Rail 745: Higgins changes direction – ever so slightly

It was expected that Sir David Higgins, who has moved from Network Rail to the chairmanship of HS2 Ltd would soon begin to seek radical changes. However, his HS2 Plus (is that a new medicine quipped the fellow next to me at the press conference) demonstrates the constraints he is under because of decisions made by his predecessors.

His rather thin report is certainly radical in intent but as Higgins pointed out he is the servant of government. The suggestions in it are just that – the politicians have to make all the decisions because this is an entirely publicly funded and publicly driven project. One can perhaps reflect on the irony that a government so hostile to the public sector and so intent on privatising any organisations that happen to be state-run (High Speed One and East Coast, for example) is running the biggest publicly infrastructure project ever.

Higgins instead is rightly addressing some of the weaknesses of the HS2 scheme but his hands are somewhat tied. He has, as covered in the News section, made three key interventions: the scrapping of the plans for Euston station; junking the HS1-HS2 link; the extension of Phase One to Crewe where there will now be a station;

Oddly, Higgins did not do what he was asked. He was supposed to look at the cost of the project and try to pare down some of the £42.6 bn bill for the two phases but basically he gave a Churchillian finger to that idea. This is indicative of the strength of his position – with his track record in the Olympics, Higgins is sack-proof unless he is caught in flagrante with Sam Cameron…and even then. It is also very neat politics. Cutting a few billion would not turn the Chiltern antis into supporters, however much they may say it is about money, and it might be a hostage to fortune late on. Higgins has therefore boxed clever suggesting the only way to reduce costs was to speed up the project, something that actually may not be possible.

Killing the plans for Euston is clever politics. While the Chiltern activists made the running for the opposition in the early stages of the scheme, the groups in Camden could be much more formidable foes. More than half the homes due to be demolished are in Camden and the Euston scheme had nothing going for it. The plans involved reshaping the existing station, hated ever since its construction in the 1960s rather than demolishing. Worse, the high speed lines were to be sited on the west side, which would result in the destruction of several good council blocks that also house many owner occupiers who have bought their flats and would not get enough compensation to buy elsewhere. This cockeyed scheme – Option 8 as it was known – was the result of attempts to reduce costs and speed up the project but provide no development gain and was, as Higgins said, ‘not ambitious enough’. He looks to the developments at St Pancras and Kings Cross, arguing that Euston needs a similar scheme, which might include a development over the station. The opponents have worked up a detailed alternative, involving two decks below ground which they argue is feasible and now their plans will be scrutinised.

Camden, therefore was becoming the focus of opposition, and it is perhaps testimony to the strength of the local campaign that the HS1-HS2 link has also gone for a Burton. This was another poorly worked out idea that was a compromise dictated by cost – although at £700m it was not cheap. This has been roundly criticised because there is no guarantee that an alternative will be developed, leaving HS2 cut off from Europe. Professor Paul Salveson, a former communications director with Northern and publisher of a weekly ‘Salvo’ is infuriated by the decision arguing that HS2 Plus does not improve the scheme for the north. Quite the opposite: ‘His actual recommendations, in what can best be described as a very lightweight report, are not good news for Yorkshire.’ Abandoning the link, he says means ‘that travellers to the continent will have to change stations in London. Connections from West Yorkshire would be far worse than what they currently are, with a relatively easy interchange at Kings Cross to St Pancras International’. Indeed, the notion, as Higgins’ report suggests that the ‘HS2 platforms at Euston will be a short distance from those at HS1’ is simply nonsense for anyone carrying luggage or travelling as a family. It would kill the rail market between the provinces and Europe stone dead. (Actually, the British customs regulations and the crazy Channel Tunnel Act which requires baggage to be screened would probably have done that anyway, and possibly this was in Higgins’ mind).

At least, though, Higgins is looking at the scheme with an eye to improvements. It is the particulars of the scheme that are bad, not the concept of high speed rail. But please, David, do us all a favour and don’t think about wasting millions on re-erecting the Euston Arch. It really is a bit of rail nostalgia nonsense. There is an entry on the Londonist website supporting my view which recalls that Pugin called it ‘a Brobdignaggian absurdity’. I could not have put it better myself. There’s no shortage of Doric columns in the world and this one actually got in the way of accessing the station. As I have suggested before (Rail 629) ‘leave the stones in the canal for a 25th century archaeologist to ponder over’.

As for Crewe, well can extending the Phase One line out to Cheshire be done? Messing around with the hybrid bill at this stage is not easy. Patrick McLoughlin, the Transport Secretary, only responded by saying ‘Therefore, I am commissioning HS2 Ltd and Network Rail to undertake work to allow both these proposals to be considered in detail as part of my consideration of the public consultation responses to Phase Two.’

Higgins has not addressed the key problems of the design because it is too late given that the hybrid bill is already in Parliament. This is the focus on parkway and terminus stations, meaning that interconnectivity is poor. Malcolm Bulpitt, the editor Swiss Railways magazine sums the problem of HS2’s relationship with the rest of the rail network neatly: ‘The sad truth is that HS2 is in reality no more than London’s Crossrail 3. If it being built to regenerate the provincial cities it is supposedly serving, it would go into their centres and connect with the local rail and other transport services that are the potential means of distributing the chimera of incoming wealth and influential individuals heading up from London. ‘He is right. Parkway stations – and frankly Crewe would count as one – will do much more to help people coming into London who use them as park and ride but are useless for Londoners coming into the provinces to do business since they will be forced to continue their journeys by taxi or local public transport – less desirable than the present options of city centre stations.

Clearly the PR has changed. Gone is the emphasis on journey times. The cover of HS2 Plus did not even have the line on it, but was merely a map of Great Britain with the big towns marked on it, right down to Plymouth and across to Norwich and up to Aberdeen in an effort to show that HS2 benefits the whole country. There’s not even a single picture of a train in the pamphlet which gives the subliminal message that it’s all about regeneration and connecting the North. There was, though, another irony. David Higgins and his entourage, and the accompanying press pack, were dragged all up to Manchester (OK, those of us in London) to hear about three important developments, two of which concerned London and one on Crewe, 30 miles down the line. Keep on trying David, but you face an uphill task.

 

 

 

 

Another organisation refuses to bite the dust

 

In response to my article about the activities (or non-activities) of the Rail Delivery Group, a reader sent me information about the National Rail Task Force. This was set up by Tony Blair in the wake of the ‘nervous breakdown’ in the railways following the Hatfield crash and the resulting panic by Railtrack which led to the indiscriminate implementation of speed restrictions. It was to hold meeting in Whitehall attended by all the major players in the industry.

Like most people, I thought this organisation had been wound up years ago. Not so. It still ticks on and appears to wield some clout. It certainly thinks it does if its minutes are anything to go by. A couple of years ago, there was a Freedom of Information providing the minutes of the Task Force’s meetings which discussed matters like the GSM-R radio system and international benchmarking, but all the attendees names were blanked out, presumably on the basis that the name of the ATOC representative might be useful to terrorists or rival commercial interests!

I was sent the agenda for its most recent meeting which was in January 2014 discussing matters mostly relating mostly to performance but involving a wide range of issues across the industry. It is astonishing that so many key decisions on the railway are being made by these nebulous groups like the Rail Delivery Group (which bans companies with a turnover of less than £100m) and the Task Force which surely should be the matter of a more open and transparent forum.

So just to remind readers: to run and monitor this industry we have Network Rail and the train operators; the Office of Rail Regulation; the Rail Delivery Group and the remaining functions of the Association of Train Operating Companies; the Railway Safety and Standards Board; the Department for Transport and its new creation the Rail Executive which will soon spawn the Office of Passenger Services; and a host of private sector organisations such as the rolling stock and engineering companies. Now wasn’t there a report a few years ago by some business bloke called McNulty that said the industry is too fragmented and that this is leading to a massive waste of money?

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