This will be a make or break year for HS2. If there is good progress in the committee stage of the Bill and no unpleasant surprises for its promoters, the odds will be stacked in favour of the scheme. If, on the other hand, there are further mishaps like the despatch of tens of thousands of letters to householders warning mistakenly that their homes will have to be compulsorily purchased or if Labour begins to set out more fundamental doubts, then the scheme is in for a bumpy year despite the optimism expressed by my friend Ben Ruse, the new communications man for HS2, in the last issue of Rail.
Yet, it is also a time of missed opportunities. The two sides in the debate are entrenched, with no one looking for the ideal compromise or even the ideal railway for the future. HS2 is a flawed scheme but is presented as the only game in town despite all the private misgivings of many who want to see a high speed network.
My principal concern about HS2 has always been that the scheme was devised without any real context, either in terms of the country’s transport needs or the existing railway. Even some of its most fervent supporters recognise that this is a fundamental weakness. The attempts to justify the route and the design of the line at 400 kph have always been unconvincing.
So too has been the new emphasis on capacity rather than speed. A Freedom of Information request has revealed that on a typical autumn weekday, there remains plenty of spare capacity for both suburban and long distance services at all times. Moreover, numbers arriving and departing at Euston were pretty much the same in 2012 as they were in 2011 which suggests that the demand forecasts of 2.5 per cent which is used to justify HS2 is optimistic. The availability of extra capacity is particularly marked on off peak suburban services where only around a third of places are filled. This is important because with changing work patterns and the premium charging structures for peak travel, it may well be that there will be a move towards much more off peak travel.
Other aspects have continued to trouble me. As the response to the second section of HS2 by Railfuture argues, the location of stations is clearly designed to minimise cost rather than improve accessibility. People do not like to travel to parkway stations as demonstrated the unpopularity of those such as Avignon on the French TGV network and yet the HS2 designers have put forward out of town stations serving Sheffield, Birmingham, Nottingham and Derby. Rail’s key advantage is as a form of city centre to city centre transport and therefore the out. HS1 clearly does not have the right pattern of stations. Indeed, unlike HS2 it probably has too many since Stratford International will never become International and Ebbsfleet International, too, risks breaking the Trade Descriptions Act.
Therefore, I greatly welcome a new contribution to the debate by a pair of experienced railway engineers, Quentin Macdonald and Colin Eliff who have published a very detailed plan, High Speed UK (www.highspeeduk.co.uk), for a much more interconnected high speed network. Their objection to HS2 is that ‘it does very little to improve the network, and merely concentrates connectivity on London’. That is spot on. The supporters of the line in the midlands and north who think that this is a project that will improve their local economies are deluding themselves.
Indeed, HS2 is being designed almost as a separate railway. This is well demonstrated by the crazy plan to partly use rolling stock that would not be compatible with the classic rail network which will make interchange with existing services even more difficult. HS2 as presently designed will do little to improve connectivity for the vast majority of towns and cities in the UK, apart from the few lucky enough to have a station.
Therefore, the pair suggest a far more interconnected network. First, they ditch Old Oak Common, which stupidly was an original part of the remit and therefore limited potential routes, which then opens up an alternative route that is no longer Y shaped and runs largely along the M1 corridor. They have then designed a scheme which improves links between most city pairs: Eliff says: ‘There are 528 city pairs in the UK and links are improved in only 6 per cent by HS2 whereas in our scheme almost all, 498 – or 94 per cent – , will have better journey times.’ Therefore, rather than building the equivalent of a motorway, High Speed UK has devised a dual carriageway serving the whole country. Moreover, they claim it would be cheaper as there would be fewer miles of new line and be deliverable in a shorter time scale.
The pair argue: ‘The core principles of integration (rather than segregation), a less extreme design speed, and focus upon existing transport corridors, are diametrically opposed to those of HS2 – and on any comparator that I (or any other impartial observer) can draw, HSUK works better, by an order of magnitude.’ I like this idea because it is much more holistic and inclusive than the HS2 proposal. It has been developed, like Germany’s high speed network, as an adjunct to the existing railway rather than a quasi replacement for it. It is, as the pair say, not a route but a network, an entirely different philosophy which is much more in keeping with railway history and usage.
I wish, therefore, that the supporters of HS2 would start admitting to the failings of the existing proposals and work to change them. The sheer madness of designing a 400 kph route, that needs two stations in London and two in Birmingham with nothing in between makes no logical sense, and the supporters of the scheme should admit that. They should admit, too, that a scheme that delivers no CO2 benefits but costs £42bn plus rolling stock (or whatever) is not sustainable or desirable in the context of climate change. As a betting man, I think the HS2 scheme at the moment has a 60 – 40 chance of going ahead but the issues have been so polarised that the supporters will not admit to key failings like those highlighted by the work of the High Speed UK pair.
David Higgins who has just taken over as chairman appears to be open to new ideas as when appearing at the Commons Transport Committee, he seemed prepared to consider starting in the north, which would require a completely different Parliamentary timetable. Of course with the Bill published it will not be easy but it should not be too late to make significant changes. As Sir Peter Hall the illustrious planner said in the quote I used the last time I wrote about HS2 in Rail 737: ‘HS2 represents a great strategic vision and will almost certainly be needed one day. The key question is what day.’ There is not as much hurry as the politicians argue. It would be so much better to get it right.
More foreign travel
I travelled from London to Bressanone in north east Italy using trains from four different countries. The contrast was fascinating especially at Brenner, the pass between Austria and Italy where mostly one has to change trains by walking along the same platform. While Italy does have fabulous new trains on its main spine, with even rival high speed services, its regional services are operated by old locomotive hauled trains – I love them but they are fairly ropey.
The contrast between the two trains could not be starker. The Austrian EMUs are new and extremely comfortable with all up to date display technology (though no plugs to charge mobile phones that I could find) and virtually no announcements except the automatic ones at each station (while the Italians have taken to making standard ones relating to security and having the right ticket!).
The City Night Line service overnight between Innsbruck and Paris was operated in fairly ageing Deutsche Bahn stock and it was a tight squeeze for 6 people in a sleeping compartment with luggage. Moreover, there was no proper breakfast available, only a ghastly collation of a packaged bun and a roll, with various bits and pieces of jam and processed cheese for 6 60 euros. As for Eurostar, the trains are definitely fuller these days and are in dire need of the refurbishment which they are getting soon. As for the price, at a bit under £200, it was more expensive than the no-frills airlines even taking into account a transfer costing at least £30 but nevertheless most definitely worth it. A train journey is part of the holiday, whereas a flight is part of the price of getting away.