed, if at all, only many years after the initial line has been opened.

    Another big mistake is the station at Old Oak Common. What’s there?  If interconnection with Crossrail is needed then why not Heathrow? Interchange with the GW line and West London lines would be useful but I claim that a distributor tunnel route serving (maybe Paddington), Victoria and Waterloo before terminating at St Pancras (not Euston) would be vastly more useful in saving HS2 passengers from many dreary time-consuming interchanges and journeys on the dreaded commuter-orientated tube. Door-to-door times surely are more important than terminal-to-terminal ones aboard HS2.