High speed could be expensive distraction from existing railway

Towards the end of this month, we will get the government’s White Paper based on the work by the HS2 team which will set out a route between London and Birmingham down to the last few inches. Everyone apparently wants a high speed line. The Tories, the Libdems and belatedly Labour have all embraced the idea. Environmentalists say it will be green, the CBI says it will be good for the economy and the unions reckon it will create jobs.

 There is much excitement among the media stimulated by squabbling between various towns in the Midlands and the North about where a line should go. The Sunday Times even ran a story complaining that the Tories had not funded the line north of Leeds and therefore it might not even go to Scotland.

 It looks, therefore, like a no-brainer. Given the political consensus and the universal approval, what can stop it? Well, actually, lots and the idea that the line could be built without serious damaging effects on the rest of the rail network is fanciful.

 The whole project is being caught up in its own hype and a reality check is urgently needed. Lets first put the overblown story in the Sunday Times to rest. The story is about a line which will not even start to be built until 2015, with a completely unquantified cost and- except you can be sure it will be more than any number so far quoted – and a purpose which has never been properly specified. The line, at best, would not reach Scotland till 2025. Yet, here they are getting up a head of steam over the details of something that may or may not happen in fifteen years time. That is like much of the coverage of HS2, quite literally much ado about nothing.

 The Tories are partly to blame. They claim that their proposal is fully funded and worked out. It is, wait for it, a line that will go from London, probably via Heathrow, to Birmingham, Manchester and then through the Pennines to Leeds. That is complete madness. If the line had an L shape, and stopped in the intermediary cities, it would hardly be faster than the existing two hour service between Leeds and London. It’s a typical politician’s plan, trying to include everyone but unable to stand up to rigorous analysis.

 Moreover, the Tories plan to fund the line partly through the private sector which will only make the scheme more expensive since it has no hope of being commercially viable. But even they admit that £15bn out of the supposed £20bn cost will have to come from the public sector, or £1.3bn per year during the 12 year construction period.

 Even if assuming that these figures are not underestimates, this shows the real danger of a high speed line. There is no way that it would be built without demands being made on the existing rail budget. During a 12 year period, there is almost bound to be an economic downturn and halfway through construction it would be impossible to cut back on the construction costs as the contracts would be let. This is not a zero sum game. The money for investing in the high speed line would ultimately come out of the budget for the maintenance and improvement of existing lines, especially in hard times.

 HS2 therefore represents a significant threat to the existing railway. You only have to go to France to see that while the TGV services are undoubtedly wonderful and far better than any services on this side of the Channel, their lignes classiques are characterised in many places by old trains, irregular services and rundown stations. France’s investment in high speed lines has been at the cost of the old railway.

 There are plenty of other reasons why a high speed line is unlikely to be built, Its environmental credentials are dubious, the state of the economy is unlikely to warrant it, rising energy prices will impact on the railway and new technology may well reduce the need for business travel.

 The focus of the investment programme should, therefore, be on improving and adapting the existing railway. Given that load factors on the railways are still load, except at peak times, there is plenty of spare capacity. You only have to look at the vast empty spaces in first class at most times of the day to realise that.

 Indeed, abolishing first class would create a vast amount of extra capacity, far more cheaply than building a new line. If capacity is the main problem, then investment needs to be targeted at bottlenecks. The priorities for the investment programme beyond 2014 has just been examined by the Commons Transport Committee in a report published on February 15. The report highlights the fact that investment in railways is currently at a historic high and most of that is untouchable because it is committed in Network Rail’s current five year plan. Rightly, the committee warns that the next five year period, starting in 1914 is likely to be much tighter and says that this requires prioritisation.

 That is undoubtedly right and my instinct is that the railway must focus on modest but significant schemes – infilling electrification, reopening lines on the cheap through the use of development money, boosting capacity by clever pathing and maximising use of existing track, reducing costs of running branch lines through flexible arrangements and so on.

 This may sound unexciting and modest but it isn’t. Quite the opposite. The railways could be operated far more efficiently than at the moment, and spending money on bottlenecks and small scale schemes could lead to radical improvements.

 There must, though, be room for some major schemes. By 2014, London will have benefitted from a huge proportion of the investment in the railways – Thameslink, Crossrail, HS1 commuter services, East London Line, the PPP on the Underground and so on. So rightly, the MPs – who of course have vested interests but never mind that – are seeking to see major schemes such as electrifying the Midland Main Line and improving the Manchester hub which has become a major bottlenecks.

 The railway is going through a fantastic period of investment which is bound to be cut back once these large schemes start to come on stream. After such a bonanza, it would be unrealistic to expect that a north south high speed line could be built without detracting from much-needed investment programmes. Sure there is a potential capacity problem, but it is not big enough to justify a scheme costing upwards of £30 billion. Let’s focus on Britain’s lignes classiques and forget the pipedream.

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