Sunday, 7 July 2013

Mandelson is wrong on High Speed 2 – the ‘railway deserts’ are already here

This article appeared on on July 5.

Maglev: dismissed by Sir Rod Eddington in favour of steel-wheel options.
A week or so before Lord Mandelson supposedly shattered the consensus on political backing for High Speed 2 on July 3, the planned inter-city railway between London, Birmingham and the North, some 1,200 business and community leaders in Blackpool signed a petition to demand reinstatement of rail services lost around a decade ago. At the same time, the Shropshire Star newspaper launched a similar campaign for Shrewsbury.

Why? Because Network Rail, which manages our existing railway infrastructure, had refused a request from train operator Virgin Rail Group to introduce direct services to both towns from London Euston, declaring that capacity for such services was unavailable. In any case, NR said, more trains on the trunk West Coast Main Line (the spine which connects London to Birmingham, Manchester, Liverpool and Glasgow) would lead to unacceptable unreliability.

The cases of Blackpool and Shrewsbury are not isolated examples of the capacity crunch our railway network faces. But they do graphically illustrate the limitations of the ‘patch and mend’ approach advocated by so many commentators as supposedly ‘better value’ than the HS2 proposals. The West Coast line was upgraded at enormous cost (officially £9bn) under a project lasting 11 years, most of them during the Blair administration. But despite the cost to taxpayers being twice that of the entire construction of the High Speed 1 link to the Channel Tunnel, the West Coast line is currently Britain’s least reliable. Worse still, upgrading work continues to complete investment deferred from the initial programme on cost grounds, meaning more disruption looms for the 40 million-plus passengers who use the route each year.

In contrast, HS2 injects capacity and reliability into rail services by serving up to 18 cities under current plans – it is not, and has never been, about getting from London to Birmingham a few minutes faster. Lord Mandelson appears to believe that Labour approved the HS2 concept on a whim, and that it may cause significant harm to local rail services in the regions; these would become ‘railway deserts’, he fears.

But recent history supports neither point. Contrary to widespread perception, Sir Rod Eddington in 2006 told the Transport Select Committee that his study of national transport strategy supported the case for a high speed railway ‘in the busiest corridors’, which he suggested to be London to Birmingham and Manchester, although he dismissed commercially-unproven options like ‘maglev’ technology.

Labour’s Transport Secretary Lord Adonis then started a meticulous planning process, including convening a global summit in London in 2009 to garner international expertise, which I attended. The coalition, meanwhile, has issued a number of strategic alternative analyses, which have assessed HS2 against various road and conventional rail investment options.

One of HS2’s greatest selling points is that gives us a once-in-a-generation opportunity to liberate our ageing railway network by using its capacity most effectively. It cannot be right, for example, that a £9bn ‘enhancement’ of the main line from London can result in the Cheshire town of Northwich losing two-thirds of its morning commuter trains to Manchester. Transport authorities across the Midlands and the North are itching for more capacity for local trains, and that is why they continue to give strong backing to HS2. Nowhere are cuts on the agenda – although if HS2 allows us more time to look after our ageing legacy railway, much of which is reliant of 19th century structures and alignments, then efficiency savings could follow. But railway deserts? Emphatically not.

The blunt truth is that there is no option which would allow us to spend the HS2 cash on ‘other stuff’. Upgrading our existing transport networks is unlikely to be any cheaper than building new, but it is unlikely to deliver even a fraction of the benefits. No crystal ball is required; the proof is there already.

Friday, 5 July 2013

Capacity arguments in favour of High Speed 2 still stand

This letter appeared in the Financial Times on July 4, in response to comments about the proposed High Speed 2 project in the newspaper the previous day.
The Mid-Cheshire Line has seen a reduction in direct commuter trains to Manchester since completion of the West Coast Route Modernisation in 2009.

It is telling that your high-profile editorial package highlighting supposedly mounting opposition to High Speed 2 (July 3), led by comments from Lord Mandelson, makes little or no attempt to rebut the capacity arguments underpinning the project. Indeed, as your article makes clear, HS2 retains strong support in regional centres precisely because there is a recognition that the capacity issues we face on the rail network are intractable, and any infrastructure intervention intended to deliver long-term benefits is going to prove very expensive.

Lord Mandelson’s comments about the risk of creating ‘railway deserts’ are especially surprising, since analysis of recent history suggests that it is the policy of upgrading existing corridors which poses the more obvious threat to local services. It was his Labour government which oversaw the ill-starred upgrading of the West Coast Main Line from 1998 to 2009 at a cost of more than £9bn, the speed and capacity objectives of which have never been met, despite running approximately six times over budget. More troubling have been the subsequent effects, including significant cuts to local rail services around Manchester to squeeze in more fast trains to London, and the closure on capacity grounds of several local stations in Staffordshire. Similar results have been noted around Leeds, where the main station was rebuilt a decade or so ago, but the resulting gains in capacity were largely swallowed up by the introduction of more trains to London over existing tracks.

Equally puzzling is Lord Mandelson’s failure to note the example offered in his own former constituency of Hartlepool, where a rail service to London has been successfully reintroduced by Grand Central at no cost to the taxpayer under so-called ‘open access’ provisions. Plans for similar services running from other regional centres, including Huddersfield, Barrow-in-Furness and Stalybridge, have been on the drawing board for many years, but never introduced. Capacity released by HS2 would permit such an operation, but as there would be no public subsidy or DfT control; these savings can thus hardly be described as ‘cuts’.

Close inspection of the capacity challenge facing our rail network shows that there is almost certainly no option that allows circa £40bn to be spent on ‘other stuff’. It is rather a choice between repeating hugely expensive upgrading of ageing legacy assets (on several axes, not solely the West Coast Main Line described above) which may, experience shows, result in cuts to local provision and chronic unreliability on the trunk route, or investing in internationally-proven technology, expensive though that undoubtedly would prove.

Yours etc,