Rail 771: The nonsense of very high speed high speed rail!

You may not have noticed but you have got just a pound richer. Or rather, the economy has been boosted by some £57m which equates to almost a quid each annually thanks to an innovative new policy from the Department for Transport.

Don’t, however, get too excited. This extra boost in the UK economy has been achieved by allowing tractor drivers to go 5 mph faster than previously, and so they can now speed along those country roads, shedding mud and muck on to the hapless drives behind them, at 25 mph rather than, as previously 20mph.

And, I kid you not, the normally very sensible Claire Perry, the junior transport minister was made to boast about this in a Parliamentary statement saying: ‘These increases, which I expect to create over £57m a year in deregulatory savings for the farming industry, will update our regulations to better reflect modern machinery and bring British farmers more in line with their international counterparts’.

So how do these savings come about? Well, the logic goes because the tractors and their drivers spend less time on the roads, the farmer save money supposedly through having to pay less for them. So why is Wolmar waffling about tractors and how is this relevant to the railways? Well, as regular readers of this column will know, the benefits of railway investment are calculated by this same system of cost benefit analysis. This sets the cost of a project against the potential benefits, which mostly consist of time savings. Forget the fact that this is patent nonsense since it is very unlikely that many farmers would be able to realise these savings – they would probably still need the same amount of machinery and drivers, as the savings, even on a ten mile journey would, at best, amount to six minutes — even counting their time at £20 per hour,

I mention all this because the same methodology is being used to justify HS2 and has led to what I would consider the biggest mistake by its promoters, the notion that it should be built as a 400 kph (or 250 mph) railway, rather than a 300 kph as with HS1 and nearly all Continental high speed lines. This has numerous disadvantages and results in greatly increased costs but the origin of the decision is oddly unclear. The proposal for such a fast railway came in the first report by HS2 Ltd with very little discussion of the implications. In the report published in March 2010 setting out the plans for the line, the Government accepted the decision to go for a 400 kph line even though it ‘recognises and accepts that this necessarily constrains the maximum acceptable track curvature and gradients, which in turn restricts the number of potential route options’. Well indeed, but this shows that a very major issue was dismissed in just a few lines with no proper appraisal.

The difference is very marked. At 300 kph, the minimum radius for a curve is 4050 metres, while at 400 kph it is 7,200, 75 per cent more! That places very obvious constraints. Then there are the mitigation costs. Faster trains will be noisier and the less flexible alignment will mean more people are affected. More cuttings will have to be dug because of the straighter alignments and there will have to be many more costly assurances made to those near the route. Rob Holden, the chairman of High Speed One, who also worked for Crossrail, reckons the extra cost of providing for 400 kph rather than 300 kph could be as much as 20 per cent of the costs. Yet, when I spoke to Andrew McNaughton, the chief engineer of HS2, about this issue, he dismissed the extra costs as trivial and not worthwhile given the need for future proofing.

When the Department produced an appraisal of the technical standards in January 2012, it considered the issue, but rejected any change saying that any change would have been marginal and that the longer journey times would result in fewer benefits. But this is all about modelling and not the real world. Elsewhere HS2 Ltd says that a 7 minute journey time increase would result in a 25 per cent loss of the benefits of the line. This surely demonstrates that the whole methodology is flawed and yet it is that methodology which is determining the route design. And that is without going into the issue of the fact that the time savings are illusory since people work on trains – indeed I find that journeys are often too short… The Department’s conclusion that ‘we believe this provides a realistic margin for the on-going evolution in train performance capabilities along with an appropriate balance between journey time, costs and environmental effects’ is pure fantasy

Indeed, all this is for little purpose. First, the initial trains will only go at a maximum of 225 mph (or 360 kph) – perhaps at some unspecified time going up to 250 mph but not with the first generation of trains – but it is also unlikely that the trains will ever be able to reach top speed for any length of time as the maximum in tunnels is 180 kph. On HS1, for example, the maximum of 300 kph is only reached for three minutes on the non-stop journey between St Pancras and the Channel Tunnel and barely at all on the trains that stop at Ebbsfleet or Ashford. Rob Holden has tried to find out what the estimate period of maximum speed is on the first part of HS2 but failed. As he puts it, ‘the line was originally proposed as a way of cutting journey times, and now it is accepted that the main purpose is capacity but the design of the project has not been changed accordingly’.

Incidentally, while researching this column, I came up against another dodgy figure, clearly designed to fit in with the model rather than reality. The benefits are based on the estimate that 30 per cent of travellers would be business users, and 70 per cent leisure. That’s because the time savings of business users are considered to be more valuable in the methodology than others, and therefore makes the scheme appear more worthwhile.

As we are going to get a new – and most probably different – government in May (or possible June or July!), this is an issue that should be looked at in detail by new ministers. This country with short distances between the man conurbations. By rail Paris – Lyon is 300 miles and Milan – Rome 425 miles compared with London – Manchester which is just 165 and therefore it is a strange anomaly that the railway is being designed to be the fastest in the world. Even though in a way it is too late, as the requirement to have a 400 kph railway essentially ruled out the more sensible idea of using existing transport corridors such as the M40 and M1, the new ministers should certainly investigate the potential savings from building the line to 300 kph. So far, this has been an engineering scheme and it needs to become a transport project. Or may be common sense will prevail, and they will agree to the whole project being reappraised but that is to expect too much.

The lesson is that major schemes like HS2 require a new system of appraisal. I have helped produce publications from University College London’s OMEGA centre which focusses on megaprojects and their overriding conclusion is all too obvious – that rather than a narrow methodology based on time savings, there is a need for detailed assessment based on many different criteria and which recognised the complex nature of such projects. Simply using time savings as a proxy for the value of schemes is crude and has been discredited as a method.

So here’s a challenge to the line’s supporters: explain why it is worth spending several billion pounds – possibly as much as £8bn which is enough to fund quite a lot of hospitals or schools just to save a few minutes off the journey times. Letters to the editor please (or perhaps from him).


  • NicolaSplurgegun

    You are dead right Christian, our politicians’ general stupidity and depth of ignornace is unfathomable. It reminds me of Richard Branson’s enthusiasm for 140 mph between Rugby and Stafford saying that the increased speed would save 15 minutes (or something like that). He might be a clever businessman but if ever he had any skills in arithmetic, they have long since left him.

  • Paul Holt

    (Simply) as a point of interest, the Settle-to-Carlisle route was built to main line standards i.e. no steep gradients or sharp bends, which supports CW’s point above about straighter alignments.

  • As an engineer I despair with the shocking way the cost benefit analysis has been carried out. A major factor that seems to have been excluded from the calculations is the significant difference in energy consumption between 300 and 400kph, especially as the increase is exponential. Moreover, this is also likely to add to the infrastructure cost due to the need to distribute this extra energy.

    Also, as someone concerned about the environment, in addition to the points already well made, the additional energy requirements for 400kph are likely to have a negative impact.