Rail 610: High speed rail still a long way off

Gosh, how things can change so quickly. Rail policy requires long term strategic thinking and the commitment of governments to carry it through. That’s how Japan and France built the world’s most extensive high speed rail networks and it is the strategy being followed by

Spain and China which will overtake them in the next decade.

 Yet, here, plans are chopped and changed with all the frequency of managerial sackings in the Premiership. Just 18 months after ministers kicked the idea of a new high speed line firmly into touch, it is now firmly back on the agenda when Geoff Hoon, in his Heathrow announcement, said that a study would be undertaken. .

 It is, though, difficult not to take this remarkable U turn with a pinch of salt. While I have no doubt about rail minister Lord Adonis’s personal commitment to the concept, I am far more sceptical about the way that the high speed line has become embroiled with the future of Heathrow. As Lord Adonis admitted himself in an interview in the Evening Standard, by saying ‘we  are quite clear that the scope for replacing domestic flights by high speed  rail  is limited. The case for a high speed line has very little  to do with replacing domestic flights, though it could replace some at  the margins. It is based on the need for additional inter-city capacity on our rail network.’

 This makes clear that the announcement about high speed rail was made at the same time as the Heathrow runway plan as a sop to the more environmentally-concerned ministers in the Cabinet such as Ed Miliband and Harriet Harman, rather than as an attempt at integrated transport policy. But it barely takes the salt off the pill, let alone sweetening it.

 A third runway at Heathrow is an environmental disaster on a huge scale. Quite apart from the carbon emissions implications – and we can ignore the nonsense about the runway not being used to full capacity until the emissions targets are met – the project will cast a pall over a large swathe of west London and reduce the value of thousands of houses which will find themselves under flight paths for the first time. But note the different emphasis given to the schemes: the third runway is getting the definite go ahead, while for the rail project, there is to be an assessment of the scheme, something which was actually a manifesto commitment that Labour has so far forgotten. Moreover, there was a study nine years ago which rejected the idea and it was again effectively ruled out both by the Eddington report into infrastructure needs published in 2006 and the rail strategy paper the following year.

 There is no doubt, from what Lord Adonis has written and said, that he wants the government to give a firm commitment to the idea. He also wants electrification of both the Great Western and Midland Main lines, something which has the side effect of making the Intercity Express Project in its present form redundant. Adonis is understood to be working at ways of implementing these major schemes on the cheap, but there is clearly no funding for either a high speed line or electrification at least until 2014, unless new money were made available, since the five year Control Period 4 which starts this April includes nothing for either scheme.

 So the rail minister has set himself a big task in winning over not only his own boss, Geoff Hoon, who clearly has no real commitment to rail given his readiness to push yet more money into road schemes, but also the Treasury, at a time when the recession is going to eat into passenger numbers on the railway.

 The study will need to demonstrate conclusively that a high speed line would be a genuinely green project, and that will be no easy task for its supporters to prove. An environmental audit of such a major scheme will have to take into account the huge amounts of carbon by its construction and by the trains running on the line. That will be fine if it can be demonstrated that passengers on the trains will be using less carbon than otherwise, and that may be hard to prove. For example, people displaced from existing trains will have actually increase their carbon emissions, and so will those who would not have travelled otherwise.

 The experience of the High Speed One demonstrates just how difficult it is to assess the environmental consequences of these projects. The line between the Channel Tunnel and St Pancras represents massive overprovision if it is to be used solely for Eurostar. But both the potential additional uses are problematic. Freight is effectively barred by the premium prices – six times the normal mileage rates – being asked by London & Continental the state owned company that owns the line. Contrast this with the French policy of encouraging postal trains onto their high speed network with special rolling stock.

 The Kent trains, due to be introduced on the high speed line in December, are an answer to a question that was never asked. While commuter services from Kent are poor thanks to the history of the railway, their users were mostly quite content to travel into Cannon Street and Charing Cross at relatively low fares. Now, fares are rising by 3 per cent above the rate of inflation in order to pay for the new high speed services and those people who do go onto the new high speed services will pay a further premium.

 A Kent MP, Roger Gale, is incensed by the fact that his constituents are being asked to pay premium fares for a service they never asked for and has launched a campaign to try to restrict these increases and to preserve existing services as much as possible. He points out that few of them will want to go to St Pancras, rather than their present London destination, which will negate any time saving. Therefore, the advent of a high speed line will lead to people travelling further and at a greater energy cost, and what is more paying for the privilege. Similarly, an environmental audit would have to show that the passengers attracted to the new railway would be using less energy than had the line not been built, not an easy test. 

 Even if the environmental criteria can be satisfied, there are fundamental questions about the high speed announcement. From what one can glean from the sketchy statements, the projects is for a line from Heathrow to central London, presumably St Pancras, and then up north, initially to Birmingham. But is not the best route for a high speed line. It would make the journey from Heathrow up north rather convoluted if passengers all had to travel via London (and change trains?) when, in fact, they could easily drive round the M25 and up the M40 to Birmingham in pretty much the same time. There is, too, a big question mark over fares. As I have argued before, the way that a high speed line would be funded, and the fact that there is no government policy to ensure cheap fares, means that it is highly likely that reaching Heathrow by train would be considerably more expensive than flying, particularly as airlines tend to price connecting flights very cheaply.

 Moreover, existing services on the West Coast are excellent and fast. A friend of mine recently told me how he left a meeting in Whitchurch in Shropshire at 6 45 and managed to reach a dinner in Chelsea at 9 30 pm with a rather tight connection at Crewe. Who needs high speed lines with that kind of service?

 It is going to be a fascinating debate and it is welcome that Labour has, at last, made good its promise to investigate seriously the high speed line concept. But in the mix, there should, too, be consideration of investing a similar sum – say £30bn – in improving and expanding the existing network which might be money better spent, given my friend’s experience on the West Coast Main Line. And ultimately, if I had to put money on it, I still reckon neither a high speed line nor the third runway will ever be built. But it is going to take a long time to prove me right – or wrong!



Adonis puts train operators on the back foot


The decision by Lord Adonis to stop South West Trains from implementing nearly half its proposed cuts to ticket office hours shows that any operator contemplating make cuts in services in response to the downturn will face an uphill task to push them through. SWT declared itself ‘deeply disappointed’ at the ministerial decision saying that the reductions ‘were not plucked out of thin air but were the result of a thorough assessment of ticket sales’ at the affected stations.

 Obviously, though, the minister clearly looked at the evidence and took a different view as he was entitled to do under the Ticket and Settlement Plan, the 1995 regulations which ensure that there has to be ministerial sanction for any major change in customer service. According to industry sources, this effectively means any alteration apart from very minor reductions of, say, half an hour, to opening hours.

 This is a far cry from the laissez faire attitude of previous ministers, highlighting just how craven past incumbents were by acquiescing to such cuts. Remember the changes  implemented by Southeastern two years ago which left 30 stations with much reduced opening times and which were rubberstamped by ministers.  

 Moreover, train operators will be viewing this decision with trepidation. Of course they will argue that this is yet another example of micromanagement by the Department but, in fact, it is actually safeguarding passenger interests. That said, it is daft that ministers are having to make decisions at this level and this episode merely reinforces the view that there should be a quasi independent railways agency to police the franchise contracts. But in the meantime, Lord Adonis’s vigilance in support of passengers is welcome.


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