Rail 723: HS2 slammed by National Audit Office

I am writing this as dozens of Tory MPs are preparing to vote against the gay marriage bill put forward by their own government. Already Downing Street has been visited by a delegation of grassroots Conservative party activists who were prepared to go on national TV to criticise their own prime minister.

The bill, fortunately, will go through thanks to opposition MPs. Although clearly this piece of legislation has no relevance to the rail industry, I mention it because it demonstrates the power of the backbench MPs who have similar feelings about HS2 as they do about the prospect of Elton John going down the aisle. And they have just been given enough ammunition by the National Audit Office to fire at politicians for years.

The report by the NAO is one of the most damning I have read in years of paging through their documents. The NAO is known for mincing its words, taking a measured line and having gentle pops at those it is criticising. It has improved since the days of Sir John Bourn who featured regularly in Private Eye for the regularity with which he lunched with potential targets of his popgun but nevertheless it tends to moderate its findings which are shown in advance to the government department concerned.

Therefore for the NAO to use such strong language in exposing what it sees as the inadequacies of the preparation for HS2 shows that it is convinced that this is not a well-grounded scheme. The NAO was most critical of the business case which it reckons should have been far more well-developed by now. It also questioned the very need for the line, saying ‘the strategic case contains evidence of general growth in rail travel but has limited evidence on where, and by how much, increases in capacity are needed on the West Coast Main Line’.

In terms of regeneration and breaching the north south divide, the report says that ‘the Department needs to define and, if possible, quantify how High Speed 2 will meet its strategic objective to transform regional economies by delivering growth and jobs’. Indeed. That has always seemed a very vague aim, and there is considerable evidence that the effect will work the other way round, strengthening the  already booming London economy. The NAO summed up its critique by saying: ‘Our concern at this point is the lack of clarity around the Department’s objectives’.

Overall, the NAO report shows that the project has suffered throughout from the fact that it was developed in the wrong way round. Instead of a proper examination of the options to improve the rail – and indeed transport – network, HS2 was dreamt up as a solution to perceived overcrowding on the West Coast Main Line and then the project team has tried to develop good reasons to build the line. That is clearly exposed by the NAO report as is the nonsense of time savings for passengers being the key benefit delivered by the line. This supposes that every hour that is saved by travelling faster has a value (the average is £26.73 per hour) and it presupposes that time on trains is all wasted. As the Newsnight report showed, even David Cameron works on trains; that suggests the whole methodology of benefit cost analysis has to be changed.

The weakest part of the NAO criticisms is over the reported shortfall of £3bn in the period 2017/8 to 2020/21. To be so precise at this early stage is a nonsense. Of course costings and the provenance of money are tentative given that construction will not start for a further five years.  Nevertheless, there is a lot of work for the supporters of HS2 to convince MPs and the public that the project is worthwhile. The supporters of HS2 would not, if given the choice, have selected Simon Burns to defend their cause. The rail minister is clearly an accident waiting to happen which makes it odd that Patrick McLoughlin, his affable and highly competent boss, did not step forward to defend the project.

Burns has already been forced to take the train rather than the ministerial car to his office from his home in Essex after being exposed by the tabloid press and indeed first came to fame precisely because of an accident when he ran over a cyclist, injuring him badly, while driving out of the House of Commons into Parliament Square without paying sufficient attention.

Clearly more mishaps await Mr Burns. His performance on Newsnight had all the polish of a locomotive in the Barry scrapyard and he always gives the impression of being as semi-detached as the homes of most of his constituents in Chelmsford. His knowledge of the industry is tenuous as best and therefore his defence of HS2 was feeble in the extreme. He suggested that the NAO report was based on an old analysis and yet, as followers of the scheme’s progress well know, the business case has being getting worse, not better, over time. He merely said that ‘we do not accept the figures banded about or their conclusions’ because the NAO was using data that was out of date. Then, when he was questioned about the methodology used to justify the business case, he merely said it was used around the world to back up schemes. He was clearly parroting words put in front of him by civil servants – and even then not doing it properly.

It was a performance befitting of those of my football team this season (QPR for non regular readers!). As Nigel Harris keeps pointing out, the HS2 promoters need to improve on their PR and putting up Mr Burns for interview is not the answer.

But, of course, more than good PR is needed to ensure the scheme goes through. To counter the fundamental criticisms in the report, the NAO says that a much more detailed business case is needed, encapsulating the whole Y shape rather than merely the first section. Moreover, it needs to be updated and include a wide range of options, rather than the very limited one so far presented. The big question overhanging this, however, is what if even after all this work is carried out, the case still does not stack up? The case for HS2 has been fundamentally undermined by an official body. It will need a very coherent and detailed response to restore confidence in the project.



More on gates


I spent much of a day at Kings Cross at various meetings recently and the gates were permanently during the whole time I was there. It is clear that this is East Coast policy despite the huge cost of installing the system. Apart from the reluctance to commit the staff, there is little incentive for East Coast, which is responsible for the barriers in the main part of Kings Cross, to operate them since most of the revenue it is protecting goes to First Capital Connect. It is clear that the system is not working, which is actually a great relief to travellers loaded with luggage who can swan through the gates without delay.

Yet, despite the evidence that gates cause major inconvenience and do very little to increase revenue for Intercity operators, the Department is still insisting that it is a good idea to install further gatelines at stations serving long distance trains. In fact, the current dispute at Northern Rail over the casualisation of staff suggests that there is another agenda here, too, the deskilling and casualisation of the workforce. Northern Rail has long contracted out its ‘revenue protection’ to two private companies and the RMT is trying to prevent further casualisation.

The union is right to do so. Casual staff are less skilled, and much less committed to the railway. The train operator is breaking what should be a golden rule in business – never contract out your core function. Railtrack did that and we are still paying for the mess it created.

Ticket gates are a way that labour can be deskilled. The people staffing the gates clearly do not have the experience to deal with any problematic ticketing issues and tend to just wave such people through. The gate saga is yet another example of how the industry at times manages to make travelling on trains a less pleasant experience to go with like excessive announcements, outsourcing timetable queries to India and ticket office closures, just to name a few.

  • DaveBerry

    What would you see as a good case for providing a strategic rail link to the North of England? Would it be reduction in greenhouse gas emissions as it competed with air and to an extent road? Would it be connection to export markets (e.g. by linking HS2 directly to HS1 – allowing people to travel through London rather than having to stop there and change trains)? Are there alternatives that could achieve those strategic goals? Those questions seem more important than how much time is spent per se.

  • RapidAssistant

    At least at Glasgow Central they had the good sense to omit the barriers from Platforms 1 & 2 – where most inter-city trains depart from.

  • Christian Schmidt

    More on gates – is there an open missing?

  • David Faircloth

    Interesting to see Peter Mandelson’s revelations and comments in the press on 3rd July (and Andrew Adonis’s response).

    I think most people agree that there are capacity problems all over the network, and that if new railways are necessary to provide relief, then it makes sense to construct these as high speed passenger ones, were appropriate. Clearly, something like Crossrail 2 rather than a high speed passenger railway is needed to provide relief for Waterloo, and if is necessary to provide relief for the southern end of the WCML, then a high speed “by-pass” line makes sense, taking trains which travel directly to our midlands and northern cities away from the “Premier Line”; but is HS2, as presently proposed, the best option?

    High speed trains operate at 200km/hr +; and we’ve had these here in Great Britain for almost 40 years. Some countries – including France, Germany, Italy, and Spain – have constructed what I’ll call very high speed railways; these usually operate with maximum speeds of between 280 and 300km/hr (and perhaps a little more, as on LGV Est). But what is being proposed for HS2 is what I’ll call an exceptionally high speed railway, with trains operating at speeds of up to 400km/hr, some 33% higher than the maximum speeds found elsewhere in Europe.

    Most of the UK ‘s population lives in a rectangle with the northern border being on an east-west axis somewhere a bit to the north of Leeds; the eastern border is an imaginary line south from Hull, and the western border is roughly another imaginary line from the mouth of the Mersey to Cardiff. And of course there is the whole of the area south of London, from Thanet west to a line from, say, Cardiff to Southampton. There are, of course, some large areas of population outside of this wedge; Scotland’s Forth-Clyde Valley and the Tyne/Tees areas are obvious examples, and Plymouth is also one of Britain’s top twenty population centres. But as most of us live within about 200 miles of London, do we really need trains travelling at speeds of up to 400km/hr to keep us connected?

    Back in the late 1980s, BR looked into the possibility of enhancing the WCML; a number of proposals were considered, including one which was a combination of upgrading lines like the ex GWR one out to Northolt, re-opening part of the GCR main lne south of Rugby, and building some new sections of high speed railway. Maximum speed anywhere would have been 300km/hr, and the London-Manchester journey time (which was used as the bench mark for the study) would have fallen to 1 hr 35 mins; BR concluded that a case couldn’t be made for the investment at that time.

    This proposal provide relief as far north as Crewe, and Birmingham and the West Midlands would have continued to be served by using the route through Coventry; an independent route into Birmingham from the east (through the Saltley corridor) didn’t feature in the plans.

    So there are similarities between the BR plan and HS2 stage 1 and the western part of the ‘Y’; however, it would not have provided such a dramatic reduction in journey times as is suggested for HS2, but it would have been considerably cheaper to build and operate. Moreover, it could have formed the basis for a ‘Y’ network, like HS2; a route from the Lichfield area through Burton to north of Derby could follow the existing former MR route, and – with imagination – surely ways of accomodating more trains at Sheffield Midland could be found (say by building new platforms where presently the trams stop on the eastern side and at a higher level).

    And could ways of providing extra services from London to Milton Keynes and Northampton be found as well? Reconstruction of the Bedford-Olney-Northampton line was costed some time ago, and if a new east to north junction was to be constructed at Bletchley, along with a west to south one between the Bletchley-Bedford and Midland main lines in the Liddlington area, could both of these towns be added to the Thameslink network? journey times to London may be longer than over the WCML, but not everyone ends their journey on the Euston Road; better Underground connections at St Pancras and a direct service to the City may result in a reduction (for some) in their total commuting time, and therefore this is an option that may be worth considering. Especially as it could be completed much quicker than HS2, and at a much lower cost.

    It seems to me that potentially there are alternatives to HS2 which, although they wouldn’t produce such dramatic journey time reductions as are being claimed for HS2, they could provide significant benefits to more people than will directly benefit from HS2, and at much lower cost. But it also seems to me that such alternatives haven’t really been considered; lets hope potential alternatives are identified and seriously discussed before it’s too late.

  • christianwolmar

    Excellent considered post

  • Paul Holt

    “…as semi-detached as the homes of most of his constituents in Chelmsford…”. And CW last visited Chelmsford when?
    It would help if CW enunciated his vision for transport, including road, rail and air (beyond vague statements about tramways), so that HS2’s position within that can be properly assessed.

  • John Kolodziejski

    As a Northern resident (Lake District) I would value a direct connection to south of the Thames and also to the continent rather than a faster train to London. The hassle of lugging luggage across the capital has always been a huge disincentive to rail travel. Avoiding lines (inverting the proposed HS2 ‘Y’) to nodes at Reading and Ashford would also reduce pressure on London terminii.