HS2 should be shunted to the sidings

by Rob Williams

The ill-conceived HS2 project loses more support by the day. The Public Accounts Committee recently published a report which says it is beset by spiralling costs, a lack of expertise and unrealistic delivery timetables. In the summer, Peter Mandelson and former Transport Secretary Alistair Darling argued that this is one infrastructure scheme that really deserves to hit the buffers.

Now, shadow treasury chief secretary Rachel Reeves, said Labour would cancel it “if we don’t think it’s good value for money and costs continue to rise”.

The economic case for HS2, always rather weak, gets worse by the week,. The cost of this already expensive project has been revealed to have gone up by £10 billion to £42 billion. And this excludes the actual trains to run on the line, which would add another £7 billion.

Perhaps this is why the government doesn’t talk too much about the Business Case for HS2 any more (it is now close to 1:1, which means, basically, that there is no benefit). And much of that benefit is based on the ridiculous assumption that business travellers do no work on trains.

So now Patrick McLoughlin says cutting 20 minutes off journey times between London and Birmingham is “almost irrelevant. It should always have been about capacity.” Well, yes. Increasing capacity on the railways is certainly necessary but the trouble is, with HS2 increased capacity will take a long, long time to deliver. Phase 1 of HS2 on its own – the London to Birmingham line – will not be running until 2026 at the very earliest. We are going to have a long wait for the next high speed train.

Remember, too, that HS2 will not just be damaging to the Chilterns. Even though plans to demolish and rebuild Euston station have been dropped there will still be major disruption and demolition around the station. The Labour leader of Camden council, Sarah Hayward, has said, “there will be no regeneration or economic benefits while homes will be demolished, communities destroyed and businesses wiped out, this entire scheme is ill conceived and poorly planned – and Camden will bear the brunt of HS2’s incompetence.”

What we do know is that HS2 will not deliver its dubious benefits until 2026. What happens in the meantime? In particular, Milton Keynes and Northampton peak overcrowding is a problem now. I do not think that that waiting until 2026 is realistic. Rather than spending £42 billion on a project which won’t deliver its “benefits” for decades, there are a number of viable, effective and significantly cheaper alternatives which make transport sense and would even be politically beneficial.

Labour finally made a commitment to electrify more main lines far too late in its dying days, but at least it was a step in the right direction. At least the current government has committed to electrifying and upgrading the Midland Main Line beyond Bedford to Nottingham, Derby and Sheffield. If it agreed to electrify and further upgrade the much improved Chiltern Line – where journey times to Birmingham are already only about 10 minutes less than on the West Coast Main Line (WCML), there would be viable alternative routes to Birmingham, and further north.

Pendolino trains on the West Coast Main Line are being converted to carry more standard class passengers. Indeed, the number of Standard class seats will be increased by 42% with the introduction of four new Pendolino trains and the lengthening of 31 of the 52 trains using the route.

To further increase passenger capacity, for very little cost, the excessively blunt instrument of airline style demand management systems for ticketing on the railways could be amended.  Virgin trains might boast of three trains per hour between London and Birmingham but, if advance fares are restricted to one train per day, with penalty fares in the stratosphere if you take the wrong train, then frequency is irrelevant.

As transport commentator Christian Wolmar – who is seeking the nomination to become Labour’s mayor of London says, “There would be so many better things to do with £50bn, like ensuring all our towns and cities had good public transport systems, with lots of trams, modern frequent bus services and good cycle infrastructure.”

Even if we weren’t living through the biggest recession since 1945, it would be hard to justify spending so much money on a project that will benefit so few people, so many years from now.

Its time for this project to be shunted to the sidings. Labour should withdraw support for HS2 and pledge to invest in better transport schemes that will benefit the whole country. We need excellent railways for the many, not high speed rail for the few.

Robert Williams works in public affairs and as a journalist

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4 Responses to “HS2 should be shunted to the sidings”

  1. HS2 is the wrong solution to a real capacity problem.
    Magtrac is a low cost alternative to HS2 that is worth looking at. It’s a proposal for an engineering upgrade to existing lines that would increase their capacity without compromising on safety. For details visit http://www.cheshire-innovation.com/Transport%20internet.htm

  2. Ali Dalby says:

    Christian Wolmar’s bid for Mayor is about the most hilarious mismatch I can think of between a person’s overweening self-regard and their complete lack of ability.

    It’s no surprise that Rob Williams is working for Wolmar, it’s just a bit pathetic that Labour Uncut is letting him write this guff without declaring his vested interest.

    Wolmar’s message of ‘screw the regions, London deserves all the money’ is hardly going to get him the support of the party, unions or grassroots.

    Britain deserves better than this…

  3. Rational Plan says:

    It is not ill conceived at all. Not that anyone ever does bother but look at network rails route utilisation strategies, where it looks at what investment brings affordable increases in capacity in each line. For route after route, within the next 20 years all the easy options will have been exhausted.

    you can only extend existing platforms so far, before you start running into bridges, tunnels and expensive railway junctions. Or to often buildings.

    Many lines are being extended at the moment and quite a few will have to operate with selective door opening because they can’t afford to extend the platforms for the number of passengers who get off there.

    The author blindly notes about all the extra carriages already being put on the main line or the Chiltern route, yet somehow think that is not being taken into consideration on traffic growth projections.

    The truth the road network is full and it only take a small percentage of that traffic to divert to the railways for it to see massive growth,considering that the road network handles 86% of all traffic. Rail traffic has grown through the recession, much higher than the base predictions used in the forecast models in the HS2. At this rate we will run out of capacity on the main routes a lot quicker than predicted.

    New rail lines will be needed quite soon. And no it is not easier to widen existing routes, just consider the towns that now gug close to the rail lines and think of all the demolition needed. Nor can we simply double deck the train as we have a much smaller loading guauge than the European network and the cost would be astronomical.

    To maximise the capacity on any train line you need trains running at the same speed and stopping at the stations.

    The best thing to do is to get the fast trains off the existing lines, this allows a lot more trains to run and stop at smaller stations.

    A high speed train network is much more efficient than a traditional line, because the same number of trains can make twice as many trips a day (assuming double the average speed) with the same number of staff. These new lines will support double deck trains and train almost double the length if existing ones.

    this is a massive increase in capacity run at the same cost as conventional trains. It will lead to much lower fares.

    Opponents seemed to have have spent their time making up claims about the oosts of the scheme casually doubling or tripling the cost without basis.

    51m’s so called alternative plans called for half the money to go on new motorways and fibre optics and just £2 billion on new rail capacity. Their plans amounted to closing railway stations in smaller towns so more express trains can run with those places served by buses instead.

    The real reason why certain politicians want to cancel HS2 is so they can so sound like they are making tough decisions , because the total cost sounds such a lot. What they fail to mention of course is that it’s a twenty year program at £2 billion a year.

    It;s like the bankers bonuses you can keep announcing what that money can be spent on, but eventually people will notice that you’ve spent that money several times over. For example people say it would be better spent on the NHS, but it won’t make any difference at all considering that over 20 years the NHS will consume £2 trillion.

    The money spent on this new railway line will provide a good return over many decades, beware those who would rather fritter it away on other programmes.

  4. Dave says:

    There is a clear dividing line between the visionaries who see that HS2 is a world class, long term solution, and the flat-worlders who think we should just stick an extra couple of carriages onto the Liverpool Lime Street to Euston express.

    We have a geographically long country, and internal travel between London and the regions is more difficult than in counties of comparable size. Massive connectivity between London and the regions with HS2. And the north shouldn’t be the end, the project should be planned up to Edinburgh/Glasgow pronto.

    We’d both end the market for internal flights, and increase business connectivity in the UK. And get rid of this idea that we can just add onto Victorian infrastructure by piecemeal, rather than build our own grand projects fit for the next 100 years.

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