Rail 715: HS2 is still a big Y

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

  • Yes to the tram schemes but please get the UK specifiers to look at the far more cost effective construction systems use elsewhere, and realise that delivery rates they consider to be expected are way behind those for those cheaper and faster to deliver systems elsewhere for trams, and lagging way behind delivery rates for rail projects.

    A powerful visual point can be seen from photographs of the main line railway heading West from Edinburgh and the parallel tramway site, and comparing progress on periodically photographed sites (like Stenhouse tram bridge), for delivery of the off street tram tracks, and reopening of 16 miles of railway plus an even greater amount of electrification work. We’ve had an electric train service from Edinburgh to Glasgow for over a year – but it has taken until December 2012 to get enough completed tram track to test and commission the new trams at full line speed.

    The speed of rail route delivery teams – and indeed your incremental approach has been well demonstrated by quietly insidious projects like the Nuneaton flying junction, and the Paisley Canal project, delivered within 26 weeks of contract signing, from first OHLE pile driven to live OHLE in 44 days, 1 station rebuilt, track ballast clean and lowering where required and just 9 day total blockade delivering 7Km of new electrified railway at less than half cost of ‘gold plated’ scheme. With the right minds given rein to deliver they are proving what can be done, we’re watching the Borders Railway with interest – Scotrail have started training staff to be based at Tweedbank already.

  • Bresm

    HS2 will obviously be superb for those people wishing to travel from London to Birmingham, Manchester and Leeds, as the proposed line will directly serve those city centres. Even passengers travelling from Birmingham to Manchester or Leeds will benefit greatly from much shorter journey times. However, when it comes to Merseyside and other parts of North England, services will not be that much quicker than they are today. One unfortunate anomally is that the proposed journey time from Preston to London will be 12 minutes shorter than the proposed times from Liverpool. This will be due to the fact that trains to/from Liverpool will have to use the much slower “classic” line between the HS2 junction south of Crewe and Lime Street, whereas Preston trains will leave HS2 much further north at Wigan. Unless the route through Weaver Junction to Lime Street is heavily upgraded, the Merseyside economy may be in danger of being left behind.

  • OrdinaryBloke

    To those of us raised in Glasgow, Manchester, Birmigham and Liverpool are in the south. The time and distance between them is nothing and there are already excelent transport connections of all sorts. Surely it cannot be a transport related cause which has resulted in any economic difficulties.

  • Feuerbacher

    Please take another look at the Stuttgart 21 situation – it stands as a warning about megalomaniac rail projects whose costs are out of control. DB has admitted the cost is now up by 2.3 billion euros to a total 6.8 billion euros. That latest figure is hopelessly optimistic – 10 billion euros is a more realistic estimate.

    Despite the project no longer being economically viable (and a technical disaster waiting to happen), Angela Merkel has decided that it is going to go ahead. The extra 2+ billion euros will be found (i.e. stumped up by taxpayers, one way or another). And all because she and her government refuse to admit that the protesters were right all along.

    The DB Supervisory Board will make its final decision next Tuesday (March 5), but the result seems to be a foregone conclusion. DB is pulling out all the stops and suddenly being given planning approval from the Eisenbahnbundesamt for parts of the project which have been on hold for months or years.

    Stuttgart 21 has been described as the greatest technolgical fraud ever perpertrated in Germany.
    If a project as barking mad as Stuttgart 21 can be pushed through, anything is possible.

  • Keith

    A tunnel under Manchester? Wasn’t that proposed by BR in the 70s as an interurban scheme similar to Merseyrail? Now the money is available but only for a premium product benefiting a fraction of the number of people. What a nonsense.

  • Rich

    “My alternative for the railways would be to muddle through.”

    Which is what we’ve always done and is why they are the state they are in. I’m astonished that an aspiring mayor would write this.

    “It is being put forward in an era of rapidly changing technologies whose effect can only be guessed at.”

    Jesus. This cobblers again. All these technologies obviously only apply to HS2, and nothing else such as new roads, offices, airport runways etc etc. Absolute desperation. Seems odd coming from someone apparently convinced he’s right. For the one millionth time – rail travel is on the increase. Therefore, the data is telling us that tech is contributing to this, not reversing it. In science, when you are presented with data, you are supposed to draw up a theory to explain it, not desperately try and prove the opposite.

    HS2 is going head. Get over it.

  • Paul Holt

    Aha! At last CW has come up with an alternative to HS2 i.e. 25 assorted tramways (a scheme I had not heard of before). But is this part of CW’s vision for transport or is it just a straw he has plucked from the air?

  • wjhall

    As far as I can tell, in France, the TGVs use preexisting platforms in the major cities, (Gares du Nord, de Lyon, Lyon, Grenoble) without having needed extensive reconstruction, presumably because they have displaced classic trains from the cities they serve.

    What is different about UK conditions and plans that creates the need for large scale reconstruction of terminal stations to accommodate HS2?

  • wjhall

    Once upon a time, in the bad old days
    of divided Europe, customs and passport staff used to board
    international trains in the adjacent country and do passport checks
    whilst the train was moving, descending at their own frontier
    station, to return (I do not think they then swopped uniforms and did
    inbound checks for the other country on the way back.) by another
    train for the next inbound service. Time to draw this to the
    attention of the UK Border Agency?

  • montmorency

    Well, Maggie had the Chunnel. I suppose David wanted a shiny new railway as well.
    Reading about the direct services to Lyon, I can’t wait for the direct DB services to Germany (assuming that’s still planned). Will there be border agency malarkey there too, I wonder? (Probably).

    In the past, I’ve sometimes taken Eurostar to Brussels, then caught slow trains through Belgium, and over the border into Aachen. Every time getting into Aachen, there are pairs of policemen scrutinising people getting off, presumably looking for illegal immigrants, who are presumably more likely to use the cheap and sleepy old slow trains, than the swish ICE or Talys.

  • Evan Gilmer

    Growth in passenger miles was “only” 4.5%? So (if that trend continues) from when this article was written to 2026 when it opens, growth will have been “only” 77%?

    In fact, passenger numbers for Virgin West Coast grew by 10.8% last year (2014-15) so growth will quickly overtake the impact of a couple of extra Pendolino coaches