What’s the point of High Speed 2 ?Christian Wolmar

To counter the objections, the case for HS2 needs to be overwhelming. And it is not.

Christian is one of the UK’s leading commentators on transport matters. He broadcasts frequently on radio and TV and is a regular pundit on the national news bulletins of terrestrial channels and Sky. Among his numerous feature TV appearances, he has been on Coast, Julia Bradbury’s Railway Walks and the railway programmes presented by Ian Hislop and Michael Portillo, and more recently the series on BBC4 about how the railways made modern Britain. Although he mainly concentrates on transport matters, he has covered many other social policy issues and has written on a wide range of subjects, from cricket to the Private Finance Initiative.

Read Wolmar’s 2014 paper in the London Review of Books. Some points follow (hyperlinks added):

Jim Steer, the former chief railway planner at the Strategic Rail Authority and founder of the transport consultancy Steer Davies Gleave, believes the project is essential for Britain’s future welfare. ‘Do you know what the population of Britain will be in 2085?’ he asks, and then answers his own question: ‘85 million. Where will all those people go? London can only accommodate a couple of million or so. The rest will have to be elsewhere. If we are to avoid terrible sprawl, they must be concentrated in cities and those cities must have excellent connections with London.’ Without HS2, Steer argues, the green belt and vast swathes of unprotected countryside will have to be developed. If provision isn’t made for rail, then people will be forced onto the roads. ‘HS2 is all about capacity, not speed,’ he says, ‘and that should have been made clear from the start.’

The issue is whether the pain inflicted on the few is worth the gain for the many. The fate of the HS2 project should not and cannot be determined by angry locals. A national scheme now estimated to cost £50 billion (this figure includes a contingency of £14 billion and rolling-stock costs of around £7 billion) is bound to be controversial.

High Speed Rail 1

HS1, which opened fully in 2007, has now been sold on a 30-year lease to a Canadian pension fund for £2.1 billion, a mere third of the cost of construction. The terrible economics explain why there has never been any talk of HS2 being built by private interests, or even of its attracting significant private investment. It was expected to carry 25 million international passengers by 2006: it reached ten million just last year. The excuse given by the original forecasters, Steer included, is that the emergence of low-cost airlines damped down demand, but that merely shows how vulnerable to unexpected developments such growth forecasts can be.

High Speed Rail 2

In 2006, Jim Steer set up a lobbying organisation called Greengauge 21, which sent out a manifesto calling for a high-speed line to every MP. The following year, HS1 opened, exposing the fact that while France, Italy, Spain and Germany all had extensive high-speed networks, Britain had no plans for any new lines.

The Tories sprang a surprise at the 2008 party conference when Theresa Villiers, the shadow secretary of state for transport, announced that the party would support the construction of a north-south high-speed line.

The proposed scheme was a strange one, an S-shaped line that would go from London via Birmingham to Manchester and then across the Pennines to Leeds (which would be reached in much the same time as the present two and a quarter hours). The line was to operate at 400 kph – which means few curves and low gradients – and had to emphasise connections to Heathrow. Given these constraints, the only viable route was via Old Oak Common, six miles west of Euston, where the line could connect with Crossrail, the east-west route through London currently under construction. ​ From there, it would continue to a station near Birmingham Airport, with a spur to a new terminus at Curzon Street, almost a mile from the present station at New Street.

If there are no major setbacks and the political parties hold firm, construction is expected to start in 2017. The second phase, north of Birmingham, will be the subject of a further hybrid bill and will not be completed until 2033.

Andrew Adonis, in making his case for the scheme, emphasised the economic and environmental benefits, the speeding up of services and the need for extra capacity to reduce overcrowding. Much of this reasoning has since unravelled.

The environmental argument lost

First to go was the environmental argument. The original document which set out the scheme – High Speed Rail, published in March 2010 – estimated the potential change in carbon emissions over the next sixty years resulting from a high-speed line from London to the West Midlands at between -25 million tonnes and +26.6 million tonnes. In other words, the line was as likely to increase carbon consumption as reduce it. The reasons for this disappointing result are that 57 per cent of travellers would be shifting from conventional rail, which uses less fuel, and that a further 27 per cent of journeys would be generated by the existence of the line. Only 16 per cent would transfer from car or plane, which are potentially environmentally more damaging – though cars are becoming increasingly fuel efficient, a factor the document did not take into account.

John Whitelegg is adamantly opposed. ‘The whole project is characterised by overblown rhetoric about economic growth,’ Whitelegg wrote in 2012, ‘reducing the north-south divide and making the nation more prosperous. It is of course nothing like this at all. It is a very expensive, very environmentally damaging, very badly thought through transport project.’ Given that it would be used mainly by people in the 50% tax bracket, he added, it was a ‘reverse Robin Hood strategy’.

The speed argument lost

With the environmental case gone, the scheme’s supporters in the early days tended to emphasise the speed of the line – a mere 49 minutes between London and Birmingham Curzon Street compared with 82 minutes on the fastest Virgin service. That was an own goal, as they now admit: £17 billion (at 2011 prices) is a lot to spend on cutting the journey-time to Birmingham by half an hour.

The capacity argument lost

Next, the scheme’s supporters turned to capacity. Anyone who has tried to get on a Pendolino to Birmingham or Manchester on a Friday night would take the point: there’s barely even room to stand. But this is the result of Virgin’s pricing policy, which charges premium fares on trains leaving Euston before 6.46 p.m.: a single ticket to Manchester at peak time is £113; an off-peak ticket bought in advance can be as little as £19. The truth is that the line is not overcrowded. Data obtained by Chris Stokes, a consultant and former network director at the Strategic Rail Authority with responsibility for assessing new lines, show that long-distance trains leaving Euston were on average 52 per cent full at the evening peak.

Projected growth in demand: we have been here before with HS1

The case therefore boils down to growth in demand. HS2 Ltd used very optimistic forecasts: an overall increase in passenger numbers on the InterCity routes out of Euston of 267% by 2033. Half of this is based on an underlying trend rate of 2.2% annually – if no line were built – and the rest on new passengers, either making journeys they wouldn’t have made otherwise, or switching from other modes of transport. It is true that passenger numbers have doubled in the past twenty years. On the West Coast mainline, a £9 billion upgrade and Virgin’s introduction of the new Pendolino trains and more frequent services have, indeed, resulted in a rate of increase in passenger numbers higher than on the rest of the network. Steer notes that rail’s share of long-distance journeys – those over 25 miles – went up from 8% to 14% between 1996 and 2012, as taxes on company cars were increased, car ownership in London declined and it became easier to use mobile devices on trains.

However, to extrapolate this growth over the next twenty years is optimistic in the extreme, according to Stokes: ‘I believe there will be significant growth in rail demand,’ he says, ‘but if it’s half the amount forecast by HS2 – still more than double present levels – the business case for HS2 would collapse, as the scale of the benefits delivered directly relates to passenger volumes.’ We have been here before with HS1.

It is in the assessment of the benefits that the voodoo economics come into play

The benefits are taken to consist largely of time-savings made by users, which are given a monetary value. So an hour’s time saved by a rail passenger is valued at £36.96; for the occupant of a taxi it is £44.69, while an hour of a cyclist’s time is worth only £17. More than two-thirds of the assumed benefits come from these time-savings, which completely disregard the time that people now spend productively on trains with the help of their mobile phones and laptops. Indeed, I have written large chunks of this article on a Pendolino, and could have got more of it done that way had the journey been longer, which suggests that the time I saved by taking a fast service might even have been negative.

Most of the rest of the benefits consist of ‘wider economic impacts’: businesses do better, the argument goes, when they are closer together because of economies of scale and easier access to markets.

Even when these assumptions about time-savings and economic impact are granted, the business case has struggled to reach the minimum benefit-cost ratio of 2 demanded by the Department for Transport. The ratio has declined slightly as HS2 Ltd has refined the scheme; it is currently reckoned to be 2.7, and just 1.7 if only the line to the West Midlands is taken into consideration. This is poor in relation to road schemes, which routinely have a benefit-cost ratio twice as high, and well below flood-prevention schemes, which, as Chris Smith, chairman of the Environment Agency, highlighted during the recent crisis, required a benefit-cost ratio of at least 8 to be sanctioned by the Treasury. And all this is leaving aside the dependence of the HS2 business case on the accuracy of the growth forecast.

Henry Overman, professor of economic geography at the LSE, was once a paid adviser to the scheme. ‘HS2 is poor value for money compared with other transport plans,’ he wrote in the Daily Telegraph on 16 November 2013, ‘and may well be poor value for money compared with alternatives that address exactly the same set of problems. If politicians understand all of this and decide to go for HS2 anyhow, then that is their call and we can hold them to account at the ballot box. What worries me, as I watch the debate, is that they seem convinced that the evidence suggests that HS2 is a fantastic project …

Faced with a well-organised opposition and, worse, a growing general scepticism, the supporters of the project have begun to fight back. In January David Higgins, former head of the Olympic Delivery Authority and more recently the chief executive of Network Rail, was appointed as chairman of HS2. Higgins, an Australian and an engineer, was no doubt drawn by the excitement of another grand project after the day-to-day banalities of railway management, the intricacies of regulation and the constant pressure over performance.

He immediately pinched a couple of people from Network Rail: Simon Kirby, who was in charge of major projects (including huge station renewals at Birmingham, Reading and London Bridge), and Tom Kelly, a communications strategist versed in the dark arts – he was Alistair Campbell’s successor at Number Ten. Higgins undertook a review of the project and the results, in the form of a new document, HS2 Plus, were presented on 17 March in the gothic gloom of Manchester Town Hall.

The emphasis had shifted. There was no more talk of fast journey times or environmental benefits. Instead, as the venue for the launch demonstrated, the new sell is that the scheme will reduce the north-south divide.

David Higgins suggested that the first phase of the scheme should no longer stop at Birmingham but go on to Crewe, where a station should be built to improve interconnectivity between northern towns.

Second, he suggested scrapping the link between HS2 and HS1, for two reasons: the ridiculous £700 million cost for a few miles of railway between Old Oak Common and Camden, and because part of it would have to run along the North London line, a highly successful commuter and freight track recently revamped at huge cost.

This decision rather undermines one of the fundamental reasons for HS2. Without the European connection, travellers to the Continent will have to trudge half a mile along the Euston Road, or possibly stand on a long travelator – though the British Library inconveniently blocks the way. The prospect might be enough to deter the few people – even HS2 Ltd reckoned there would be only a handful of trains a day linking cities north of London with the Continent – who would choose to go by train rather than fly, say, between Birmingham and Brussels.

The fundamental problem with HS2 is that its origin as a sop to environmentalists, not as a considered response to need, has skewed its development and planning.

In a rational world, the process would have started with an assessment of the rail network’s needs and, in particular, of the existing connections between towns. There has been no shortage of alternative suggestions from within the industry. Two experienced engineers, Quentin Macdonald and Colin Elliff, have published a very detailed plan, High Speed UK.

Their objection to HS2 is that ‘it does very little to improve the network, and concentrates connectivity on London.’ The high-speed network, in their view, should be an adjunct to the existing railway rather than a quasi-replacement for it. It should be designed as a network, not a route, an entirely different philosophy much more in keeping with railway history and usage. Elliff and Macdonald would ditch Old Oak Common and instead open up a route that runs largely along the M1 corridor.

Their scheme would improve links between pairs of cities. ‘There are 528 city pairs in the UK,’ Elliff says, ‘and links are improved in only 6% by HS2 whereas in our scheme almost all, 498 – or 94% – of them will have better journey times.’

It is probably too late for such a radical alternative to be put forward. If the present scheme were killed off, it is unlikely that it would be because a better one were being considered.

There are few objective analysts of HS2. On the one side there is the large group of consultants, engineers, project managers and so on who stand to gain directly from it. On the other side are those who have the most to lose or are, like the Institute of Directors, sceptical of large-scale government projects.

One impartial analyst is Peter Hall, Britain’s best-known planning academic. He thinks the scheme should be given an amber light. In an article in Built Environment published late last year, he wrote that the future of HS2 depended on two critical elements, the value of time spent on the train and its ‘wider economic impacts’. The case for regeneration is uncertain, he says, and requires much further analysis. He concludes that there is no need for urgency ‘either to proceed with the project or to cancel it’. HS2 ‘will almost certainly be needed one day. The key question is what day? … there could be no harm, and a great deal of merit, in waiting’ 

Christian Wolmar reaffirmed his opposition to HS2 on August 1st, 2017, here: http://www.christianwolmar.co.uk/2017/08/why-i-remain-opposed-to-hs2-response-to-ian-walmsley/




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