Rail 688: HS2 go ahead does not settle issue

The publication of the government’s response to the consultation process for HS2 should have marked a key point in the progress of the plan. It should have been the point at which everyone recognised that, come what may, the scheme was going ahead,  the time when the  Nimbys decide to channel their efforts on maximising their compensation rather than stopping the scheme and when a confident minister proclaims that HS2 is the future.

However, it does not feel like that, despite – or maybe because of – the desperate efforts at news management that surrounded the launch of the documents. That’s partly, too, because a close examination of the dozen or so documents published on Jan 10 reveals that far from confirming that the scheme is by far the best way forward for the future of the railways, they raise yet more fundamental issues that will keep alive the controversy over the project. It’s just that these caveats on, for example, the alternatives and the consultation process were not highlighted by ministers nor picked up from this huge information dump by journalists.

Let’s start with the little bit of news management at the weekend before the launch. Suddenly, I started getting calls from TV stations about a report produced by Network Rail about the alternatives to HS2. As I was being asked to appear on TV, I rang the out of hours Department for Transport press office number and to my surprise received the report by email within 15 mins.

The reasons for such rare efficiency on the part of the press office was that the report ruled out the three main proposals supported by opponents, the series of improvements and operating changes known as Rail Package 2, the somewhat different plan put forward by 51M, the group of local authorities against the scheme and Scenario B developed by the Department itself. Network Rail’s rather cursory examination of the proposals gave them short shrift suggesting not only did they have a weak benefit to cost ratio, but also that they would result in intolerable disruption at Euston while new platforms were added. This was a rather strange response given that rebuilding Euston and demolishing a swathe of houses in the area for HS2 is likely to be rather more disruptive.

One would have thought that Network Rail would at least have talked to the promoters of the alternatives and yet the authors did not do so, conducting its analysis in secret and, incidentally, completing it in November which means it sat on the ministerial desk for two months until being released just three days before the HS2 announcement.

Oddly, , three days later as part of the swathe of documents released by the Department, there was a rather more considered report by Atkins on the alternatives. The consultants found that the 51M scheme had a whopping benefit to cost ratio of 6, and even though there are then various qualifications, these apply to any such calculation. Indeed the Atkins report warned that because the cost of these schemes was low, the BCR could change quick substantially if more money had to be spent – but that is hardly an argument against them. So why did the government feel the need to commission the rather shabby piece of work by Network Rail? The only explanation can be that the Atkins report rather inconveniently did not give the right answer. Indeed it was certainly never mentioned in the Parliamentary debate.

The Department has also managed to finesse away the findings of the consultation with the Department’s website by failing to provide a proper summary and burying the document on their website – which then apparently disappeared for several days until a Camden councillor, Paul Braithwaite, notified the DfT.

On the day, the Department’s plan for news management was clear. First there was a briefing for national newspaper transport journalists – neither I nor any rail specialists were invited, though Nigel Harris did get a one to one session with Ms Greening the night before the launch – followed by the release of more than a dozen documents on the Department’s website at 9 30am. Of course the site promptly crashed, making it difficult for those of us trying to give instant responses. Despite the importance of the announcement, there was no press conference. A clip and various photos of Justine Greening giving a brief statement in front of a Javelin train was all that we saw of the transport secretary up till the Parliamentary debate at 3 30pm.

In fact, Greening acquitted herself really well in the debate, answering 74– albeit mostly supportive – questions in an hour, which begs the question as to why she did not appear more widely. Perhaps the answer lies in her rather muted performance a couple of days later in response to the HS2 question on BBC Question Time, suggesting she is good with the Parliamentary set pieces but less strong on her feet with the public. Certainly, though, given the Tories’ male Etonian image, they could do worse than putting a female northern product of a Comprehensive more exposure.

It was not only the absence of Greening that was strange about the news coverage. Clearly Pete Waterman had been put forward by the Department team as a supporter of the scheme because he spent the whole day doing the rounds of the studios promoting the HS1 cause. There was, too, several appearances by Andrew Adonis, the former transport secretary which meant that the government’s case was being presented by an ageing, and at times ill-tempered, pop impresario and a member of the Opposition.

Where was Theresa Villiers who, older readers will remember, was the first politician to put forward the scheme when she was shadow transport secretary at the Tory Party Conference in 2008? Instead, on Newsnight we got Norman Baker, the number three in the Department who, bless him, cannot rid himself of the slightly scruffy image of the sort of maths schoolteacher whose chalk covered jacket with leather elbow patches had seen better days.

The news management, of course, did not work. The broadcast media, as they often do, jumped ahead of the story too fast, perhaps precisely because of Saturday’s release of the Network Rail document and partly because there was no set piece press conference.  So the media, thinking the story of the line is already known, immediately try to get new angles, which invariably means focussing on the opposition. Now while I am deeply sceptical of the case for the line, I do think the case for it deserves a reasonable hearing.

Indeed, the far more interesting story was the way the business case for the Birmingham section of the line has all but collapsed, with a benefit cost ratio of 1.6, on the cusp between poor and medium in the Department’s normal assessment. It is only by including the rest of the Y shaped line to Leeds and Manchester, that the ratio rises to a respectable 1.8 to 2.5, but given that this part of the scheme has not yet been worked up in detail, this is pretty theoretical.

The main questions about HS2 remain. It fails on environmental grounds, on the basis of past assessments, its business case is weak, and the alternatives have better benefit to cost ratios, although they do not provide as much capacity as a whole new line. Moreover, the assumption of 2.4 per cent growth until 2037 remains, with no suggestion that mitigating measures will be necessary until, suddenly, the line opens in 2026 which is wholly unrealistic. Some of the alternatives will have to be introduced anyway.

However, on the other side, the opponents did not acquit themselves that well in the discussions. It was the ‘locals’ in the Chilterns who were given most coverage and they did appear as a frightful bunch of pinched pint quaffers in their posh pub who had just transferred from the Countryside Alliance. Their PR could have done with a bit of news management, actually. Did they not realise that all sitting in their green wellies watching a huge TV screen merely made them look self-interested and smug, rather than concerned about the wider issues? My ex-partner commented acidly: ‘I am against HS2 until I seem them on telly and that changes my mind.’ As I have mentioned before, their argument that the line will costing every household having £1,700 is as dishonest as the nonsensical claim by the supporters of the scheme that it would create 1 million jobs.

Actually, because the Chiltern residents come across as so narrow minded, not helped by one of their MPs Cheryl Gillan scarpering faster than a high speed train, the fact that the Chilterns will suffer severe degradation has been somewhat obscured. Again, because the issue is so fiercely contested, it needs a cool assessment of exactly what a 250mph line would do – and indeed, how much better it would be if the line speed were reduced to 186mph which seems plenty for most purposes. Certainly the supporters of the scheme are wrong simply to dismiss their opponents arguments as Nimbyish. It is strange, though, that the 250 or so households – both rich and poor – in Camden who will lose their homes as a perfectly good estate is to be demolished have made such little noise despite having a far better case than many of the Chiltern residents.

It is, though, not the impact on a very small proportion of the population that should receive so much coverage. The environmental effect on the Chilterns is part of the story but should not be allowed to dominate the debate as there are so many more crucial questions, such as whether the line is really needed, the validity of the alternatives, the effect on regeneration and so on.  The fundamental problem is that the whole project was started on the wrong footing. It needed to commence with a very thorough analysis of railway – and wider transport – demand across the country, and then to look at possible ways of dealing with it. Instead, we got an announcement of intention to build a line at the 2008 Conservative conference quickly followed by the other parties jumping on the bandwagon. What we have never had is a clear exposition of the advantages and disadvantages of HS2 and the alternatives, set out in an neutral way rather than by an interested party. My hunch is that if this were to happen, it would kill off the project. Most of my colleagues on Rail take the opposite view. But at least we would be able to say that the arguments have been set out clearly. It’s not too late.