Wednesday, 30 May 2012

HS2 and Public Accounts Committee: big hoops

South Northants District Council is examining the possibility of adding a station to the West Coast Main Line, making use of capacity released by HS2.
At the behest of one of my most febrile Twitter followers, I’ve been watching YouTube. Specifically, a series of short outtakes from a recent parliamentary Public Accounts Committee hearing into High Speed 2. Then, for levity, I watched a video to accompany the release of ‘Big Hoops’, the new single by Canadian-Portuguese singer Nelly Furtado.

Needless to say the videos do not have all that much in common, although it was perhaps telling that neither PAC nor Ms Furtado managed to utter the word ‘railway’, or even ‘transport’. And that is a serious point: whilst last year’s long, forensic investigation by the Transport Select Committee examined HS2 in the round, putting it correctly into context as an ambitious, large-scale, two-decade programme, these clips do precisely the opposite. But maybe ‘context’ is overrated in the YouTube era…

Nevertheless, despite an unnecessarily hectoring tone which appears not to allow for any reply whatever from the interviewee, during the clips the PAC interviewer makes two points. One, that the Cabinet Office has assessed the current HS2 proposal, and given it an ‘amber/red’ rating, indicating doubts about aspects of the proposal in its present form. Second, that ridership data suggests that greater focus should be placed on ‘regional’ transport, although importantly the edit allows for no definition of the term ‘regional’.

The civil servants ascribing the ‘amber/red’ outlook to HS2 do not explain their position, and my understanding is that the related report has not been published. It is therefore unwise to speculate as to what may have triggered such a warning. But let me be clear: such caution is no surprise. I would have been shocked if any assessment of HS2 at this early stage in its gestation had merely waved it through.

The debate which surrounds the project is healthy, searching questions ought to be asked of the project promoters, and the assumptions contained in the many hundreds of official documents HS2 generates should be scrutinised. I hope HS2 Ltd manages to find its own voice away from its political masters in Marsham Street, however, in order that some of the more esoteric aspects of this debate might be addressed head on (including the canard that the UK is ‘too small’ for high speed rail, or the evidence-free, determinist fantasy that ‘the internet’ will somehow supersede travel).

On the ‘regional’ issue, it is a shame PAC Chairman Margaret Hodge offered no elucidation on her choice of term. Perhaps by ‘regional’, she meant the kind of project that would speed journeys between non-London cities, say Birmingham and Leeds for example? Or a project that might permit a radically better service to intermediate towns on our busiest main lines (like, say, Stone in Staffordshire)? Or maybe she meant focusing on the potential for opening railway stations in communities with poor local transport links. Maybe she meant somewhere like South Northants?

Well, she declined to specify so I can only interpret. There can be no doubt that, to paraphrase Ms Furtado, HS2 has some big hoops still to jump through. But with a project of this scale, it is only right that it is seen in context – a transport context, which sees HS2 for what it is: an inter-city axis for sure, but simultaneously a regional railway, and a commuter one, and a freight one too. That is what the phrase ‘released capacity’ means, and those benefits are beyond contention.

We surely need a more informed assessment of the infrastructure we have today, its potential and its limitations, and the transport network we want to see tomorrow.

It will take more than a few 90 sec video clips to obscure that vision.


  1. HS2 cannot meaningfully 'relieve' the West Coast Main Line, because the new build Y network would only connect three cities on it: London, Birmingham, and Manchester.

    So WCML traffic not starting_and_finishing at those points has to traverse the legacy network to some extent, and remains unrelieved.

    If more stops (e.g. Blisworth) are inserted into WCML 'fast' trains, the result is surely slower journeys for Milton Keynes, Stoke, etc.

    If there is to be large_scale_shift of long distance cargo to rail, there needs to be a north - south route on which freight is prime user. That is never going to be the case with the WCML.

    In summary, substantial capacity relief from HS2 is just an illusion.

    1. I find it mystifying why so many people cling to the idea that we must do what is proven NOT to work elsewhere. The construction of dedicated freight railways is a ‘proven’ investment strategy in only one region today: the deserts of Australia, where heavy haul shipments are integrated into the mining process. In Europe, there’s the Betuwe route (which you yourself have criticised) and a couple of possible projects in Iberia, mostly concocted to deal with the gauge issue. Had the Central Railway proposal of the 1990s gone ahead, what traffic would it carry today, given the shamefully moribund level of rail freight through the Channel Tunnel?

      No, our rail freight future lies in intermodal traffic running over a flexible, capacious network of gauge-enhanced routes, probably using specially-designed wagons such as the LowLiner or Shortliner designs now being trialled by DRS and Freightliner. It will be characterised by rapid changes in service patterns between a diverse set of established origins and destinations, with the West Coast and East Coast main lines remaining prominent, given that most inland terminals are located close to one of those lines.

      There may be some potential in reviving secondary routes for freight too (such as the Lincolnshire joint line)…but guess what? Local residents aren’t too happy at the prospect of a rapid upswing in train movements round their way.

      The changing nature of freight is also encapsulated by the Settle & Carlisle situation: nobody as far as I know foresaw its resurgence from near-closure in the 1980s to its status as quasi-dedicated coal corridor today. But here again the outlook is uncertain: changes in the power generation sector almost certainly mean that coal traffic will ebb away again over the next decade, putting more emphasis on its role as a socially-necessary passenger route.

      In contrast, the projected growth of Daventry DIRFT, London Gateway and (hopefully, finally) Chunnel intermodal traffic are enough alone to support the freight argument for HS2 vis a vis the southern end of WCML. Needless to say, opponents such as HS2 Action Alliance continue to obsess over the ‘potential’ of Felixstowe – Nuneaton gauge clearance as though this alone solves the issue; it is a quite astonishing over-simplification. Substantial freight capacity is required along the whole WCML as traffic joins and leaves at various points; the market is simply too fluid for a dedicated new freight line to be remotely feasible.

    2. Passenger rail is dominant in Europe, but not in other parts of the world. It's generally agreed that railfreight is fuel efficient. The question is how to leverage that advantage in the British context. There are capacity and last mile issues which are economically adverse.

      Most railroad track in North America has freight as prime user (but not always as sole user). On the WCML corridor, there are conurbations like Greater Manchester, freight terminals like DIRFT, and ports like Seaforth. But - in my opinion - it's not obvious that rail traffic to such points should be routed via the WCML. It depends. I don't see how a marked uplift in freight by rail could take place without creation of some prime user trackage.

      Felixstowe - Ely - Nuneaton; Oxford - Sandy - Cambridge; Ely - Sleaford - Lincoln - Sheffield spring to mind.

  2. "So WCML traffic not starting_and_finishing at those points has to traverse the legacy network to some extent, and remains unrelieved."

    Oh dear, oh dear, oh dear. When (if?) you looked at the HS2 proposals, you may have noticed that phase 1 of the line connects to the West Coast Main Line at Lichfield. So any journey from London to Manchester, Liverpool, Stoke, Crewe, Preston, Carlisle and Glasgow will be able to use HS2 and skip the MOST CONGESTED part of the WCML. That is the whole part of the project - using a mixture of HS lines and classic lines to get the best possible use of the whole network.

    Your argument is as logical as arguing that the M1 is useless to anyone travelling north of Leeds.

  3. Even in phase one, HS2 is not particularly well integrated with the legacy railway. But chief engineer McNaughton's vision is for phase two to be further segregated.

    If you get in a car in (for example) Derby, you can drive to Bradford or Harrogate, making use of the M1; there are around forty access points between London and Leeds. But there is no equivalent to that sort of access in HS2. On the Y network there are almost no junctions with the existing rail system. And just four cities are on the new-build track.

    Through (no-change) rail journeys are preferred by business and leisure travellers alike. As well as the inconvenience factor, each instance of having to change trains has a time implication.

    The configuration of HS2 does not "get the best possible use of the whole network". Capacity is mainly created on the new line, not the old one. But the new line only serves four cities directly, and has no freight capability.

    1. It's quite simple. If your journey uses the M1 , even in part, you benefit from it. No-one would argue that the M1 is worthless if you drive from Newcastle to London, so why it HS2 worthless if you take a train to London from any on the WCML stations north of Lichfield?

      Even if you aren't served by the transport link, it can still benefit you. When a town is gridlocked, does anyone argue the by-pass doesn't benefit them? Of course not. Similarly, HS2 by-passes Watford, Milton Keynes and Rugby, but they still have local support because it means they'll get a decent service back.

      I'm quite happy to listen to anyone who's got a better idea (I personally would prefer a junction at Birmingham Interchange), but the alternatives put forward by StopHS2, 51M, HSAA and so forth is so woefully ineffective I sometimes doubt they even believe in it themselves.

  4. It is interesting to note that only those opposed to HS2 seem to know what the North West needs in terms of rail capacity, despite the fact none of whom appear to live in or have close ties with the region itself.

    It may come as some surprise then to those opposed to HS2 that despite their "expert" input into the needs of the North West that all main Chambers of Commerce from the North West and leading transport groups from across the region all support HS2, which includes phases 1 and 2.

    As Chris rightly points out, the first phase of HS2 will allow addition services from the North West to bypass the busiest sections of the WCML between Birmingham and Milton Keynes. Without HS2 it would be incredibly difficult to provide additional services going south. Even the so called expertly produced "optimised alternative" to HS2 makes some quite ruthless cuts to North West services in favor of those between Birmingham and London.

    So whist the input from concerned only with opposing HS2 is duly noted it must be pointed out the North West as a region is fully behind the proposals and is fully aware of all aspects of the proposals.

  5. The busiest section of the WCML is between London and Milton Keynes (not Birmingham and Milton Keynes). Providing additional services going south is not difficult, if Birmingham intercity trains are switched to the Chiltern line.

    I'd be surprised if there were strong public support for HS2 is northern England. If the 'Northern Lights' report of Policy Exchange is to believed, support is low. People who work for chambers of commerce are not representative of public opinion.