Rail 616: The questions about high speed rail line

Call me perverse, but all-party agreements make me smell a king-size rodent. Now that Labour has signed belatedly up to the idea of a north south high speed link after initially rejecting it, all three major parties support the idea of HS2.

The revival of the high speed plan was started by the Tories who announced there support among much fanfare at the party conference in October and the Libdems soon joined in. Without being unduly cynical, it is a low cost popular policy – until the work actually starts. There was a good reason why Labour came last to the table, because it is in power and Alistair Darling – as both Transport Secretary and Chancellor – was extremely wary of making any extra financial commitments. It was not until Lord Adonis arrived as rail minister that the previous policy of opposition was re-examined.

None of this has cost very much money. Sure Labour has created an HS2 organisation but the spending is easily subsumed into the Department’s budget. No real cash will need to be spent before the next election.

So it is great politics for all the parties to support the line, as in the short term there is little cost and lots of kudos, but what exactly do they envisage and, more importantly, why? The precise route is, of course, very far from being decided but the leading contender seems to be a line running between Glasgow and a terminal near Wormwood Scrubs with a link to Heathrow nine miles away, and that suggests a contradiction at the heart of the concept.

As reader Stephen Thwaites, highlighted in a well-argued letter in the previous issue of Rail, connecting the high speed line with Heathrow seems to be pandering to the needs of the aviation industry rather than meeting those of the railways. As Mr Thwaites points out, surely Crossrail as well as an extended Heathrow Express, would serve the airport well without a high speed line. And the notion that people would have to trek out to Wormwood Scrubs – which has no Tube connection – to take a train to Scotland is pure fantasy, and the cost of providing a link to central London would add substantially to the cost.

As I have expressed before, I am worried that the HS2 is being used as a sop to the opponents of Heathrow’s third runway within the government. HS2, as Lord Adonis has admitted, will not replace many flights. There are already excellent train services to Paris, Brussels and Manchester from central London and yet there are still numerous flights to all these destinations, aimed at transfer passengers. The idea that the whole high speed project should be geared to providing services for this small minority of users is fundamentally flawed. Alternatively if HS2 is designed to help people reach the airports, it seems to defeat the purpose. An HS2 predicated on the continued growth of aviation cannot be justified in environmental terms.

As to my wider doubts about the scheme, I was very taken by a comment piece in The Times which raised several of the issues that have made me sceptical about the value of a high speed line. In an his piece published on April 6, Ross Clark makes the telling point that building the line using vast amounts of taxpayers money would only be worthwhile if an ‘unemployed Glaswegian electrician’ could afford to pay the fare to come up to London to seek employment. Otherwise, he suggests, every penny spent would be better invested on improving existing rail services which, he argues, are becoming largely unaffordable to people on low incomes.

It is a good argument, and one I have made before. The subsidy for the railways is not targeted sufficiently – or indeed at all – to people in the lower income brackets and a high speed line might well exacerbate that imbalance. Indeed, it could be argued that support for the railways is of great benefit to the middle classes while the poor suffer on buses which proportionately receive far less state money. Mr Clark argues that ‘if we are going to subsidise rail travel, every penny spent must be subject to a public benefit test’. He points out that Alistair Darling scrapped several worthwhile tram schemes that would have had a great regenerative effect, because of the supposed failings of schemes in Birmingham and Sheffield. Yet, these would have been far more likely to help people on low incomes than a high speed line.

The danger is that less sexy but nevertheless very important projects such as electrification, the Intercity Express Programme, Thameslink and basic improvements will get delayed or cancelled as resources are diverted to HS2. With Lord Adonis, who is genuinely committed to the railways, in charge, that will not happen, but once he goes, as seems pretty certain next year (he has publicly refuted the idea that he could serve under a different government despite spending an hour chatting to David Cameron at a recent launch), it is doubtful that an equally powerful rail minister would emerge to protect these schemes and push through HS2.

The way that the concept is expanding, becoming ever more expensive, increases this risk. There is talk of building in extra capacity, of trains running at 360 km/h rather than 300 and of carrying freight, all of which will add substantially to costs. This is how projects get killed off – they become so enormous that at the first opportunity – or the first hint of the need for economies – they are presented as uneconomic and ditched. Certainly these seems to be massive project creep here.

Above all, ministers have to come clean about the purpose and effects of the line. Despite my scepticism, I would like the case for a high speed line to be genuinely assessed along in a very rigorous way. Therefore, here is a list of ten questions that I would like to see answered comprehensively before a decision on its construction is made:

1. What is the precise carbon footprint of the high speed line, taking into account that many of its future travellers may previously have used conventional rail and that the carbon consumption of motoring is likely to improve?

2. What is the thinking behind going to Heathrow – discouraging people from flying or giving better access to the airport?

3. What is the expected reduction in flights as a result of the line?

4. Is the government prepared to use its fiscal powers to encourage people to use rail rather than aviation, and would such measures run into trouble with the European Commission.

5. How will the fares on the line be determined and will there be subject to any government regulation?

6. Will the line be expected to make a return on capital?

7. Will the line be expected to meet all its operating costs and if not will the government guarantee to pay them ad infinitum?

8. Can it be guaranteed that building the line will not detract from investment and improvements for the rest of the network?

9. What percentage of the initial cost will be provided by the private sector, and how will it gain a return on its investment?

10. Will the line be available to open access operators, as required by EU law, and will this push up the costs of providing a comprehensive service?

Security barriers – the real reason emerges

Lord Adonis has endorsed very strongly the concept of barriers at main line stations, despite the widespread opposition to the proposed schemes at York and Sheffield. He uses the argument of revenue protection although, as opponents point out, the barriers only guarantee that people buy a ticket to the nearest station and then can exit from any unprotected station. As it is clear that barriers result in a reduction of on train checks, then the revenue protection argument seems to fall apart.

But the real reason has emerged, and it is that great big gorilla, ‘security’. A document produced by National Express to justify the installation of barriers at York station gives the game away. It says: ‘Once commissioned, the ticket gates become the single point of entry to the rail side of stations. Following the 7/7 attacks, there is a requirement to have CCTV coverage of entry and exit points to stations in order to achieve identification and/or recognition standards, a spread of coverage on both sides of the gate line as gates are bidirectional.’

Therefore, the government is now seeking to be able to identify anyone getting in and out of a station. Of course, this is nonsense as not all 2,500 stations will be covered. Moreover, talking to a security expert who was giving a paper on station security at a recent conference I chaired, it is clear that the technology for identifying people on CCTV is still not available. Identification is, however, helped if people are funnelled through a barrier as they a good picture is more likely to be obtained. So yet again, security is being used both as a barrier to train travel and to our civil liberties.

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