Now it gets serious. The publication of the northern sections of HS2 provide, at last, a real insight into the extent of the scheme and the difficulties it faces.
It is interesting how the emphasis of the scheme has changed. When HS2 was initially put forward, the focus was on its green credentials, the strong business case and the faster journey times. Now the watchword is regeneration and bridging the North South divide. As I have written before, I would so love to throw myself into wholehearted support for this concept, as most of my fellow writers in this magazine do, but every time we get more detail about the project, my scepticism, born of my training at university in economics, simply increases. Moreover, the questions mount up but, as is the modern way, there was no press conference or briefing to mark the publication of the latest command paper, merely a 7am – was it really market sensitive or would a 00 01 launch have given us all too much time to formulate questions – launch on the website. It is amazing how new technology has made politicians less accountable, but that’s another story.
So I apologise for being the party pooper. Let’s look first at two key aspects, the price tag and the argument about the effect on regional differences. The total cost for the two sections is now in the region of £33bn which is the figure that was set out as an estimate when the scheme was first announced by Andrew Adonis, the last transport secretary in the Labour government. While obviously there has been some broad brush work on it, and the figure has risen somewhat, it still remains a very tentative figure. For example, we now learn, for instance, that the stations in Manchester and Leeds will be located centrally, which is the right decision in terms of the benefits of the project, rather than parkway stations on the edge of town. However, having central stations result in enormous extra cost, as the Victorians found out which explains why they built so many stations on the outskirts. I cannot believe, for example, that the price of a 7.5 mile tunnel under Manchester, which is now needed, does not increase the proposed cost by more than the £400m which has been added since the initial costings of the second section of HS2. Moreover, as the report says, there will be further costs when mitigating measures are taken to avoid environmental damage.
Therefore, the total cost remains an estimate and yet that is the basis for the business case which, according to the report, will deliver £2 of benefit for every £1 spent. I have rehearsed my doubts about this methodology all too often, and will not repeat them, but suffice to say that such a ratio is very tenuous indeed for a scheme of this magnitude especially as the ‘benefits’ are so intangible, and still based largely on time savings which are pretty illusory since either people are travelling for leisure or they are business people who can now work on trains – indeed, I have produced many of these columns sitting with my baby laptop in the peace and quiet of a speeding train.
The regional argument was clearly debunked on the BBC Today Programme on the day of the announcement, Monday 28th by Professor John Tomaney, who has studied the effect of high speed lines around the world. Despite the fact that regeneration had been used widely to justify the construction of high speed lines, his conclusion was stark: ‘There is very little evidence that building a high speed line heals north south divides as the Deputy Prime Minister was saying. On the contrary, the evidence suggests that it is the capital cities which gain principally from these developments’. So good for London, not so good for the rest of the country. He added that he was agnostic on the project, and that he was merely seeking to point out that the railway’s supposed benefits will not necessarily be achieved.
OK, so what does that leave the scheme’s supporters? In his introduction, Patrick McLoughlin, the Transport Secretary said that for decades we had watched other countries improve their transport networks ‘while ours has been overstretched and overburdened’. Well yes, but surely it would have been better to define the problem first rather than just throwing money at a prestigious scheme. It is the lack of hard evidence that dogs this whole scheme. The idea that the West Coast is the most overcrowded line in the country is just plain daft. To relieve overcrowding, it would be much better to invest the money in several other rail lines, such as services out of Waterloo and Paddington, and the Brighton line. Yet nothing is planned for these, except the much welcome electrification of the Great Western.
Indeed the West Coast is simply not ‘full’ and with the recent addition of two coaches to most of the Pendolino train sets, the increase in capacity will deal with expected growth. But just how much will it grow in the next few years. That is a crucial issue. In his recent Railways Studies Association lecture, Chris Stokes, who used to be chief executive of the Strategic Rail Authority pointed out that the growth of long distance rail travel has slowed dramatically. While, as a result of the Department’s crazy rules relating to ‘commercial confidentiality’ figures on West Coast are not openly available, figures that have emerged suggest that the boost from the line upgrade and the introduction of Pendolinos is now tailing off. According to Stagecoach’s figures, growth was in passenger miles was only 4.6 per cent last year, compared with 20 per cent in 2009/10 which suggests the Pendolino effect is tailing off.
Therefore, this railway is being built on a hunch. It is being put forward in an era of rapidly changing technologies whose effect can only be guessed at. The uncertainties over oil and energy prices have never been greater. And it is presented as the only game in town when there are so many alternatives – some much less palatable such as road schemes – on which this money could be spent. If I had £33bn to spend – or £2bn per year to put it more precisely – I would spend it in a much more mundane way to build the 25 tram schemes that John Prescott promised in the ten year transport programme published in 2000 (we got one) and that would help us catch up with our foreign rivals who have embraced tram schemes in their urban areas.
My alternative for the railways would be to muddle through. That’s what the railway has always been best at. The last issue of Rail showed that the incremental way in which railways in the capital such as the Docklands Light Railway and the London Overground has actually been very successful. I would prefer to see a programme of continuous improvement across the whole railway rather than this focus on one line which will undoubtedly have a detrimental effect on rail services to cities it does not serve.
I may of course be utterly wrong. The trains thundering up the new line in 2033 will be full and cheap, creating wealth at both ends and delivering reductions in carbon, and the project will be perceived as a triumph akin to the construction of the original London & Birmingham and Grand Junction railways. But if I am not pushing up daisies by then, I will take a bet on it that my scepticism is justified.
Border Agency madness creates train mayhem
This summer Eurostar is expanding its services to southern France by running trains direct to Lyon and Aix en Provence, as well as Avignon which has been regularly served by the company for some years. However, the British authorities have conspired to deter passengers from using the trains by insisting that while the outward leg can be undertaken normally, on the return passengers will have to exit at Lille to be checked through Border Agency controls. That’s because the Agency does not want to staff the other stations, or the trains, and therefore has insisted on these controls because it is worried that illegal immigrants will otherwise get in.
Madness does not begin to describe the ridiculous nature of this requirement. It is a clear discrimination against railways. It certainly would not happen on planes or ferries!
Already I have had arguments with Border Agency officials at St Pancras who demand, with no proper authority, to see your ticket when coming back from Brussels because, they say, of some door that is left open at the Gare du Midi. Lord Berkeley, the chairman of the Railfreight Group, has in fact questioned their authority to do this and found there is none.
In fact, this is relevant to the HS2 debate. One of the justifications for HS2 will be that it will enable people to travel to Europe more easily. Not, though, clearly until this sort of madness is sorted out.
All this is partly Eurostar’s fault. I have always been critical of the fact that the company never really gets its teeth into issues that effect its passengers. It has allowed, for example, a very complex arrangement for people arriving at St Pancras to leave the trains, rather than just being able to walk