Rail 640: High speed line is a matter of faith – and I don’t have it

Despite my name, I have never been a religious person and therefore I find the concept of ‘faith’ rather difficult. When I visit one of those majestic richly decorated cathedrals in Italy, I long to want to cast away my scepticism and join in with the hordes crossing themselves and kneeling in front of statues of Jesus being crucified. But I can’t.

 And for the same reason, I find it difficult to sign up to the idea that Britain needs a high speed line between London and Birmingham, and beyond despite Lord Adonis’s enthusiastic evangelism. I desperately want to believe, but I remain to be convinced by the arguments of its supporters which appear based on the same unscientific reasoning as religious faith. I am though, to continue the metaphor, on the steps of the Church admiring the portico and the gargoyles reaching out of their cornices because there is no doubt that the report by the HS2 team and the government’s response are both impressive documents which tempt me in the same way as does the prospect of an eternal afterlife in heaven.

 There is possibly just a slight suggestion that Lord Adonis and the government may be wavering in their commitment. Originally, we were promised that the Government would issue a White Paper in response to the HS2, which means a statement of government policy. Instead we got a Command Paper. The difference, I’m told by the Department, is that ‘a White Paper, implies a fixed policy while this Command Paper sets out the Government’s response to the report presented by HS2 Ltd at the end of last year’. That suggests just a moment’s hesitation before opening the church door.

 While the HS2 team cannot be faulted for the way they went about their analysis, the case for a high speed line rests on various optimistic assumptions about the way that the economy, and concomitantly demand for transport, will grow. The HS2 team assessed the line in terms of five factors. The first two, ‘providing new passenger capacity’ and ‘creating faster journeys’ are obviously axiomatic, while the other three ‘encouraging modal shift’, ‘improving connectivity’ and ‘supporting regeneration and growth’ are all highly likely results from the construction of a high speed line.

 In the light of this, to convince the great unwashed like myself that HS2 is a good idea, the analysis had first to establish that there would be demand for the line. The second hurdle was to prove that there was a business case for the line – and a better one than for any alternative ways of meeting that increase in demand such as improving existing rail lines – and the third that it would be an environmentally friendly solution.

 The first issue is the most crucial one, and one which the report rather skates because its authors simply assume that growth will continued as before. In fact, the demand for services on the line is almost impossible to assess with any degree of accuracy. Remember those all too optimistic assumptions about the use of the Channel Tunnel which should now have about twice as many people on Eurostar trains as there are today, and several times more freight.

 Yet, the supporters of the line, such as Lord Adonis, look at this problem in a linear way. Demand for transport has grown hand in hand with economic growth ever since the invention of the railways, they argue, and there is nothing to suggest that this will change.

 Leaving aside the rather uncomfortable fact that economic growth is going to be pretty sluggish, at best, for some time to come because of the recession, it is by no means axiomatic that this relationship will continue. First, there are possible technology developments, especially the universality of broadband, which may decouple the two. I concede that so far this has not happened, but the days when everyone has a high quality TV receiver with which they can converse easily with anyone similarly equipped in the world are not that far off. When we get there, will people still want to dash from London to Wigan for a two hour meeting?

 Secondly, there is the issue of price. One way of decoupling transport growth from economic growth would be if the cost of travel went up sharply. The likelihood is that we will reach peak oil at some stage between now and the earliest possible completion date for the line, 2027, and this will have an impact on all modes of transport. Of course, supporters will argue that the trains will be powered by renewable energy sources or nuclear, but it is highly unlikely that all the energy could be generated in this way. Therefore, the price of energy is undoubtedly going to be a damper on transport demand.

 Moreover, the Treasury, which is going to have to stump up the majority of the £30bn cost – and of course it will be more, it always is – will demand its ha’ppenworth. Already, Kent commuters are having to pay a premium to travel on the Javelin trains on HS1 as well as having had to put up with fares rises of 3 per cent above inflation in recent years all at the Treasury’s insistence. It is certain, therefore, that high speed would require a premium fare, damping down demand.

 While the HS2 team have attempted to analyse all this dispassionately, the methodology is crude in the utmost. I have numerous times ranted on about the simplistic notion of  Benefit Cost ratios where most of the presumed benefits are time savings for individuals using the service. The report is, of course, entirely based on this methodology and just to show how nonsensical it is, look at how the project team worked out that it was not worth having a stop between Birmingham and Old Oak Common. The HS2 report suggest that there might be as many as 8.7m passengers per year using a station in the morning peak at Milton Keynes and that this would be worth £2.6bn in time savings. Yet, because other passengers would be inconvenienced by five minutes, that would be a disbenefit of £800m if three trains per hour stopped there.

 Now clearly there would still be a net benefit, so the authors of the report then say, well there might not be any empty seats available by the time the trains reached Milton Keynes and also there would be the loss of one train path per hour. So they have ruled it out. I use this example to show that these ‘business cases’ can really be used to justify anything and if they do not give the right results, then other factors are brought in. It is an art, not a science and why my initial point about faith is apposite.

. As another example, the benefit cost ratio of the scheme to Birmingham is reckoned to be 2.4 and a high speed line all the way to Scotland is ruled out whereas the Network Rail assessment published last year – see my article in Rail  626 – reckoned the benefit cost ratio would be negative unless the line went to Scotland.

 If Lord Adonis is somewhat too evangelistic in his approach, the Tories’ attitude is barely comprehensible. While they deserve credit for having put the issue of a high speed line on the political agenda, they now seem to be running scared about what they have unleashed. Theresa Villiers, the shadow transport spokeswoman, first of all refused to look at the HS2 report before it was published on the basis that she would be compromised and then, ridiculously, argued it was not ambitious enough before she even had a proper chance to read it, because the line did not go to Heathrow, which was always a red herring. Then to persist with the ludicrous notion that the line should go from London to Leeds via Birmingham and Manchester seems to betray an ignorance about the basic geography of England. This is the political equivalent of throwing away a three goal lead at half time.

 Ultimately, the most remarkable aspect of this announcement is the politics, and the distance we have travelled in so short a time. It was little noticed – apart from by the ever alert motoring lobby – that Lord Adonis ruled out any prospect of new inter urban motorways. In fact, the last, the M40, was completed twenty years ago and there isn’t really any room for any more on our tiny island. But the fact that the transport secretary felt able to rule out the prospect of any more, at the risk of antagonising the motoring lobby, demonstrates the extent to which things have changed. Whether, though, we have to accept that transport prices will have to rise and demand be damped down, or whether we, as a society, decide that increased mobility remains a crucial to our economy will determine whether a high speed line is built or not.

  Despite all my reservations, I have to commend the work of HS2 and the speed with which it has been carried out. This, frankly, should have been done a decade or two ago, when perhaps the decision over whether to proceed may have been more clearcut. The most fascinating aspect of the analysis is the argument that to get the extra capacity, a new line is a better option than improving existing lines. That hypothesis requires more testing, but the initial argument as set out in the document is impressive.

 On the other hand, the weakest aspect of the case is the ‘green’ argument which virtually falls apart. The report gives a range of possible results for carbon emissions, suggesting they are broadly neutral – the range is from minus 25 million tonnes of CO2 to plus 26 million tonnes over 60 years – hardly a compelling argument for the greenness of the line. Remarkably, in the worst case, there may be no carbon benefits from people transferring from either air or car!

 Therefore, whether to go ahead or not is, I’m afraid, remains a matter of faith. Lord Adonis has it and I don’t but I will not close my mind to it as more information comes to light and a possibly stronger case for the line emerges.

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