Tuesday, 24 January 2012

The 51M debate: join the dots…

The 51M timetable proposal as developed by Passenger Transport Networks.
Well, it’s no surprise at all that the fur has started to fly in the wake of my blogpost about the risk of 51M’s HS2 counter-proposal closing stations in the Midlands.

Responding via Twitter, Jerry Marshall, arguably the most high profile HS2 opponent and close affiliate of the 51M Group, has accused Network Rail of ‘deception’ and insisted that the 51M proposal would not lead to any such closures, as four-tracking the Rugby – Crewe section of the West Coast Main Line and construction of a flyover at Norton Bridge would provide appropriate capacity. But this argument does not stand up to scrutiny.

In drawing up its ‘optimised alternative’ to HS2, 51M contracted the York-based consultancy Passenger Transport Networks to draft a WCML timetable using the Viriato software developed by the Swiss firm SMA + Partner in conjunction with the Technical University of Z├╝rich. Now I happen to have met both Jonathan Tyler of PTN and the staff at SMA, and I can confirm that Swiss timetabling specialists make Swiss watchmakers look positively casual.

Mr Marshall’s implication that the Atherstone and Rugeley services might be added in afterwards is simply implausible – that’s why Stockport, Long Buckby, Runcorn etc all have dots on the chart, and the threatened stations don’t.

In the case of Stone, I tend to agree with Mr Marshall’s suggestion that the Norton Bridge flyover might make a service from the Birmingham direction – rather than London as now – more viable, and this would probably be good for local passengers. But, as NR points out, it’s still not in the 51M proposal, so basically it becomes ‘somebody else’s problem’ to find capacity through the busy nodes of Wolverhampton and Stafford. And for 51M to even suggest this is risible in itself: one of the key tenets of the group’s campaign against HS2 is the suggestion that HS2 is an ‘all or nothing’ answer when incremental improvements are needed.

Now we discover that not only are these previously little-mentioned incremental improvements well in hand, but the 51M Group is now embracing them wholesale to make a point! I’d laugh if it weren’t such a serious subject.

There is much more to say about the flaws of 51M, not least the sheer fragility of the much-vaunted cost:benefit ratios (subscribers to Rail Business Intelligence will be able to read a bit more on this) and on freight. But I am going to leave you with a little Liverpudlian vignette.

This exchange, between the MP for Southport and Stuart Baker of the Department for Transport, occurred at a Public Accounts Committee hearing in 2007 examining the last West Coast Main Line upgrading. 

Q29 Dr Pugh: I do not know whether my colleagues have noticed that the agenda for today calls the Report that we are examining The Modernisation of the West Coast Main Line. Either that is a Freudian misprint or it shows an unexpected sense of irony from the Clerks. It is only to be expected, considering that the cost of the project has gone from £1.6 billion to £9 billion in relatively few years. May I first ask a series of slightly parochial questions? Lauding the benefits of the modernisation of the West Coast Main Line, the Secretary of State for Scotland said in a recent statement that there will be an hourly service from Liverpool to London. A stock market statement released by the Department for Transport said the same. Surely I cannot be the only one who has noticed that we have had an hourly service from Liverpool to London for some time prior to the modernisation. Is there a commitment to complete all the bits of the West Coast modernisation, specifically those that affect the port of Liverpool, and, if so, within what time scale?

Mr Baker: The stock market statement explains that London to Liverpool will remain an hourly service.

And indeed Liverpool currently has a basic hourly service to London with a couple of extra trains at peak hours, and from the end of next year, most of these trains will be 11-car Pendolinos…exactly the service specified by 51M and the PTN schematic. Indeed, the only additional capacity conferred by the 51M proposal would be a net gain of about 20 seats per train if there is one fewer first class saloon. Compare this with today's all day frequencies on routes from London to Newcastle (2tph), Sheffield (2tph), Leeds (2tph), Manchester (3tph) and Coventry (5tph).

In the wake of the recent controversy about Liverpool’s ‘managed decline’, it’s illuminating to see what a cabal of predominantly southern local councils considers to be future proofing our transport network.

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