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.