Rail 733: The cavalry on the charge to rescue HS2 – but can they?

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’.

  • Rmc

    I buy the argument that Britain needs more capacity on its railways between north and south, but might HS2 be in the wrong place? The alignment should surely be linked to London’s airport plan. If, for example, they decide to expand Stansted, that will need a high speed link to central London & Cambridge. This could be extended to Peterborough, Derby, Stoke, Manchester & Liverpool.

  • Train Dreamer

    Wouild it be possible to run the high-speed trains themselves through the Crossrail tunnels? (Presumably not at “high speed” but just to get them into and through London)? If this were possible, it would seem to have several advantages. It would cut the cost of HS2 by removing the Euston link. It would allow trains to run from HS2 onto HS1 and therefore onto mainland Europe, connecting northern England to potential export markets. It would save hundreds of homes in London.
    A couple of months ago, you mentioned an unused lower level at the new Crossrail station. Perhaps that could become an international rail station?
    Presumably a downside of this idea is that it would cut the benefit of Crossrail to London by using some of the train slots for HS trains. But perhaps some of the savings in the cost of HS2 could be used to contribute towards Crossrail2?
    Of course, if this isn’t technically possible then the idea is a non-starter.

  • martinoban

    I’m sure I read somewhere that the ‘Greenfield’ Chiltern route rather than a ‘Brownfield’ route closer to the existing transport corridors was dictated by the mystifying decision to go for the higher speed rather than the eurostandard 300km/h. I agree that there should be a rethink of the Southern end. In the meantime work should start from Leeds S, to provide a competitive journey time between Leeds and Birmingham. After all, all parties are agreed on the need to rebalance the economy, and since there is very little real economy in London, and a lot more in the Midlands and the N, this is where the investment is most urgent.

    Actually, to be really heretical, I’m not sure that the Southern section needs to go near Birmingham at all. Removing all the Manchester/Liverpool/Glasgow services would allow the classic line to revert to its original purpose – the London to Birmingham Railway Line. It would carry trains perhaps every 10 min at peak time, calling at reopened platforms at Willesden Low Level, allowing the same distribution of traffic at the London end as already exists between Coventry and Wolverhampton.

  • Paul Holt

    Rather than an improved London link, what Stansted needs is the six miles of railtrack relaying to Braintree, thereby opening up Stansted to the whole of East Anglia.

  • Paul Holt

    The Telegraph has an alternative to HS2: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/journalists/andrew-gilligan/10406562/HS2-now-Labour-look-at-an-alternative-scheme.html. The paper version of this article contains the vital map comparing the two routes.

  • Michael

    “The other idea is that the line should be built from the north downwards”

    HS2 Plan B would be built north downwards, not London northwards. Its trains would be inter-operable successors to the 140mph domestic EMUs running on HS1 between St Pancras and the towns of North Kent. They would from the outset halve the rail travel time between the centres of Manchester and Leeds and fast-connect Lancs to Yorks for the first time. HS2 will not do this:


    Plan B does not include a high speed fork through Cheshire to reach Manchester. Its main line would put Bradford back on the map and it would follow the M1 south from Sheffield to St Pancras, gathering the Plan B route from Birmingham. At St Pancras IPS, Plan B trains would be able to run-though the Thameslink platforms to the Crossrail interchange at Farringdon and the South London lines interchange at Blackfriars.

    With apologies to Mr Wolmar for using the name Plan B from his June 2012 piece!

  • racyrich

    I’ve never understood why Crossrail was built with only 2 lines when the evidence of every line into London is that it will eventually need 4.
    With fast line tunnels HS2 could go straight through, have one stop midway, probably Farringdon, and go right out the other end and terminate at Ebbsfleet, thus actually doing something useful and connecting with HS1.

  • neroden

    No room, mate. Look at the engineering diagrams; it’s winding around other tunnels, sewers, etc., and there are a few really narrow spots where I see no way to add two more tunnels above, below, north, or south. It is an open question how many more tunnels you can actually fit into Central London, but it’s getting crowded.

  • racyrich

    Sounds like it needs to go deep, deep underground then 🙂
    I can’t see any value in it terminating anywhere other than somewhere already on HS1. Considering the original plan was 7 (?) miles of tunnel from OOC to Euston, it might as well have some tunnel under London somewhere and go somewhere useful. A more southerly route perhaps, collecting Blackfriars and/or London Bridge en route. I still think go right through to Ebbsfleet, so surfacing out near Beckton, over Barking Creek on a double decker bridge taking a DLR extension with it, and expand the HS1 alignment from Dagenham Dock onwards.

  • Chris Robertson

    Is it possible to run HS2 through Crossrail? In a word, no.

    Clearly 18 400m trains per hour, some incompatible with conventional British platforms, will not fit on a line already filled with 24 trains per hour whose platforms can only accommodate 240m trains. Even if they did fit, the dwell time and performance characteristics of a 225mph intercity train intermingling with metro-style trains would decimate the capacity of Crossrail.

  • Chris

    You may well have read that, but it’s nonsense – the current route couldn’t follow the M40 because the curves and gradients are wholly incompatible with a high speed line whether it was built for 300km/h or 400km/h – it would create much worse blight due to the islands it would create between them, the much larger number of properties affected and greater need for earthworks, viaducts etc. I suggest actually doing some research into the alternative routes considered for HS2 and the reasons why they were discounted before declaring a rethink is needed.

  • John

    There is a little used Birmingham to Paddington line via High Wycombe – it was old Birmingham to London line before the WCML took the load in the late 1960s. Update this to a fast electrified line and it would take Birmingham trains off the WCML alleviating the southern section of this line where most congestion is. The line could be diverted at Willesden into Crossrail and terminate in East London if the need is there, picking up all the prime London locations along the way – a far better service from Birmingham. The WCML can also be diverted into Crossrail Giving Liverpool, Manchester, Birmingham and Glasgow direct London West End and City access without changing to the Tube trains. A fast HS2 train to Euston is then negated by the slow Tube train to the city or wherever.

    This Birmingham to Paddington line will release capacity on the WCML – the current big false whinge of HS2 fans. No expensive and disruptive terminal stations like Euston need to be rebuilt. It makes sense to expand a few of the under construction Crossrail underground stations to accommodate inter-city trains. The Germans got rid of terminal stations in Berlin making most through stations which is far more efficient as they also create crossrail lines. More destinations are created from a station.

    The WCML and ECML can be expressways by taking slow trains off these lines by quad tracking and building more local and regional lines. Then the Pendolinos can run at the maximum design speed of 155mph. They currently only reach 125mph on some stretches. They can go faster but no in-cab signalling was fitted. So we take the Birmingham train off the WCML, update local and regional rail along the WCML and ECML – local and regional is where the real need is and benefits most people on daily basis, and updating these would create real economic growth.

    Currently it is about 2hrs 10 mins from London to either equidistant Liverpool and Manchester. A 150-155mph train all the way will reduce that to about 1hr 35-40mins. Is that slow? I know one who thinks those times are slow. Then take these trains through Crossrail direct into the City of London and they will be faster than the HS2 trains door to door for the City men which HS2 is primarily designed for.

    Concentrate on local and regional rail and by default two north-south 150mph expressways are created. All it needs is some thought in integrating the rail transport network.

    The good thing about the HS2 debate is that is has brought to the attention the exceptionally poor rail links between the vast population belt, and economical centres, between Liverpool and Hull. A fast North Wales to Hull line is needed taking in: Liverpool via a River Dee tunnel, Manchester, Leeds, Sheffield and Hull and also serving Liverpool. Manchester and Leeds-Bradford airports along the way. Also, a River Dee tunnel can extend the Merseyrail metro into North Wales giving this isolated region a direct underground access to Liverpool and its airport when a station is built – if ever. A Dee barrage was planned in the 1960s and cancelled in the 1970s. A spur of the M53 was built to run to it. It is time the link was built, but using a tunnel.

    This leaves us freight. The new post-Panamax terminal at Liverpool will increase trade substantially and the port managers and the city civic leader have highlighted this to the DfT who clearly had never taken this in account. The less used ECML can be used at night to take freight, and thus bringing the Woodhead tunnel back into use giving a Liverpool to ECML connection. Or connecting onto a reused, fully or partially, Great Central Line. A reused Great Central Line can also take passengers to improve local and regional rail.

  • John

    It is possible to run Virgin Pendolino and other trains into Crossrail. The commuter services can be cut down. Make the WCML & ECML expressways and HS2 can be cancelled.

    Some Crossrail stations, like one in the West End and one in the City can be enlarged. This is far cheaper than rebuilding Euston and building HS2 track right up the country.