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,


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