Wednesday, 25 May 2016

Beware the slow train to Inertia Central

The £750m rebuilding of Birmingham New Street station has transformed the aesthetic of the station but added no extra platforms or train paths through this notoriously congested hub. Credit: Network Rail
High Speed 2, the UK’s nascent national high speed rail network, is on the cusp of tangibility. No less than £12bn of civil works contracts for the first phase of the planned 540 km railway await sign off from HM Treasury. But much more important than that, it has started to hint at generating the kind of momentum its detractors long scorned as impossible: it is reportedly inspiring school pupils in Crewe, catalysing an inward investment agency in Birmingham and spurring fashion house Burberry’s production expansion in Leeds.

At such an important, and indeed delicate, juncture, it can hardly come as a surprise that the advocates of fudge and procrastination are once again mustering their troops in support of a Manifesto of Muddle. They may be encouraged tacitly by the Treasury, which – predictably and unsurprisingly – is bridling at the notion of a long-term, regionally-focused infrastructure programme. To adapt an infamous euphemism said to emanate from number 11 Downing Street, HS2 is not a mini-roundabout. 

Today, a group of academics and transport specialists convened by veteran railway timetabling consultant Jonathan Tyler has set out its effort to stymie the progress of HS2 in favour of what its group suggests should be an ‘independent review’ of the project. A 10-page dossier has been circulated to the trade press and, presumably, policymakers in advance of the public release on May 26; its contents are a summary of the conclusions of a workshop held at the University of York, my own alma mater, earlier in the year.

Tyler & co’s dossier initially appears to be more akin to an executive summary, yet that would imply that it offers a plan of action, when surely the reverse is true. ‘The Case for a Review’ is more nuanced title, and the document eschews emotive calls for HS2 to be cancelled, deferred or even halted. Work could continue in some form while a ‘review’ on the authors’ preferred terms is completed; this would then assess whether some, all or none of HS2 should continue.

The authors are clearly experts in their field, and clearly their conclusions should not be lightly dismissed. The dossier is as subtle as it is elaborate in its efforts to convince us that ‘alternatives’ to HS2 have not been assessed, that trains on Europe’s busiest mixed-traffic railway are mostly empty, or that scant international evidence exists to support the wider socio-economic objectives of HS2.

Indeed, the dossier, and no doubt the workshop which preceded it, are likely to easily convince those whose view of the rail network is influenced by a career during the years of managed decline, or whose eco-agenda suggests that the best kind of transport policy advocates no movement at all. To them, HS2 is clearly a gold-plated outlier, rather than a further exemplar of a mature and proven technology encompassing more than 20 000 km of successful operation in 18 countries where average speeds exceed 160 km/h.

And if there is a reason why some of the messages in Tyler’s report seem rather familiar, perhaps it’s because they are. Deftly conveyed with a gloss of academic respectability they may be, but there is little here that has not previously been addressed. And where the mask slips, some of the assertions are quite astounding. Under rail capacity, for example, the dossier argues that:

‘Euston, King’s Cross and Marylebone are the least crowded of all London termini, with a load factor on Virgin West Coast of less than 40%’

The simplistic use of load factor as a proxy for route capacity has been a standard tactic for attacking HS2 since its inception. The report cites ORR data from 2014-15, just after a programme of train lengthening from nine to 11 cars was completed by VWC, clearly implying a lag in occupancy while the market catches up. Had it not done so, the recent decision to install visual representation of seat occupancy on the departure boards at London Euston would be a curious move.

But more pertinently, the completion of both planned phases of HS2 would bring capacity relief to routes covered by approximately eight passenger franchises, so why would such an earnest report assume evidence of one is somehow representative? And lest we forget, as perhaps Tyler et al have, it is not load factor that has caused the cessation of passenger services at stations in Staffordshire in the last decade, or the axing of through trains at rush hour between mid-Cheshire and central Manchester.

Equally eyebrow raising is the revival of the moribund 51M proposal to increase WCML capacity through train lengthening and a series of incremental interventions along the route. Tyler claims this resulted in a benefit:cost ratio of 5.2, yet a peer review by Atkins subsequently reassessed 51M’s rolling stock assumptions and revised this down to just 1.6. This is not mentioned.

Perhaps most egregiously, the authors suggest that unspecified ‘new construction procedures’ mean that national infrastructure manager Network Rail can undertake ‘large projects without disproportionate changes to the everyday delivery of a train service’. They cite recent work at Norton Bridge (the £250m Stafford Area Improvements Programme) and the rebuilding of Reading station, leaving us to infer that the incremental total route modernisation approach should again be pursued, perhaps on the East Coast Main Line, where Tyler et al worry that investment could be deferred.

The isolated citation of Stafford and Reading is an appalling distortion of the context of recent railway investment, and the authors should be ashamed that they have resorted to it. This blog has already outlined the clear lessons of the Great Western Route Modernisation programme, while in the Midlands, the Stafford grade separation and rebuilding of Birmingham New Street have accounted for £1bn of expenditure and yet failed to yield a single extra peak hour train path between them. I find it hard to believe Tyler and his acolytes do not appreciate this.

Similarly predictable are a series of well-trodden tropes around sustainability, most of which focus on macro-policy outcomes (reducing the need to travel, imposing the marginal cost of transport etc), while neglecting specific practicalities (HS2, or any other electric railway service, is going to be much greener if it is powered by renewable energy, yet this is not addressed). The 400 km/h design speed is predictably invoked, alongside an assertion that lower design speeds are applied in France and Germany, and such an approach would permit ‘a less damaging route’. This blog for one remains to be convinced that a more sinuous, and almost certainly longer, alignment would reduce environmental impact, nor that more braking and acceleration would be ‘greener’.

Needless to say, the authors indulge in a well-rehearsed sleight of hand in failing to inform us that the timetabled operating speed is planned to be closer to the current international standard of 300 km/h to 330 km/h, as confirmed on the record by HS2 Ltd Technical Director Prof Andrew McNaughton.

Their report is on more consensual ground when it assesses social and economic impacts and the vagaries of economic rebalancing. But it is surprising to see that it relies strongly on citations from Prof John Tomaney at the Transport Select Committee that are now five years old, and other work – especially the World Bank’s assessments of the economic effects of China’s high speed rail boom – continue to be eschewed.

As a Rochdale native though, it is pleasing to see my home town get a mention, but the assertion that infrastructure designed to connect cities may indeed benefit cities like Manchester or Leeds is self-evident in an era of ongoing urbanisation. The authors seem to believe, as many HS2 critics do, that the railway is somehow an ‘isolated’ entity, rather than one which can plug into diverse networks at key nodes. It is noteworthy, but not mentioned in the dossier, that every one of HS2’s ‘out of town’ stations is planned to be served by urban rail routes.

The economic development of places like Bradford or Rochdale is surely bound into that of the nearest big cities, and it is desirable for new infrastructure investment to facilitate regional mobility by removing capacity-eating long-distance traffic to dedicated routes and releasing capacity on existing corridors. This must remain an overarching objective of HS2.

Lastly, our authors offer a salutary lesson about the future, where ‘external factors’ may begin to influence project appraisal processes. These too are a rehash of the eminently predictable: the use of travel time, the rise of digital technology, autonomous vehicles etc. ‘These uncertainties could rapidly multiply to the point where a favourable outcome from such a large project was most unlikely.’

What an inspiring message for those schoolkids in Crewe. The future’s suddenly become particularly unpredictable, boys and girls, so…er, best not bother.

The Treasury must be rubbing its hands in glee at the prospect of such a ringing endorsement of the cult of patch and mend.


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