Thursday, 22 March 2012

51M: a cut and shut case?

The 51M Group insists that there are 'no losers' from its HS2 alternative, but its Illustrative WCML Service Pattern suggests otherwise.
When something seems too good to be true, it usually is.

I was reminded of this old adage this week when I stumbled upon the glossy ads the 51M Group has been running in Total Politics magazine criticising the UK government’s decision to press on with HS2. Clearly, I thought to myself, this is nuts: if we can have ALL this extra rail capacity for a mere £2.1bn, versus the purported £17bn for HS2 (Phase I), why wouldn’t we? And if we can extract benefits worth £5.17 for every £1 we spend, surely we should? As the advert says…there are no losers, honest! Every egg a bird.

The slickest of back street car salesmen could hardly have put it better. Yet as readers of this blog will already have noticed, there are plenty of losers from 51M’s attempt to offer a cut-and-shut banger as a stretch limo. Fortunately you don’t have to delve too far to see the rust peek through this ‘Optimised Alternative’. Network Rail was of course absolutely right to point out in its response to the proposal the knock-on effects for regional and commuter services, with some stations in Staffordshire left without rail services and a reduction in capacity on the Northampton – London Euston route. Yet in other respects NR was quite generous in its appraisal – and the TP ads show why.

My previous posts have pointed out the detail of the West Coast Main Line element as submitted to the HS2 consultation last year. Grainy though the image on p30 of 51M’s submission is, this now infamous schematic is the only primary evidence showing exactly what kind of rail service the group actually proposes.

It had struck me immediately that, whilst a two-hourly service to Windermere and Blackpool is included, existing direct trains from London to Wolverhampton and beyond Chester to North Wales and Holyhead are not. NR recognised the Wolverhampton issue and charitably assumed that in practice Wolverhampton would still be served; Holyhead was not mentioned, so we can assume this, like trains to Stone, falls under the category of ‘not 51M’s problem, guv’. I had not given much thought to either element until the TP adverts popped up showing Wolverhampton as a ‘clear beneficiary’ and Holyhead as a ‘potential beneficiary’ of the 51M scheme. Surely some mistake?

Interestingly, Atkins' forensic assessment of alternatives to HS2 may answer the conundrum. The 51M ‘optimised alternative’ builds on a previous alternative scenario known as Rail Package 2, which was among several comparisons of numerous road and rail interventions made since 2009. According to Atkins, RP2 and 51M are in many ways very similar, especially in terms of peak service patterns. But on p22 of its report, the consultants note that 51M requires ‘15% less rolling stock’ than RP2. Tellingly, Atkins warns that this ‘may not be entirely appropriate’ given the lack of differentiation between the two scenarios. So the consultants then refined the assumptions about fleet size, once to bring 51M into line with RP2 and then again to add 10 trainsets for contingency. By the end of this process, 51M’s benefit:cost ratio has collapsed from 5.17:1 to just 1.61:1.

So if varying the amount of rolling stock in a large fleet by even as few as 10 trains drives a coach and horses through these oft-quoted BCRs, could this explain 51M’s reluctance to provide trains along the coast to Holyhead, or to eke out more London –Birmingham cycles in a day with a single trainset by ditching Sandwell and Wolverhampton? We should be told.

Nevertheless if the 51M package really could be implemented for a mere £2bn, then perhaps we should all just grin and bear the station closures in Staffordshire, the limited scope for growth and the potentially dire impact on intermodal freight? Sadly, all that glitters is not gold. The elephant in the room, not acknowledged by Atkins and only delicately raised by NR, is that the West Coast Main Line barely copes with current traffic levels, let alone up to a third more 125 mile/h inter-city services. Virgin Trains has been marooned at the bottom of the monthly national punctuality tables for 12 of the past 13 periods. As one senior Virgin Rail Group executive told me in January:

‘What people don’t realise is that, even after you’ve spent £9bn on it, you still have a fundamentally 1960s railway.’

The reality is, questionably simplistic glossy adverts aside, 51M’s ‘alternative’ risks turning our busiest main line railway into an unusable relic fit for none of the many tasks it is expected to fulfil. It is no surprise that no developed country with a sizeable legacy railway has attempted to shove a quart into a pint pot as we already have with WCML. It is quite astounding that a cabal of local councils and their think-tank acolytes should expect us to repeat the misadventure.

Monday, 5 March 2012

France and Italy ride out the storm

LGV Rhin-Rhone opened in December, France has four other high speed lines now under contract or construction. Credit: Alstom
Outside what the French like to term ‘the Anglo-Saxon world’, high speed rail came of age a long time ago. Now an internationally-proven, increasingly-modular technology, it comes as little surprise to see investment continue even as the austerity agenda bites.

To reinforce this point, two significant growth spurts are expected later this month. On March 23, SNCF plans to introduce a TGV service between Frankfurt and Marseille, a distance of around 1000 km. The route has been launched on the back of the opening in December 2011 of France’s latest high speed line: LGV Rhin-Rhone runs for 140 km across eastern France linking Dijon with Belfort, with extensions planned to reach Lyon and Mulhouse. This axis is profoundly significant because of its pan-European implications: a raft of competing long-distance trains is proposed from Germany to destinations in southern France and into Spain, and vice-versa.

Those ‘Anglo-Saxons’ who maintain the pretence that high speed rail is some kind of economic basket case have taken scant interest in the Rhin-Rhone project for obvious reasons. For a start, the line serves no dominant capital city, meaning by definition that the proven economic benefits of improved regional transport can only accrue to local centres such as Dijon and Besancon. By extension, the notion that high speed rail needs a single dominant economic centre to deliver a viable business case is severely dented. Second, international passenger rail services such as Frankfurt – Marseille cannot be subsidised under the legal terms of the European Commission’s rail market directives. Thirdly, the comparatively short section of new-build infrastructure – designed for 360 km/h with an operating maximum of 320 km/h – illustrates immediately how, in connecting two disparate pre-existing networks; high speed rail is anything but ‘standalone’.

NTV: the red-blooded challenger. Credit: Alstom
In Italy, meanwhile, private ‘open access’ high speed passenger trains are expected to be launched by Nuovo Trasporti Viaggiatori this month. Running from Milan to Naples via Rome on infrastructure manager RFI’s proven Alta Velocita-Alta Capacita network, NTV’s trains will compete head to head with state railway Trenitalia. By definition, NTV will receive no public subsidy, hence the operator – which is headed by Ferrari F1 Chairman Luca di Montezemolo – has spent many months tailoring its offering to market needs. Critical to its success of course will be its novel rolling stock: as has been widely reported, NTV is the launch customer for Alstom’s AGV trainsets; the AGV is also the ‘reference train’ for the HS2 modelling in the UK.

Offering a service that the company promises to be ‘fast, agile and fun’, NTV’s debut may however have to compete for column inches with the salutary stories emerging from the Susa valley on Italy’s northwestern border. A series of occasionally violent skirmishes has broken out amid the so-called ‘No TAV’ protests against planned construction of a new railway between Turin and Lyon in France. Some media reports have asserted that the Susa protestors reflect a rejection of high speed rail by Italians, but – as NTV’s emergence illustrates -- this is palpable nonsense.

Now forming (literally) the spine of the country, the north-south AV-AC route has been more than four decades in the making, as construction of a dedicated fast line between Florence and Rome began in the mid-1960s. Progress was at times glacially slow, but nevertheless the high speed rail programme has survived Italy’s notorious political instability, such that even in the current economic gloom, contracts continue to be let to reshape the ‘spine’ as a ‘T’ by extending the network from Milan towards Genoa and Venice.

The Lyon – Torino Ferroviaire project however is hardly a high speed rail link in the accepted sense of the term, as the railway would primarily be used for transit freight between the two countries. At the heart of the scheme is a vast 57 km Base Tunnel under the Alps: longer than the Channel Tunnel, it is only directly comparable to the equally massive trans-Gotthard programme in Switzerland. Interestingly, the Swiss equivalent has garnered little if any visible objection, perhaps because it is backed by a national referendum which allocates funding to remove trucks from the country’s motorways.

But the Swiss story brings its own lessons for outside observers, and that is another post for another day…