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.


  1. "It is quite astounding that a cabal of local councils and their think-tank acolytes should expect us to repeat the misadventure"

    Hardly Nick - after all we should recall just where this "cabal" of local councils is situated, geographically in relation to the approved Phase 1, ROUTE 3 option?

    It might be instructive to put a small map showing the approved pathway route overlaid on to a map showing the territories for each of the local council members of the 51M Group - they can't all be NIMBYS can they?

    The sad truth of course is that, virtually to a man woman and child, they are!

  2. Hammond resorted to name calling as he had no solid argument for HS2 and it continues.

    If HS2 really had such a solid case then the opposition (which is not limited to people on the route) would not be so strong. The project simply doesn't stack up.

    Yesterdays' downward revision (the 4th to date) of the cost benefit ratio to nearly 'poor value' is just enough example of the unavoidable flaws in the plans.

  3. Richard, I haven't been name-calling anyone, I totally understand the local opposition to HS2. However, the stats released recently about consultation responses confirm there is a strong local element to the objectors.

    Of course the declining BCR is some cause for concern, but BCRs are only a limited tool to assist planners, not a be all and end all about whether a project goes ahead -- that is the tail wagging the dog. That said, despite the recent revisions, HS2 remains substantially better value for money than any alternative yet put forward, and none of 51M's cheerleaders have yet disputed the analysis laid out above.

    I would also contend that the BCR models used for HS2 fail to account for many of the clear benefits of the project, not least the massive capacity released on the existing rail network once the fastest London-bound expresses have been transferred. What economic value does HS2 Ltd attach to this? None, as far as I can see. Likewise, the significant regional rail service reductions (including station closures) offered by 51M ought to incur an economic penalty in the modelling in my opinion, but again I see no evidence of this.