Sides becoming more entrenched over HS2

The only strange aspect of the growing controversy over HS2 is that it has taken so long to come to the boil. The scheme is suffering from the way it was conceived. In reality the debate that is happening now should have taken place four years ago when Lord Adonis commissioned HS2 Ltd to produce a report into the idea. That was the key error. It looked as if the plan had already been given the go ahead and that HS2 Ltd was simply rubber stamping a ministerial decision.

That report, High Speed Rail, published in March 2010, was designed to ‘establish the options’ for a new high speed rail network in Britain and to produce a ‘costed and deliverable proposal’ for a new line from London to Birmingham. That was rather like Mo Farrah starting a 10k race at the halfway point.

The study should, first, have looked at whether there was a genuine demand for such a line and, if so, whether London – Birmingham was the right route. Moreover, while the report claimed to have considered various options, it gave scant evidence of this. There was clearly a rush to drive through a particular project, irrespective of wider considerations.

Nevertheless, as soon as the report was published, it lost one of its key justifications. The environmental case collapsed when the report found that, broadly, the scheme would be carbon neutral. In other words, after spending all these billions of pounds (believed to be £30bn at the time but now heading north towards £50bn), there was no overall environmental benefit.

In Parliamentary language, High Speed Rail was a White Paper, suggesting immediate action, rather than a Green Paper, involving genuine consultation. And that may prove the scheme’s undoing.

Scepticism about the project has been rising among a public hit by austerity and public sector cuts faster than skyscrapers in Shanghai. This has been compounded by the collapse of the business case, based on time savings, which has gone from a benefit cost ratio of over 2 to less than 1.5 – and is now being recalculated.

Now that the all-party consensus seems belatedly to be cracking, after Ed Balls’s intervention at the Labour Party conference, the government had to act. Frankly, there are divisions within all the parties about the project. Labour’s have been the most public lately, but many Tories, too, are privately hostile to the plan.

Therefore there is an element of desperation in Coalition circles. The government, realising that the case for HS2 has not been made and that the process has been allowed to drift while criticism has mounted, has decided that a change of personnel at the top was essential. So out goes the chairman, Doug Oakervee, a veteran engineer but who was not able to make the case for the line publicly, and his much criticised communications boss, Clinton Leekes who are being replaced by David Higgins, who previously headed the Olympic Delivery Authority and latterly Network Rail, and Ben Ruse, who formerly worked for High Speed One.

This is a last throw of the dice. There is no doubt that the project is in trouble, but perhaps not as much as the opponents would help. Certainly it is too early to write off. An awful lot of political energy has been invested in the project and it will not be easy for politicians to retreat without putting forward some viable alternative. And there are many who hope that this will be money for roads, as indeed Balls suggested.

Indeed, many opponents of the scheme argue that the money would be best spent elsewhere, whether it be transport or other government spending areas, though there’s probably not many who would go for the idea that it could pay for Trident. While there are some transport experts, notably Stephen Glaister, the director of the RAC Foundation who argue strongly that HS2 money would be better spent on roads, this would immediately attract criticism from the environmentalist lobby which, while not convinced of the value of HS2, are adamantly opposed to more roads being built.

In fact, the Treasury does not really work like that. If HS2 were scrapped, the allotted money would simply disappear into the overall state finances and only if there was a clear quid pro quo announced in tandem with the closure would there be any new money for other schemes such as roadbuilding. Indeed, the supporters of the scheme use this argument but somewhat miss the point. If HS2 goes ahead, there is no doubt that other parts of the rail network will have less money available to them, as indeed has happened in France where the TGV absorbs most of the available funding.

There is all to play for.  There is now considerable pressure on HS2 Ltd, with its new chairman, to hit back at the critics and make a convincing case for HS2. If David Higgins, with his track record cannot do it, then no one can.

  • Stephen Glaister

    Christian, it’s not simply that I advocate considering spending the taxpayer money involved just on roads. The point is that, according to the well-honed techniques of appraisal that the Treasury has approved for helping to think about these things, there are lots of better ways of spending it. That, as you indicate, includes the classic railway, buses, other public transport, local and national road maintenance (potholes). All this was set out in the Eddington Transport Study in 2006.

    It also includes the cheaper ways the rail capacity problem might be addressed on that line of route–which have not been given the full consideration they deserve. And it includes lots of other ways of procuring public benefit (like health and social services) which are suffering at the moment.

    It is also an option to leave the money in taxpayers’ pockets. The most recent estimates published by HS2, suggest that (in net present value terms) we are talking about a cost to the taxpayer of roundly £500 per head of population. That is £60 billion for construction, trains and operating costs (you cannot forget the costs of running them!) net of £30 billion of new revenues.

    That is a big burden spread widely across the tax-paying population, whilst the benefits would be very much more narrowly distributed. It’s a lot of eggs to put in the one basket.

    Maybe there is a good political or social justification for going ahead with this “aspirational” project. But, as you indicate, we do need to have a clear statement of what problems HS2 is meant to address, and a decent debate about whether there might be better ways to address them.

    Stephen Glaister

  • Keith

    >cheaper ways the rail capacity problem might be addressed on that line of route

    So true. No-one ever talks about overtaking loops or grade separated junctions. Longer Pendolinos occasionally get mentioned but not often enough. When travelling on the West or East Coast lines it’s amazing how much empty space there is where tracks and platforms once existed. But still we get endless bleating that we are at full capacity.

  • Michael

    “If HS2 goes ahead, there is no doubt that other parts of the rail network will have less money available to them, as indeed has happened in France where the TGV absorbs most of the available funding”

    So, no chance of the North getting an express link to cut the one hour train time for the 40 miles between Manchester and Leeds. Compare this with HS2’s target of one hour for the 115 miles from London to Birmingham. So much for connecting our cities and the North South Divide.

    HS2 Plan B is a full-scheme alternative. Construction would start with a 40 mile express link between Manchester Victoria and Leeds, halving the rail time between the two and taking half an hour out of Liverpool-Leeds, Bolton-Sheffield, Manchester-York etc times as well:


    There are bound to be others.

  • Sean

    So, clearly nobody remembers the almighty, and spectacular cock-up that was the West Coast Route Modernisation (WCRM) project, then?

    This utterly bonkers project failed spectacularly and its fantastical scope had to be massively cut back – Virgin and Railtrack were touting 140 mph. tilting trains, but the initial impetus dates back to BR days, when the aspiration was no less than a whopping 155 mph, using the ill-fated APT. What we got was a pathetic 125 mph. – a speed easily matched by the 1970s-built diesel High Speed Trains running up the East Coast, and that even commuters from Ashford to St. Pancras could point and laugh at barely a year after the WCRM project was officially ‘completed’.

    The final cost for that farce was £13 bn., for damned near bugger all. The original intention had been to send 155 mph. tilting British Rail-designed Advanced Passenger Trains up the rebuilt line. In the end, we got an electrification scheme, some relatively minor junction improvements, and… 125 mph. A maximum line speed even commuters from Ashford to St. Pancras were already pointing and laughing at barely a year after the West Coast Route Modernisation project was officially declared complete.

    Oh yes, let’s not forget that people living along the West Coast line also suffered a *decade* of pain in the form of long delays, diversions, lengthy line closures – mainly due to a lack of suitable diversionary routes, etc., while it was all being “modernised” to match its East Coast counterpart, (circa 1977).

    Does anyone seriously believe repeating the above is a good idea? Does anyone seriously believe it’d ever wash its face with the people such a project would affect?

    HS2 was NEVER about the speed. It’s about *capacity*. That’s it. It uses TGV technology because it’s not noticeably more expensive than conventional rail, and means the line can be designed for specific traffic patterns, releasing capacity on the original West Coast lines for more local, regional and freight trains. It’s basically an easier, less disruptive, and cheaper way to build an extra pair of tracks for the West Coast route.

    Phase 1 to Birmingham alone isn’t the ultimate destination, so discussing the project as if that were the case is misleading at best, and dishonest at worst. (Yes, Mr. Wolmar, I’m looking at you. You know as well as I do that HS2’s BCR gets much better the closer it gets to Scotland. This was never a secret.)

    Even so, Phase 1 would not be limited to shuttling people back and forth between Euston and Curzon St. stations: it would also reduce express travel times from much further north as those trains would also use the new tracks. Manchester, Liverpool and even Glasgow would therefore still see benefits even from that first stretch.

    Finally, HS2 actually meets an EU desire to improve connections to the North West of England, as well as to Scotland, so it’s perfectly plausible that the EU could actually help pay for some of it too. They’ve certainly been willing to chip in for all those Base Tunnel projects through the French, Swiss and Austrian Alps, among others. Why has nobody even brought this up? Because it doesn’t fit the media’s preferred narrative about the EU’s relationship with the UK being all “take, take, take”?

  • Sean

    @Stephen Glaister:

    Last time I checked, the UK was still a major world economy, yet no other country I’ve ever lived in sees such projects as mutually exclusive and makes such a song and dance about choosing between them. Paris has no less than FIVE RER – i.e. Crossrail-style through routes – which were already in place by the 1970s. The Swiss are building *multiple* base tunnels under a major mountain range for a fraction of the bloated price of HS2, which should tell you something about the UK’s insane construction costs. Costs that would be equally poor value for money *regardless* of what you’re building, be it new roads, new airports, or anything else. Rail just happens to be a favourite poster child for such needlessly bloated budgets.

    HS2’s first phase is, after all, a 115-mile two-track railway through what is, frankly, very easy rolling countryside. There’s no part of the project that’s particularly difficult from an engineering standpoint. The NIMBYs and BANANAs are pumping the costs up, so our planning processes have clearly been tilted too far in their favour; it’s high time that changed. But the endless layers of subcontractors, and all the 10% slices and legal arse-covering that involves, play an even bigger part.

    Please, stop going on about symptoms and try addressing the *causes* instead.

    Privatisation is not a panacea. Neither is nationalisation. What’s needed is a balance between the two. Where infrastructure is best operated as a monopoly – and most transport infrastructure, and particularly express road* and rail, fits that description – then set up a monopoly business to run it. Stop being scared of monopolies: look at the histories of the South Eastern Railway and the London, Chatham and Dover Railway companies if you want to see exactly how allowing rival systems can end in tears. Then compare with the effectively monopolistic North Eastern Railway and Great Western Railway companies.

    * (I.e. Motorways. The Italian and French systems are an excellent illustration of how a private monopoly can actually be better than multiple competing companies. The Italians have been building and upgrading their motorways almost constantly over the years, despite the management being effectively a private monopoly. The more fragmented French system tends towards rival companies building multiple routes – often effectively duplicating each other – between popular destinations, but of lower quality than their Italian counterparts, with less popular regions being rather poorly served. The latter could easily be compared with the SER and LC&DR rivalry and its similar duplication of routes.)