The thrust of the article by Ian Walmsley in Modern Railways last month was that no one should challenge the validity of the HS2 Project because it is so patently obvious that it is the best thing to happen to the railways since the opening of the Liverpool & Manchester Railway. I will, therefore, in this article which your editor has kindly invited me to write as a response, first address this overall contention and then look at more specific issues relating to the scheme as currently presented. I will confine my response to Walmsley’s juvenile insults to a brief paragraph at the end.
The notion that HS2 is so self-evidently a top priority to be built that we cannot even discuss doubts about it is clearly patent nonsense. This is a project whose cost is uncertain but will almost certainly exceed the £55bn currently earmarked given that Phase 2 has only been vaguely sketched out and £8bn of the £24bn cost of Phase 1 has been earmarked for the first six miles up from Euston, making it highly unlikely that the rest will only absorb £16bn. You only have to look at the recent rise of £1.5bn and delay of a year in cost of Hinckley Point, another controversial megaproject, to realise that there is only one direction for the estimates of HS2. So, let’s be relatively conservative and say that the total will be around £70bn by the time it opens. Surely, even the most fervent supporter of the scheme must accept that there are legitimate grounds for debate.
There are a lot of things that could be done with £70bn. The public debt is still rising fast, local authorities are being squeezed, the NHS is under unprecedented pressure, school budgets are being cut but Mr Walmsley reckons that HS2 should be sacrosanct and immune even from discussion. Of course many people in the industry support the scheme but a large proportion of them have a vested interest with billions worth of contracts at stake. Many more neutral observers with in depth knowledge of the industry are sceptical and as are large swathes of the population at large.
With good reason. It is a fallacy to suggest that just because the idea of high speed railways is a good one for other nations, the UK must have one. We already have good frequent services linking London with the northern cities, which was not the case when France, a far bigger country, embarked on its LGV network. England is small compared with most nations which have built high speed lines and there are legitimate doubts that a standalone line, with very few connections to the rest of the network is the optimal solution. The work carried out by HSUK, who looked at the railway network as a whole and then attempted to fit in a high speed network that would deliver better journey times between virtually all major English cities seems to represent a far more coherent approach than HS2 Ltd’s efforts – which so far have already cost £1bn. It is much more akin to the German mix of high speed and improved conventional that has proved to be successful.
There may be a case for a high speed line but it has not been made in relation to this project.
Let’s look at the specifics. One of the most extraordinary aspects of this project is that there is no environmental case. It does not even pretend to get people out of their cars, let along attract air passengers but rather, the majority of journeys will either be generated by the line or be people transferring from classic lines. This is mobility for the sake of mobility, rather than accessibility, and does not make sense in world where climate change is the most pressing issue ever faced by the human race, one that threatens its very existence.
The most compelling argument against the project is that its objectives are unclear. It was originally tacked on to a Labour government announcement supporting the third runway at Heathrow and therefore was supposed to go there, but that was soon given up and instead its main reason was given as speeding up journeys to Birmingham (an argument that is no longer used). Now we have the need to boost capacity – when in fact Euston is nowhere near being London’s most overcrowded station and much of the demand is for commuting and regional traffic – and bridging the North South divide, the evidence for which is scant. Indeed, creating a Network SouthEast for the North, with high frequency electric trains running frequently and fast between the major cities would be far more beneficial for the local economy and cost a fraction of the bill for HS2.
Since Mr Walmsley suggested that only people with ulterior motives argue against the line, let’s now call in the heavyweights of the Lords Economic Affairs Committee who produced one of the best independent analyses of the project. After taking evidence from a wide range of witnesses, it reached damning conclusions, questioning the very basis of the project and raising a series of questions that the government had not answered. In particular, the committee found that the government had rejected alternatives to HS2 too easily without proper consideration, partly on the basis that they offered fewer extra seats. However, crucially, the committee suggested that there was no evidence that all the huge increase in capacity resulting from HS2 was necessary.
The committee also wanted to know amongst other issues how the government knew this was the best long term strategy in the absence of any overall transport plan, why the government has allowed ‘commercial confidentially’ to prevent the publication of detailed data on current demand on the West Coast, and whether there will be premium fares which have damped down demand on HS1. It is, indeed, quite extraordinary that eight years and £1bn into the project, there are still basic issues like these that have not been properly explained.
The committee was also dismissive of the casual assumption that the line would definitely result in economic growth. While many rail lines do clearly act as a catalyst for growth, this is by no means always the case. Moreover, there is evidence that it is London that will benefit from the line, sucking in growth from the regions rather than the other way around.
There are many other specific objections. HS2 as currently designed has four stations that are broadly parkways – Birmingham International, Toton, Old Oak Common and probably Crewe– in that they are not huge destinations and will mostly require a car journey to reach, and five terminuses – Leeds, Manchester, Sheffield, Birmingham and London. Railway planners know that the most effective stations are through stations which therefore connect easily with many more destinations without changing train or mode.
Toton is my particular bugbear, a station half way between Nottingham and Derby with no purpose whatsoever. Services to the town centre of either of those places will be no faster than by the Midland Main Line and therefore it will be very little used. Travelling on the TGV in France, one flies past similar stations located in the middle of nowhere that have turned out to be white elephants. The nearby East Midlands Parkway has proved to be a flop partly because it is not near enough to the airport and so therefore the area will have two fairly useless stations. Meadowhall seems now to have gone but going into Sheffield means that journeys north from there will no longer be possible.
Possibly the aspect which most obviously shows that this project is not born of any wider social concerns or sober assessment of the needs of passengers is the decision to build it to a specification of 400 kph and run the trains, initially at 360 kph. Even Walmsley baulked a bit at this and wondered why this bit of peacock preening had not been subject to greater scrutiny. That is the point. Roger Ford, indeed, noted in the last issue that every extra kph adds exponentially to the cost of both building and operating the line.
The underlying reason for specifying this speed is that the business case – the benefit to cost ratio that underpins all major projects – is based on time savings of travellers and therefore the faster the train goes, the more the supposed benefits. Nothing illustrates the nonsense of the whole business case assessment process than designing the British HS2 track to a speed used by no other high speed line in the world.
Another nonsense is that the business case is also based on the notion that there can be 18 trains per hour. Again, this is not achieved by any other high speed line and is, according to all railway timetablers to whom I have spoken, fantastically optimistic given that many trains will enter the high speed section from classic lines. Again, this is a result of the methodology of the business case dictating the outline of the project as without such supposed heavy use, the benefits are lower.
Finally there is the vexed issue of capacity. Successive transport ministers have promised that the current level of service will be maintained to towns like Coventry or Stoke which are not on the line. That effectively rules out any potential use of freed up capacity for freight because these services will continue to eat up all the available fast line capacity and HS2 has never claimed it will liberate any slow line paths.
Despite my opposition, I consider it likely that Phase One will be built given the political support, though I have severe doubts about Phase Two in its entirely, which ironically has a better business case using the Department’s flawed and absurd methodology.
I would just like to conclude on the tone of this debate. I do not see why emotions are so inflamed by this issue. At the end of the day, it is a transport matter, which obviously will have an impact on the economy, the environment and other aspects of life in the UK, but, folks, we are not discussing whether we should respond to the invasion of Poland or the privatisation of the health service. Keep calm.
I thought Ian Walmsley’s comparison of me with ‘Lord Haw-Haw’ was possibly a slight exaggeration. Haw-Haw, or William Joyce, broadcast pro-Nazi propaganda from Berlin during the Second World War and was later hanged for treason. Did Ian really mean to suggest that I was ‘literally a Nazi’ (as they say on Twitter)? Putting libel risks to one side for the moment, might I recommend that Ian and his publishers give closer scrutiny to ‘McNae’s Essential Law for Journalists’, before his next column is published? After all, who breaks a butterfly on a wheel.