Myth Busting The Spin of Yes to HS2

The new campaign group ‘Yes to High Speed Rail’ that was being promoted by The Secretary of State for Transport.

We ask you just to consider the facts about their claims at www.campaignforhsr.com/myth-busting .  Then judge for yourself.

 Quotes from ‘Yes to High Speed Rail’ in black, HS2AA responses in red

Demand for travel by car is stagnating 1 – but demand for long distance travel by rail and air is growing. This is based on long terms trends towards population growth, greater wealth, service-based industries, and increased congestion on the roads.

Demand for both total and long distance domestic travel has indeed stagnated.  Total long distance domestic trips per person have not increased at all since 1995 ie for the last 15 years.  Trips over 50 miles were some 20 per person in 1995/7 and 19 per person in 2009, and trips over 100 miles were 7 per person in 1995/7 and still 7 in 2009 (according to the National Travel Survey).  Both long distance car and domestic air journeys per person peaked well before the recession – even DfT in their case for HS2 accept this[1]

Rail is the exception and has grown, increasing its share of a saturated market.  But there are special reasons: improved services, airline style pricing, greater government subsidy and new technologies increasingly making time on board trains useful.  It cannot go on indefinitely and without new reasons. Prior to privatisation, rail had decades without any increases in passengers.

The business case for high speed rail depends on increases in demand lower than those experienced in the last fifteen years. It assumes (somewhat artificially) that there will be no more growth only eight years after the line is opened.

The business case does use forecasts that are less than for the last 15 years, but they are still too high. We agree that growth certainly should have been stopped eight years after opening (we think earlier), but it is actually stopped 18 years, not eight years, later – in 2043!  And according to Sir Rod Eddington the model that DfT use for forecasting is not suited for such long periods.

‘ DfT are bending their own advice to try to get demand to double – not because this is inherently reasonable but because no semblance of a case can be made for HS2 without it!

If DfT had stopped growth eight years after HS2 opened, which of course means it still keeps growing for a full 25 years from the 2008 base period, and if DfT had used their latest forecasting factors[2], then the increase in demand would have been less.  These issues cause demand to be inflated by some 47%[3].

Internationally, the most successful high speed lines have been between cities at similar distances to those the UK is facing, such as the Paris-Lyon line in France, the Tokyo-Osaka section of the Japanese Shinkansen, or the Frankfurt-Cologne line in Germany. The latter is around 110 miles, the same distance that separates London and Birmingham

 The UK is not catching up with the rest of the world in terms of inter city connectivity.  They are catching up with us.  Journey times between our capital city and the next five largest conurbations are shorter than for our major European competitors[4]. This was what Sir Rod Eddington found in 2006, and it’s still true. 

 Let’s look at the quoted cases, as well as Madrid – Seville that is often mentioned too:

  Distance Pre – HSR Post – HSR
Tokyo – Osaka 515km 6hrs 30mins 3hrs 10mins (now 2hrs 30mins)
Madrid – Seville 472km 6hrs 30mins 2hrs 45 mins (now 2hrs 30 mins)
Paris – Lyon 431km 4hrs 1hrs 55 mins
Frankfurt – Cologne 180km 2hrs 20 mins 1hr 10 mins (1hr 2mins, Koln Deutz station)
London – Manchester 296km 2hr 08mins 1hr 13 mins proposed (from 2032)
London – Birmingham 182km 1hr 24 mins 49 mins proposed

What is striking is that in the quoted cases the journey times all more than halved, and with the exception of one case the distances are not similar.  The Frankfurt Cologne section of railway is short, but the journey time improvement was massive – to 62/70 minutes from 140.  The journey time to Birmingham is only 84 minutes now, and Virgin Trains say that they could deliver 70 minutes[5] – on the existing track.  The Frankfurt Cologne connection is an intercity railway effectively on the UK model. 

So, yes, if you don’t have a decent intercity network there is a case for building one.  But if you have one already?

It does not necessarily follow that refining the Government’s estimate will hurt the case for High Speed 2. Business travellers value journey time savings highly. If time on trains can be valuable to businesses, then that increases the costs from overcrowded trains. Preliminary estimates suggest that the latter effect is more important, and introducing more realistic estimates of the worth of time on trains can actually improve the case for HS2

The analysis that shows that relief of crowding counteracts the loss in benefit to HS2 from accepting that journey time savings do not improve productivity, is very preliminary indeed.  If you take a realistic alternative to HS2 – such as the alternative of improving the existing infrastructure on WCML as developed for HS2 – there is actually less crowding.

 So far from crowding considerations redressing the loss of benefit to HS2, they exacerbate it.

Only the construction of an entirely new standard line can come close in terms of matching the increase in capacity, but this would only save 9% of the costs of a new high speed line while foregoing about 30% of the benefits.5 In contrast, to deliver half the capacity increase from a new line between London and Birmingham would require major upgrades to four stations (Euston, Paddington, Birmingham Moor Street and Manchester Piccadilly) as well as an extensive programme of track upgrades. This could end up costing more than a new high speed line, and would in any case mean many years of delays and disruption for passengers. The West Coast Route Modernisation cost £8.9bn and took almost a decade.

No one is suggesting a new conventional railway.  And no one is suggesting the lavish and unnecessary rail upgrades to the Chiltern Line considered in the Atkins work and called Rail Packages 3 to 5. 

 Rail Package 2 (RP2), that just improves WCML, delivers more than the total extra capacity needed to 2043 – as proved by it having a lower level of crowding than in 2008 or for HS2.  It is a small fraction of the cost of HS2, is better value for money, and can deliver important additional capacity – for example for the already heavily crowded Milton Keynes and Northampton to Euston commuter services – earlier than HS2 can.

 RP2 does not require work at Birmingham Moor Street or Paddington; and the work at Manchester Piccadilly (to handle the same train frequency as HS2 requires for the London-West Midlands phase) is apparently not needed for HS2 business case as it assumes the work is already done for the Northern Hub.  The three extra platforms at Euston (on adjacent railway land) are probably avoidable with the rail upgrade, but HS2 involves the complete replacement of Euston over a period of seven to eight years. 

There is no comparison between RP2 and HS2 in terms of service disruption – HS2 would be massively worse.

Comparisons between RP2 and the West Coast Route Modernisation are disingenuous.  With RP2 we are looking at relieving pinch points, not wholesale replacement of track signalling and power supply.

High Speed One was completed on time and on budget for November 2007.7 The construction costs used to calculate the business case include allowances of over 60% for risk and optimism bias.

 A government sponsored major construction project to time and budget?  That would be the exception that proves the rule! 

But then HS1 wasn’t built by the government, they just took it over when it went broke!

Many people complain about the state of our rail system. They complain that there are not enough services and that relatively short journeys take too long. We agree. A high speed rail network will not only create new, faster services between our major cities, but it will significantly improve existing services by increasing capacity. Spending more on roads might be a positive step but it does not get over the fact that we need a better rail system.

 Increasing capacity does not improve services.  New services need to be paid for.  Recently about half the cost of the railway is met from fares with the other half by the tax payer.  If HSR frees up capacity by taking the lion’s share of passengers, does anyone think that services on the existing lines will do anything but contract?  Where would the money come from – yet more subsidies?  You pay a £17bn subsidy to build HS2 and then need an on-going subsidy to maintain, let alone improve, existing services?

 Clearly no one has looked at what the HS2 business case assumes about existing services. It assumes what looks like a £5.4bn saving in operating costs from reduced existing services (£2.3bn in the first phase and a further £3.1bn on the Y). So if these savings are to be wiped out (by maintaining current services) then the case for HS2 is even worse value for money.   

When thinking about subsidies it is worth remembering that it is the highest earners who most use long distance rail (47% of journeys are by the top 20% earners).  And travelling isn’t exactly the greenest thing we do, so why subsidise it?

 The twice yearly National Passenger Survey provides an independent measure of rail passenger satisfaction.  Not only does the latest Autumn 2010 survey show record overall satisfaction levels (at 84%) but the vast majority of passengers are satisfied (85%) with their scheduled journey times ie speed, and their service frequency (77%). For the routes at issue the figures are higher. Of course there is always room for improvement but it must be justified against the opportunity cost of spending £30bn in other ways.

 And what do the general public think? A March 2011 Ipsos Mori[6] poll found just 4% thought it should be a government priority, only 1% more than in March 2010 – hardly a testament to the public’s belief in the proposals and business case.  The March 2011 Labour Party on-line poll had over 90% against the Government’s high speed rail plans.

The way the spending is planned means the Government will not be spending significant sums at a time when they are trying to sort of the economy. The Government will not start spending properly on high speed rail until the building starts early in the next Parliament. By that time – under the Government’s plans – the structural deficit will have been eliminated. The money for high speed rail comes from a strategic pot of infrastructure funding like Crossrail.We currently spend about £2bn a year on Crossrail, when that spending begins reducing we will then start to spend about £2bn a year for 15 years on high speed rail.It is therefore completely funded within even the current very tight spending envelope.

 The Government plans to spend ‘over £750 million’ before the end of the current parliament, some people would call that proper money. Even if the government has stopped spending more than it collects in taxes before the really heavy spending starts, we will still have colossal debt some £1.3 trillion[7].  The idea that there isn’t a problem with adding to it is irresponsible.  And the idea there is a ‘strategic pot’ that would fund HS2 is pure deception – it will need to be funded out of taxation just as Crossrail is.  There is no painless pot of money, it must come out of the taxpayer’s pocket.  And if we spend it on HS2 the money is not available for students, nurses, or care for the elderly.

If HS2 made economic sense we would have to tighten our belts and put up well over the £1000 per household that it would cost.  But as HS2 is a waste of money.  Let’s not try to pretend that it doesn’t matter because the money is somehow free: it isn’t.



[1] Figure 2, Economic Case for HS2: The Y Network and London – West Midlands’, February 2011

[2] DfT still use the forecasting factors from PDFH4.1 (and not the latest version PDFH5.0) despite the DfT commissioned research by Arup and Oxera confirming that the ‘distance term’ used in PDFH4.1 elasticity no longer applies (presentation to TEG, 23 February 2011)

[3] See HS2AA Initial review of consultation business case, March 2011

[4] See Myth 6: the UK lacks a fast national railway network, HS2AA, January 2011 extract

[5] Tony Collins (Chief Executive, Virgin Trains) says London –Birmingham International achievable in under 60 minutes (Birmingham Post, 8 March 2011).  Current journey time from Birmingham New Street to Birmingham International is 10 minutes.

[6] Ipsos Mori poll for RAC Foundation, March 2011

[7] ‘Economic and Fiscal Outlook’, OBR, November 2010, Table 4.23

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