At last, the grown ups have been called in to rescue HS2. The appointment of David Higgins as chairman with an eye watering salary, which consequently implies an executive role, and the arrival of Ben Ruse as ‘lead spokesman’ after ten years with High Speed One (and its various predecessors) shows powerful intent on the part of ministers.
Certainly the lifeboats are needed. There is no immediate threat of the government pulling the plug but there are no shortage of icebergs floating in the waters ahead (enough marine metaphors – ed). I missed the Tory conference this year but spent several days at the Labour one in Brighton and found it difficult to find many enthusiasts for the project. Moreover, the strong supporters of the scheme were at their wits’ end about the way that the presentation and PR has been handled.
Ed Balls capitalised on this weakness. The fact that he raised the issue of HS2 in a high profile way is significant and worrying for its supporters. He asked precisely the question that concerns members of the public who are doubtful about the scheme: ‘The question is – not just whether a new high speed line is a good idea or a bad idea, but whether it is the best way to spend £50 billion for the future of our country.’ Not easy to answer that one.
Of course Balls is playing politics but that does not diminish the importance of what he did since it merely highlights that there is no consensus within the Labour party about HS2. He was quite happy to infuriate Maria Eagle, the shadow transport secretary, who generally seems to support the scheme – though privately she has doubts, too. It is clear that HS2 is draining support at the moment and Balls captured that mood. HS2 may yet become an election issue with Labour deciding it is a way that they can differentiate themselves from the Tories and the Libdems in one of their weak areas because it would demonstrate financial probity.
The fundamental question which supporters ask is why has the scheme got into this mess. Well, to some extent it was inevitable. The biggest ever civil engineering scheme undertaken in this country would inevitably come under detailed scrutiny and possibly the surprise is why it has had a relatively smooth passage so far, with opposition concentrated on the self-interested (understandably so if your house is in the way) people in the Chilterns and, latterly, north London.
However, there is more to it. In my view, the mistake was made early on in the way that the project was conceived. For many years, the Labour government had hinted that it might consider a north-south high speed line but then repeatedly rejected the idea. Then, suddenly, when Andrew Adonis was made a transport minister and soon promoted to the top job, it became Labour party policy. By then both the other two main parties had expressed support, so Labour had to demonstrate firm intent by quickly commissioning a report into the idea.
That haste was the crucial error. There was no proper consultation – High Speed Rail, the document produced in March 2010 was not a Green (this is what we might do but what do you think?) paper but rather a White (this is what we are going to do) one. Therefore, there was no real assessment of the alternatives. The consultants producing the report were asked to ‘consider the options for a new high speed rail network in Britain, starting with a costed and deliverable proposal for a new line from London to Birmingham’. That meant the decision had already been made. Britain must have a high speed line, and it would go from London to Birmingham. End of.
Rather than an assessment of what was needed, we got a document that set out a route with little consideration of the alternatives. The route through the Chilterns was effectively determined by the decision to have a station at Old Oak Common – but was this the right one?
It smacked of high-handedness. Yes, there was enough consultation to ensure that the legal aspects were covered but there was no genuine public debate with the issues being covered in depth. And that feeling that there has been a lack of opportunity for discussion has continued. One of the common complaints from people affected by the line is that the presentations at the ‘stakeholder’ provide opportunity for discussion even clarification since the HS2 Ltd staff who attend are too junior or uninformed to properly discuss wider aspects of the plan.
Now I know it is easy for people to object to schemes and that clearly decisions have to be made that have to be stuck to but the whole approach seems to have been flawed from the outset because of the way in which the scheme was conceived.
All this would be OK if there were not a fundamental weakness in the methodology used for the justification of the scheme. I will not rehearse the arguments at length, but adding up the time savings made by millions of people and ascribing to them a monetary value is a daft way of assessing the benefits of HS2 or indeed any other plan. It is patent nonsense. As Fred Salvucci, an American academic who was involved in the huge Boston Big Dig project said at a conference I attended in Canada, ‘no one should present the advantages of a scheme in terms of saying millions of drivers will save 25 secs as a result of the project’. But in practice this is how those headlines of ‘HS2 worth xx billions by 2060’ are generated. Worse, there is probably no value to time savings of people travelling on faster trains since everyone can now work on them – especially as universal wi-fi has just been promised by the government.
Which brings us to possible solutions. HS2 ltd must show that it is more flexible and ready to discuss fundamental issues, even at the risk of delaying the project. While there seems to be money for extra tunnelling to appease protesters near the line, nothing else about the scheme has changed. One particular silly aspect is the decision to build the line to a 250 mph line speed, faster than any other in the world. Andrew McNaughton, the chief engineer for the project, assured me once that this did not make much of a difference to the route. While I would like to bow to his superior knowledge, this must be questionable since a slower line could have more curves and blend in better with the landscape; it may, too, have been possible to devise a completely different route had the line speed been lower.
There are two other ideas worth considering which might help the HS2 cause. The first would be to postpone or cancel the section between Euston and Old Oak Common and use Crossrail as the connecting service. This would save billions and greatly simplify the construction task. The argument in favour is that Euston is slightly out of the way anyway with poor Underground connections on the east west axis and therefore it would not make that much difference. Obviously, the objection is that this would leave central London without a high speed station.
The other idea is that the line should be built from the north downwards. This is appealing to many people in the north and would be a way of showing that the scheme is all about breaching the north-south divide. There are, though, issues about practicability, too.
There may well be other ideas, too. HS2 Ltd needs to show that it has considered all the options and that therefore its plan is the best one in all respects. In the next couple of weeks, we are going to get a restated business case, and much hangs on that. Much, too, hangs on David Higgins’s ability to sort out the presentation of the justification for the project. There are no shortage of bandits in the hills waiting to ambush the HS2 wagon train. When I was at Labour conference, an MP told me that when the decision to give the go ahead was made, a very senior Treasury official told him: ‘We are only agreeing to this because we know it will never happen’. Higgins’s job will be to prove that mandarin wrong and it will not be easy.
Announcement nightmare for some, peace for others
It is not just the passengers driven mad by announcements. A conductor for a northern rail company recently wrote to me about the embarrassment of having to make them. He wrote to me: ‘I am a conductor for a train company “up north” and I absolutely despise these stupid announcements we are made to say, People do not want to hear relevant announcements regarding train running etc but not this waffle about suspicious bags and “read the safety announcement”’
He says he is told off ‘like a child’ if he fails to read out these announcements by his managers who say that they are a requirement of Transec (the government’s transport security committee) and that inspectors are sent on the trains to listen (something neither he nor I think is credible – surely they have better things to do). Moreover, as he points out, these announcements are not made on many other train services and the operators do not seem to get taken out at dawn and shot as a result.
At least one operator has begun to fight back. First Great Western announced in March that it was cutting back on announcements, promising to reduce them by 40 per cent (I would go for more, but heyho). Interestingly, the company said that this was encouraged by rail minister Norman Baker, so one arm of government is countermanding the orders of another one – sounds like Dad’s Army.
The Association of Train Operating Companies should actually take the initiative on this, negotiate firmly with Transec (they are moveable, as happened with bike parking where the committee did relax the ridiculous rules) and make it clear that these announcements not only fail to contribute to safety but also are actually counterproductive. As FGW found, ‘while passengers were not necessarily annoyed by the announcements they heard, at least half had psychologically trained themselves to tune out to all announcements’.