Thursday, 30 January 2014

Northern rail passengers should welcome High Speed 2

Manchester Metrolink's expansion shows that high-quality rail infrastructure in northern England can be funded and delivered successfully.
When the first trams in decades rolled into the town centre of Oldham on the morning of January 27, the North West Green Party was there to meet them, with a couple of activists bedecked in rosettes handing out leaflets. ‘Cancel the wasteful High Speed 2!’ these pamphlets blared, exhorting instead increased spend on unspecified ‘local’ rail projects instead.

The irony of the Green Party traipsing to Oldham’s shiny new light rail alignment was seemingly lost on its pamphlet writers, since the £1.7bn expansion of Greater Manchester’s Metrolink light rail network is a tangible embodiment of the HS2 philosophy – a strong reliance on new-build infrastructure and rolling stock, a mix of new and reopened route alignments, and operating principles borrowed heavily from international best practice. Essentially, the objective is ‘do what works’.

Depressingly, some of the most high-profile calls for HS2 funding to be diverted towards ‘the north’ have come from London. This, of course, has much more to do with ridding affluent quarters of north London and the Home Counties of the spectre of construction work than with an altruistic desire to help passengers in Scarborough or Southport. But, as this blog has noted before, it is local services (those with the lowest yield and greatest reliance on peak-hour patronage, when more passengers are paying full fares) which suffer most when rail capacity becomes scarce.

Hence why – as Shadow Rail Minister Lillian Greenwood pointed out in a House of Commons debate on HS2 earlier this month – the ill-fated £9bn West Coast Route Modernisation programme led to the closure of a score of local stations in rural Staffordshire, and why precious slots on the Stockport – Manchester corridor were taken from Mid-Cheshire Line trains and handed to Virgin expresses.

For those of us who advocate the development of regional railways across northern England and beyond, the notion that axing HS2 would improve the outlook for local rail spending needs to be debunked. Indeed, if northern rail travellers really want better access between a rural and post-industrial hinterland and a clutch of thriving cities, they should be egging on HS2. Why? Because HS2 brings more local rail capacity ‘bundled in’ with it.

Fortunately, policymakers across northern England have worked together over several years to campaign and finally secure a package of investment in rail infrastructure around Manchester (the Northern Hub) and gain a slice of the belated national programme of electrification. This is to be fervently welcomed, and it belies the claim (again, heard most vocally in London and the Chilterns) that HS2 is an ‘all or nothing’ scheme. In any case, a glance at the committed spending for the 2014-19 Control Period immediately confirms what a daft assertion this is.

But equally, Northern Hub is a relatively modest programme involving precious little actual construction of new or expanded railway assets. With a plan to reopen the Standedge tunnel apparently obviated by plans for electrification, the majority of the building work is now concentrated on Salford and Manchester, with the Ordsall Chord and two new platforms on the far western side of Piccadilly station. As Warrington Borough Council made clear in 2012, numerous questions remain about how and where the resulting capacity gains might be used, and just how bountiful they are going to be.

Electrification, meanwhile, is a long overdue intervention that will, over a multi-year timeframe, reduce the cost of operating any half-busy railway. That’s why both the Northwest Triangle and trans-Pennine schemes have been approved, and a taskforce is examining the potential for more routes to follow. But electrification alone has only a very marginal benefit in terms of rail capacity.

In practice, it seems inevitable that most of the benefits of the Northern Hub investment will be felt on the higher-volume Liverpool – Manchester – Leeds corridor, where notable speed and frequency enhancements are already in view. Some intermediate markets stand to benefit too – notably Huddersfield, whose MP, Barry Sheerman, is a noted HS2-sceptic. As an aside, it is strange that Sheerman has not yet voiced his fears over the Northern Hub ‘sucking business activity’ from his constituency to Leeds or Manchester, since its rationale of wider economic benefits is essentially the same as that for HS2.

Less clear are the tangible benefits for local trains on the same routes, already characterised by erratic stopping patters and elderly rolling stock. There is a risk that Flixton and Mossley passengers could face the same scrabble for access rights into Manchester and Leeds as their counterparts in mid-Cheshire already have. Why? Because any serious infrastructure spending dedicated to them has to overcome the hurdle that, typically, regional trains in northern England cover less than 40% of their fixed costs, compared to around 80% for commuter routes in the southeast. This isn’t a surprise: rail does not have as central a role in peak time travel outside London (more than two-thirds of all rail journeys are to or from the capital), and the local economy tends to preclude pricing that would alleviate this investment challenge.

Cancelling HS2 would not alter this paradigm, and it is naïve of the Green Party to suggest that it would. Leaving aside the inevitable reality that the £28bn target cost of HS2 would barely cover further WCRM-style upgrading of the three main lines to/from London, burdening our most cost-sensitive rail services with their own infrastructure overheads would only serve to render their economics more fragile, and risk alienating their ridership as well. Is that what the Green Party and others are really suggesting?

Capacity released by HS2 to enhance as broad a palette of regional services as possible is essential to enhance rail’s share of journeys to and from smaller towns across northern England. A more attractive frequency, timetable and journey time to hubs like Manchester and Leeds, plus interchanges with more reliable HS2-compatible inter-city services at places like York and Crewe, should put local rail on a more cost-effective footing. This hypothesis is not fantasy, either: local authorities in North and West Yorkshire have developed a business case for electrifying the Harrogate Loop line in which connections to HS2 at both Leeds and York feature prominently.

Unlike local rail services, Manchester Metrolink receives no operating subsidy, and as a result it has found it easier to secure funding, from local and national sources, for its capital programme. The Green Party is right to welcome Metrolink to Oldham, yet it appears not to understand how it got there.

Monday, 9 September 2013

HS2: PAC grandstanding obscures welcome scrutiny

The Nürnberg - Ingolstadt high speed line opened in 2006, as part of the phased construction of a high speed corridor between Berlin and Munich. Photo: S Telforth
In 1991, the German government unveiled a series of ‘national unity’ projects intended to stitch the country back together in the wake of the fall of the former DDR. Among them was a plan to link the re-crowned capital, Berlin, with Munich, economic powerhouse of the Land of Bavaria, by high speed railway. The ‘strategic case’? To ensure that the two cities shall be no more than 4 h apart by rail [1].

But what followed was not entirely a story of fabled Teutonic efficiency. Indeed, local opposition to new railway construction of any sort in Germany is usually vociferous, largely owing to concerns about the noise of freight trains. So it proved with the Berlin – Munich project, which proceeded piecemeal and narrowly survived cancellation on several occasions. Today, around 230 km is still under construction, requiring huge tunnelling efforts through the Thüringer Wald between Halle and Ebensfeld, north of Nürnberg. Completion of the corridor is not expected until the end of 2017 at the earliest, more than 25 years on from the first proposal.

But the continued backing of the federal government for such a locally-controversial programme offers an interesting insight into the ongoing debate over High Speed 2 in the UK. Connecting two of Germany’s most significant cities by international-class transport infrastructure is seen as an economic good in its own right; there was, as far as I can tell, no florid talk of ‘bringing Munich closer to Berlin’, or of ‘rebalancing’, and no pin-head procrastination about how much German business people work on trains.

Which brings us to more sub-tabloid hectoring from Margaret Hodge, the chair of the Public Accounts Committee, whose latest report into the preparations for the HS2 programme has just been issued. To be abundantly clear, this blog is not going to attempt to rebut the measured and valid questions raised by the National Audit Office and the related PAC report, which rightly scrutinises the Department for Transport and HS2 Ltd’s resources and their ability to navigate the project through the tricky Hybrid Bill process.

Especially important is the PAC report’s analysis of the significant contingency applied to HS2 in the current cost estimates, where PAC recommends that DfT ‘should allocate its allowance to specific risks to the programme’. The report also highlights issues of parliamentary timetabling, and DfT’s own resourcing and staffing levels. The latter matters acutely, since DfT and HS2 Ltd are required by the nature of the project to manage a raft of global engineering consultancies which are responsible for the basic design of the railway. If such designs prove to be over-ambitious (as they seemingly were for the first draft rebuild of London Euston), it is HS2 Ltd and DfT, not the consultancy, which gets it in the neck. This interface is worthy of further scrutiny, and PAC/NAO are well placed to do so.

But you wouldn’t know much about any of these details from the grandstanding comments from Ms Hodge issued alongside the report. Instead of sober analysis, we get a thinly-veiled rant which appears to lean rather too much on playing to the gallery. This is important, as it is these comments which have flown immediately into the press and, as a consequence, influenced public perception. Most heinous of these misapprehensions is the suggestion that ‘£50bn would be spent on rail investment in these constrained times’.

This is precisely the opposite of what the government proposes: the whole point of HS2 is to deliver long-term investment over numerous economic cycles, both constrained and otherwise. A funding stream of approximately £1.5bn per annum is already in place from the Crossrail programme; and indeed if Ms Hodge believes spending on transport infrastructure in a downturn is bad thing, where are her headline-grabbing quotes about the £21bn spent on main line rail projects in London in the 2008-18 period?

The government is belatedly adapting its message on HS2 to make more of the rail capacity benefits, which this blog has long viewed as the strongest argument with which to advocate the project. Clearly the government and those it has employed to disseminate this message have struggled to make headway in the wider media, but that shouldn’t excuse a serious failure to listen on the part of Ms Hodge and her colleagues. PAC recommends: ‘The government should publish detailed evidence why it considers High Speed 2 to be the best option for increasing rail capacity into London’ (my italics).

This is a remarkably inaccurate suggestion: HS2 is not purely a ‘London rail capacity project’, since – as I’ve just mentioned – we’ve got quite a few of those taking priority already, although it will benefit commuters using routes from the north into the capital. But equally pressing are capacity constraints elsewhere, notably south of Manchester, in the West Midlands and on key freight axes, all mentioned by this blog passim.

Lastly, we have the sadly predictable monomania about ‘the iPad businessman’. I’m happy to be corrected of course, but as far as I am aware there is no line in the HS2 Economic Appraisal that states ‘the government does not believe that people work on trains’. According to PAC’s report, the benefits of faster journeys to business travellers are based on a series of ‘simplified assumptions’ in line with international practice. PAC dismisses these assumptions as ‘absurd’ given advances in digital technology.

But PAC offers little or no explanation for its own rather extreme view. As transport consultancy SKM Colin Buchanan pointed out recently, it is surely not credible to suggest that working on trains is a particularly new phenomenon. Indeed, it seems a rash assumption indeed that the challenges of connecting to wi-fi, getting a data signal, or charging electronic devices have not some extent suppressed the supposed advantages of working onboard. That’s before we assess external factors such as pricing or overcrowding.

Of course, it is likely that these issues will have been largely resolved by the time HS2 opens in 2032-33, which suggests that updating the survey work now in this area would be of largely academic interest. More worrying on this occasion however is Ms Hodge’s assertion during a PAC hearing that she personally finds the train an ideal place to work. Bully for her, I say, but let us not pretend this is a sound basis for the deliberations of a parliamentary spending committee.

The often-emotive assertions attached to HS2’s status as a ‘high speed’ railway tend rather to overlook the reality that a conventional railway confers almost no benefit, not least because its capacity-enhancing effects would be much reduced, as would its ability to take share from domestic aviation on longer routes (HS2 Ltd estimates that 33% of all Anglo-Scottish journeys on HS2 would transfer from air). Nor is there any evidence to suggest that the long-established correlation between faster journeys and higher revenue is broken.

Both PAC and DfT should reconsider the importance attached to the issue of working on trains, lest we find ourselves endorsing a position where passengers ride trains purely to get some work done. A desire to know how often each passenger toggles between corporate and personal Twitter feeds cannot be allowed to stand in the way of the provision of international-standard transport infrastructure. If it does, PAC, and in particular its chairman, will be required to share some of the responsibility.
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1. See Railway Gazette International, September 2012, pp54-56.

Sunday, 7 July 2013

Mandelson is wrong on High Speed 2 – the ‘railway deserts’ are already here

This article appeared on politics.co.uk on July 5.

Maglev: dismissed by Sir Rod Eddington in favour of steel-wheel options.
A week or so before Lord Mandelson supposedly shattered the consensus on political backing for High Speed 2 on July 3, the planned inter-city railway between London, Birmingham and the North, some 1,200 business and community leaders in Blackpool signed a petition to demand reinstatement of rail services lost around a decade ago. At the same time, the Shropshire Star newspaper launched a similar campaign for Shrewsbury.

Why? Because Network Rail, which manages our existing railway infrastructure, had refused a request from train operator Virgin Rail Group to introduce direct services to both towns from London Euston, declaring that capacity for such services was unavailable. In any case, NR said, more trains on the trunk West Coast Main Line (the spine which connects London to Birmingham, Manchester, Liverpool and Glasgow) would lead to unacceptable unreliability.

The cases of Blackpool and Shrewsbury are not isolated examples of the capacity crunch our railway network faces. But they do graphically illustrate the limitations of the ‘patch and mend’ approach advocated by so many commentators as supposedly ‘better value’ than the HS2 proposals. The West Coast line was upgraded at enormous cost (officially £9bn) under a project lasting 11 years, most of them during the Blair administration. But despite the cost to taxpayers being twice that of the entire construction of the High Speed 1 link to the Channel Tunnel, the West Coast line is currently Britain’s least reliable. Worse still, upgrading work continues to complete investment deferred from the initial programme on cost grounds, meaning more disruption looms for the 40 million-plus passengers who use the route each year.

In contrast, HS2 injects capacity and reliability into rail services by serving up to 18 cities under current plans – it is not, and has never been, about getting from London to Birmingham a few minutes faster. Lord Mandelson appears to believe that Labour approved the HS2 concept on a whim, and that it may cause significant harm to local rail services in the regions; these would become ‘railway deserts’, he fears.

But recent history supports neither point. Contrary to widespread perception, Sir Rod Eddington in 2006 told the Transport Select Committee that his study of national transport strategy supported the case for a high speed railway ‘in the busiest corridors’, which he suggested to be London to Birmingham and Manchester, although he dismissed commercially-unproven options like ‘maglev’ technology.

Labour’s Transport Secretary Lord Adonis then started a meticulous planning process, including convening a global summit in London in 2009 to garner international expertise, which I attended. The coalition, meanwhile, has issued a number of strategic alternative analyses, which have assessed HS2 against various road and conventional rail investment options.

One of HS2’s greatest selling points is that gives us a once-in-a-generation opportunity to liberate our ageing railway network by using its capacity most effectively. It cannot be right, for example, that a £9bn ‘enhancement’ of the main line from London can result in the Cheshire town of Northwich losing two-thirds of its morning commuter trains to Manchester. Transport authorities across the Midlands and the North are itching for more capacity for local trains, and that is why they continue to give strong backing to HS2. Nowhere are cuts on the agenda – although if HS2 allows us more time to look after our ageing legacy railway, much of which is reliant of 19th century structures and alignments, then efficiency savings could follow. But railway deserts? Emphatically not.

The blunt truth is that there is no option which would allow us to spend the HS2 cash on ‘other stuff’. Upgrading our existing transport networks is unlikely to be any cheaper than building new, but it is unlikely to deliver even a fraction of the benefits. No crystal ball is required; the proof is there already.

Friday, 5 July 2013

Capacity arguments in favour of High Speed 2 still stand

This letter appeared in the Financial Times on July 4, in response to comments about the proposed High Speed 2 project in the newspaper the previous day.
The Mid-Cheshire Line has seen a reduction in direct commuter trains to Manchester since completion of the West Coast Route Modernisation in 2009.
Sir,

It is telling that your high-profile editorial package highlighting supposedly mounting opposition to High Speed 2 (July 3), led by comments from Lord Mandelson, makes little or no attempt to rebut the capacity arguments underpinning the project. Indeed, as your article makes clear, HS2 retains strong support in regional centres precisely because there is a recognition that the capacity issues we face on the rail network are intractable, and any infrastructure intervention intended to deliver long-term benefits is going to prove very expensive.

Lord Mandelson’s comments about the risk of creating ‘railway deserts’ are especially surprising, since analysis of recent history suggests that it is the policy of upgrading existing corridors which poses the more obvious threat to local services. It was his Labour government which oversaw the ill-starred upgrading of the West Coast Main Line from 1998 to 2009 at a cost of more than £9bn, the speed and capacity objectives of which have never been met, despite running approximately six times over budget. More troubling have been the subsequent effects, including significant cuts to local rail services around Manchester to squeeze in more fast trains to London, and the closure on capacity grounds of several local stations in Staffordshire. Similar results have been noted around Leeds, where the main station was rebuilt a decade or so ago, but the resulting gains in capacity were largely swallowed up by the introduction of more trains to London over existing tracks.

Equally puzzling is Lord Mandelson’s failure to note the example offered in his own former constituency of Hartlepool, where a rail service to London has been successfully reintroduced by Grand Central at no cost to the taxpayer under so-called ‘open access’ provisions. Plans for similar services running from other regional centres, including Huddersfield, Barrow-in-Furness and Stalybridge, have been on the drawing board for many years, but never introduced. Capacity released by HS2 would permit such an operation, but as there would be no public subsidy or DfT control; these savings can thus hardly be described as ‘cuts’.

Close inspection of the capacity challenge facing our rail network shows that there is almost certainly no option that allows circa £40bn to be spent on ‘other stuff’. It is rather a choice between repeating hugely expensive upgrading of ageing legacy assets (on several axes, not solely the West Coast Main Line described above) which may, experience shows, result in cuts to local provision and chronic unreliability on the trunk route, or investing in internationally-proven technology, expensive though that undoubtedly would prove.

Yours etc,

Nick

Sunday, 16 June 2013

HS2: fog over Hampstead, Shrewsbury cut off

Several inter-city services to destinations off the core north-south main lines have been introduced since rail privatisation, including this London – Sunderland service operated by Grand Central, a subsidiary of German national operator Deutsche Bahn. Photo: DB
This blog is hesitant to say ‘I told you so’. But the news this week that Virgin Rail Group’s proposals to operate more inter-city services to and from London Euston have been rebuffed by Network Rail highlights yet again the infrastructure crisis which so blights the long-term outlook for our principal rail axes.

NR’s decision to reject, for now at least, Virgin’s request to operate direct trains between Blackpool, Shrewsbury and London is in part seen as a response to the operator’s recent decision to take enforcement action against the infrastructure manager for what it perceives as NR’s failure to deliver a reliable, robust main line railway. But to characterise this dispute as merely ‘tit for tat’ is to grossly underplay its significance. For years now, we have been told that the West Coast Main Line would be ‘full by the mid-2020s’, as evidenced by NR’s long-term planning processes. But it now seems NR was far too cautious, and this blog’s view that the WCML is already on the point of overuse is being borne out by events in unprecedented fashion.

Taking a longer term view, the cause for concern grows even more: ‘Shrewsbury-gate’ is the latest episode in a sorry soap opera which includes such misadventures as the permanent cessation of passenger services at several stations in Staffordshire in 2003, and the ongoing failure to facilitate long-planned inter-city services from Huddersfield, Barrow and Rochdale. This saga has utterly undermined the supposed benefits of the £9bn+ West Coast Route Modernisation, and indeed the whole ‘incremental upgrading’ concept – industry-leading reliability and capacity for reasonable service expansion should surely be the minimum we expect from the refurbishment of one railway at that price.

These arguments have always been the most compelling in the case for High Speed 2, not least because the capacity and reliability crises which are most high profile on the WCML nevertheless manifest themselves time and time again on main line and suburban routes across the corridors served by the HS2 ‘Y route’. In its recent examination of the Department for Transport’s early preparatory works on HS2, the National Audit Office expressed reservations about the ‘articulation of the strategic case’ for the new line. But with events on the ground moving so fast, that already seems like an academic discussion: if we value our entire rail network as a strategic asset to the country and its economy, then surely we cannot endure the sort of capacity and reliability threats that we are battling on the WCML and elsewhere.

Add in the undisputed reality that incremental upgrading of essentially 19th Century assets is often as difficult and as costly as new build, yet it delivers demonstrably fewer benefits, then a compelling strategic narrative begins to emerge. A raft of environmental and wider economic benefits can then follow, but of course the extent to which these are maximised is dependent on wider government policy which is beyond the remit of transport planners.

In any case, it is most encouraging that those making the strategic case for HS2 are communities themselves, like Shrewsbury and Blackpool. They’ve seen the opportunities offered to other regional centres like Halifax, Hull or Hartlepool (and other places, not beginning with ‘H’ too) by inter-city rail services in recent years, and rightly want to see the links they enjoyed in British Rail days restored, in keeping with the resurgence in long-distance passenger rail growth seen consistently since privatisation.

UK main line rail passenger-journeys have grown substantially in recent years. Source: Brown Review into Rail Franchising
This ‘bottom up’ trend for better connectivity is, like HS2 itself, anything but London-centric however. Coventry, for example, luxuriates in a train every 10 min to London six days per week, which puts in context the absurd suggestion that it might be ‘sidelined’ by HS2. But with the Department for Transport recently pledging a funding contribution towards a new station at Kenilworth as part of a package of enhancements to the cross-country routes passing through the city, it is perhaps understandable that the city council has ditched its dogmatic opposition to HS2 in favour of a more pragmatic approach to connectivity which looks at its rail links in all directions, not just to London. As we have seen time and time again, enhancements made to fast services on existing lines to London almost always require a diminution in the quality of regional services, and Coventry has set a welcome example in recognising this.

All of which is lost on the London commentariat of course; witness arch-panjandrum Andrew Gilligan’s concern about a phantom threat to the (excellent) London Overground service which passes through Camden en route from leafy Richmond to even-leafier Hampstead. Who gives a toss about Shrewsbury, or 30-odd million WCML passengers, when that’s your definition of a nationally-important railway? And to think, there are those in Manchester and Leeds who would see Gilligan as an ally. Frightening.

HS2 must be built.

Thursday, 11 April 2013

HS2: less spin, more substance

Destination Milton Keynes: direct services from Aylesbury are expected to begin by 2019. Credit: P Harrop
The headline is probably a touch naïve, as public relations and lobbying are an integral aspect of modern political life, for good or ill. But the recent spat over comments attributed to public relations firm Westbourne Communications and its Campaign for High Speed Rail have shone a light onto the shadowy world of lobbyists and ‘spin doctoring’ which inevitably swirls around government and major government-led projects.

According to Anna Minton’s report for Spinwatch, the primary source of the controversy is ‘an interview with [an unnamed] academic present at the March 2012 Penn Studio London workshop’ -- a somewhat flimsy basis for an apparently serious critique. Minton’s report goes on to list examples of what it calls ‘astroturfing’, before clarifying that:

‘Most of the activities of councils, developers and lobbyists are not actually illegal, although instances of planning meetings packed with actors and fake letter writing campaigns from non-existent supporters of controversial schemes are undoubtedly unethical.’

The clear inference to the reader is that such ‘fake’ tactics have been used by supporters of High Speed 2, yet there is no reference offered to substantiate this and no suggestion that the businesses and institutions cited as supports of CHSR were concocted.

I have attended a number of Westbourne’s events over the past couple of years, and I can state categorically that I personally never heard any language that could be described as remotely ‘militaristic’. Indeed, those looking for ‘militaristic’ connotations might do well to consider the ‘Downfall’ parody -- a tired cliché pedalled across YouTube, often by fans of rival football clubs. Sadly attempts by one HS2 opponent in Staffordshire to portray Transport Secretary Patrick McLoughlin as Hitler appear to have caused genuine offence. I’ll let readers assess whether such pranks are more or less ‘ethical’ than Westbourne’s alleged conduct.

However, my main reservation about these phoney wars is the reluctance to address many of the fundamentals of the debate. Westbourne’s James Bethell once acknowledged to me that discussing the rail capacity benefits of HS2 ‘does not have cut-through with commentariat’. The result is that the most compelling arguments for the project have too often been overlooked, perhaps because they do not sell papers. But that does not mean that the dire reliability of the West Coast Main Line outlined in the Gibb Report, the live threat to local stations from the incremental route upgrading approach, or the doubts about the capacity benefits of novel train control systems on ageing mixed-traffic railways aren’t each a matter of record. All these topics have been subject to analysis on this blog, as regular readers will be aware.

Surprisingly, when I suggested on social media that a less emotive dialogue that focussed on rail issues might benefit the HS2 debate, the High Speed Action Alliance didn’t seem too keen to join in. 'How annoying for you when the lies and deceits of pro lobby are publicised’, HSAA tweeted pettily in reply, before retweeting the supporting opinion of an anonymous blogger – so much for transparent campaigning then.

Indeed if HSAA are looking for ‘deceits’, they could start by looking closer to home. On March 29, HSAA’s colleagues at Stop HS2 produced a blogpost attempting, in tortuous fashion, to compare HS2 to the local rail cuts of the 1960s. Brazenly ignoring the glaring hypocrisy of raising the spectre of Beeching when alternatives to HS2 so clearly emperil thriving local rail stations such as Stone and Atherstone, Stop HS2’s author ‘Joe’ (presumably this is ubiquitous rent-a-quote Joe Rukin, though no surname is given – again, transparency) writes:

‘The worst part of this disjointed thinking is that without HS2 taking it over, Great Central could have a great future, providing an alternative route from Milton Keynes to London. With plans to reopen the East-West line, it would be simple to run trains along that line from Milton Keynes, which would then connect with Great Central and run into Marylebone via Aylesbury. Such a project would cheaply deliver the thing which HS2 does not, interconnectivity and local benefits.’

But like so much rail investment that that HSAA, Stop HS2 and their associates insist is precluded by HS2, a Milton Keynes – Aylesbury rail service is firmly on the agenda, and indeed is likely to come to fruition before HS2 thanks to the efforts of the East-West Rail consortium and Chiltern Railways. Indeed, a greater threat to ‘local connectivity’ would come from trying to path more London-centric inter-city services through Milton Keynes on an already saturated railway as an alternative to HS2, with a very real risk of capacity for local trains being squeezed out, even if an initial dedicated platform for EWR has been provided under recent remodelling of the station.

But ‘Joe’ isn’t done. He adds:

‘The current plan is not for HS2 to use the Grand Central trackbed, but to skirt around it, constantly crossing the line, as HS2 is being engineered for a track speed on 250 mile/h, meaning it has to be much straighter and wider than previous lines.’

The term ‘track speed’ is meaningless, and historians of Brunel would surely quibble with the inference that his (initially broad-gauge, ergo ‘wider’) Great Western Railway wasn’t, for substantial distances, pretty straight. But if Stop HS2’s real problem is with railways growing, then they could again accuse East-West Rail, where much of the Oxford – Bletchley formation is to be redoubled and electrified for 100 mile/h running, resulting inevitably in a more substantial physical footprint. Perhaps the group could just rebrand as Stop EWR?

Deceit? Maybe, maybe not. Scaremongering? Yes. Hypocrisy? Without doubt.

I suspect, like so much material put out by the multi-faceted PR machine that HS2 opponents would like us to believe does not exist, they hope the general public in the well-heeled shires where such material is (mostly) disseminated will not bother to check primary sources. Indeed, this is precisely the sort of sleight of hand that Stop HS2 and its acolytes routinely accuse HS2 Ltd and government of committing.

In any undertaking on the size and scale of HS2, controversy is sure to ensue; spin, scaremongering and sanctimony follow not far behind. Substance should shape the debate going forward.

Friday, 15 February 2013

HS2: looking into the Great Beyond

HS2 services are envisaged to use an expanded Manchester Piccadilly station.
Mansfield, Hucknall, Bristol, Barnsley and Leicester: high speed rail is coming your way. All are among the locations cited by name in the government’s Command Paper and related documentation covering Phase II of High Speed 2, issued on January 28. Indeed, the time-consuming task of poring over the reams of paperwork released last month is rewarding, if only for the light it sheds on the thinking behind HS2, as well the many anomalies that the Preferred Route Option has generated.

Whether Transport Secretary Patrick McLoughlin has been stung by repeated assertions that HS2 was designed to get ‘every fool in London’ to Birmingham 15 min faster (as shamefully claimed by Sir Simon Jenkins last December whilst drawing a painful analogy with the 150th anniversary of the Metropolitan Railway) is debatable. But there is no doubt that, in tone at least, HS2 is now looking to much broader horizons. The Command Paper raises the real prospect of a Leicester – Edinburgh service running via HS2 and the East Coast Main Line, and, by tapping into the rolling programme of electrification of the conventional network, a Bristol – northeast England service which would join HS2 at Birmingham.

These aspirations for a substantial non-London market for high speed services have predictably been widely ignored by most reaction to the Phase II announcement, just as the potential to restore lost inter-regional passenger services along our existing main lines has been. Indeed, it is becoming increasingly clear that much of the supposedly informed comment around HS2 in reality responds to a perception of the project, rather than the detailed plans themselves.

The fuss over Parkway stations is a case in point. Just two genuine ‘out-of-town’ stations are proposed under the second stage, joining the Birmingham Airport facility outlined in Phase I (few would claim that the Crossrail interchange at Old Oak Common falls into this category). I concur with those who point to some of France’s out-of-town stations, where trains are few and footfall modest, but to compare these directly to, say, Meadowhall is surely fatuous. The latter is already a busy multimodal hub serving Rotherham, Barnsley and Doncaster as well as Sheffield, while Toton has been explicitly chosen to serve both Derby and Nottingham. Neither bears much resemblance to, say, the spartan and windswept TGV Haute-Picardie.

But far more important is the ineluctable truth that many -- perhaps a substantial majority -- of HS2 passengers will board their trains at exactly the same locations they use today, thanks to the extensive provision of so-called ‘classic compatible’ services. As an example, it is ironic indeed that whilst the planned HS2 terminus at Manchester Piccadilly would form an annexe to the existing trainshed, extra platforms to be built to support the Northern Hub programme will be many minutes’ walk from the concourse and linked by travelator. That isn’t a problem per se, but it highlights how when conventional rail investment includes inevitable design compromises, it does so largely without accompanying howls of invective. Needless to say, the ‘anything but HS2’ brigade revels in such obvious double standards.

That said, HS2 Ltd’s modelling has its own perception issues too. A macro-level service pattern has been drafted to support the revised economic case for the project, which is essential to evidence-based planning, but it does leave the project promoter open to the suggestion that it is defining timetables for 20 years hence. And it is fair to say that the service modelled is, in places, quixotic. A muted reaction to the Phase II plan in Liverpool is understandable; the model gives the city a vastly better service than it could hope to receive under any further ill-starred upgrading of the West Coast Main Line, but the plans still envisage only two trains an hour from London via HS2, one of which makes no use of the Phase II alignment at all. This Liverpool service does however serve Stafford, which no doubt will be welcomed in Stafford. But this in turn raises the huge anomaly of Stoke-on-Trent, which appears to gain an HS2 service under Phase I in 2026 and lose it again a few years later under Phase II. Curious.

HS2 Ltd should state far more robustly in my view that any service pattern offered today is nothing more than the most cursory amuse bouche for a decade of wrangling about who gets what. I am increasingly of the view that the deferral of the Heathrow Airport spur should be made permanent; the Bow Group and others make play of the ‘success’ in Europe of high speed rail interchanges at hub airports, but I suspect the traffic volumes are meagre. To emphasise the point, Scheherazade Zekri-Chevallet, Chief Commercial & Marketing Officer at four-nation TGV operator Thalys International, remarked at a conference late last year that of its near 7 million annual ridership, just 55 000 were using its dedicated interlining tickets via airports in Paris and Brussels.

But while I think the Heathrow paths would be far better utilised for more fast trains to Liverpool and/or a London – Blackpool/Chester/North Wales service running via the Phase I junction at Lichfield, thence Colwich, Stoke and Crewe, my opinion counts for little. HS2 Ltd should consider even at this early stage appointing a Director of Passenger Services in the mould of former Virgin Trains and BR InterCity MD Chris Green to consider these issues in more depth. Currently, the passenger-facing role of developing post-HS2 rail services is being undertaken (if that’s the right word) by Passenger Focus and Network Rail, whereas in (say) France or Germany, this would be the domain of a major operator like DB or SNCF.

It would surely be beneficial to test alternative service options against a set of commercial parameters in a broadly independent fashion, in consultation with business groups in the towns and cities in question, safe in the knowledge that nothing is set in stone. Open-access use of the infrastructure by a new entrant in the style of Italy’s NTV could be considered much closer to opening.

The growth forecasts made by HS2 Ltd are exceptionally cautious; it says that volumes predicted at the outset for 2021 have already been exceeded. Within the envelope of these assumptions, there is substantial room for manoeuvre: a sensible service pattern in 2013 is almost certainly not going to apply so smoothly to 2033. Investment in the conventional network (especially electrification), pressure on pathing at key nodes and broad demographic change could all influence the plan. HS2 should be flexible enough to adapt as the project moves into the implementation phase.