Hammond Losing The Plot on HS2

The Secretary of State (SoS) says in recent speeches and correspondence that he is unconvinced that the alternatives to HSR proposals are credible[1]or practical[2]options.

So let’s look at his six arguments in terms of the facts his own Department have published.

1. New capacity required: SoS places much emphasis on the capacity challenge, and that a new line is the way to meet this huge projected demand, rather than improving existing lines.

We would agree with the SoS that the key issue is capacity and not speed.

His own Department has developed an option for improving WCML- Rail Package 2 (RP2). It may not be the best option, but its good enough to be preferable to HS2.

A major benefit of improving WCML compared to building HS2, is the improvements can be done in stages, and as demand develops. Not only is this prudent practice given the uncertainty in demand forecasts but it avoids the problem repeatedly referred to – of capacity running out in 7 to 10 years[3], which is of course long before HS2 will ever be built. If the SoS’s demand estimates are right the overcrowding that would result could only be alleviated by improving WCML.

So could RP2 meet the forecast demand? Yes and it would do it better than HS2! On HS2 Ltds modelling RP2 would accommodate all the demand they forecast for it with less crowding than HS2 (a load factor of 53%, compared to 61% on HS2).

So RP2 is cheaper (£2bn), better value for money (NBR 3.63), and meets all the demand. So why don’t we do it? DfT tell us that RP2 gives nowhere near the capacity they require. They want spare capacity to run additional local and freight services, should it ever prove necessary. So DfT are replacing the doubtful policy of ‘predict and provide’ with the economically squanderous one of ‘predict and over-provide’.

But de-bottlenecking WCML also creates spare capacity for other services besides the intercity ones. It is surprising that if spare capacity is really so important, that DfT haven’t bothered to assess it for RP2.

Its worth noting that RP2 costs just 2 to 3 times what is being spent on planning for HS2 in this term of parliament (over £750m).

2. Poorer reliability: SoS says upgrading WCML would cause reliability to ‘undoubtedly deteriorate’ by ‘trying to squeeze ever more capacity out of existing, mixed-use, railway lines’ while HS2 could improve reliability by‘increasing segregation between different service types’

Let’s see whether the improvements to the WCML (under RP2) would affect reliability.

First, the existing headways would be maintained, that’s the time interval between trains. Second, much would be done by running longer trains and that doesn’t damage reliability. Third, running more trains, that is achieved by separating out fast and slow traffic and junction changes. This makes both fast and slow trains less susceptible to interference with each other. Fourth, there will be faster commuter trains that won’t clog up the fast lines.

This is not a recipe for worse reliability.

3. More disruption: SoS refers to the disruption that would be caused by delivering huge capacity improvements on the busiest commuter line and refers to the disruption caused by last WCML upgrade (4 Nov speech)

The last WCML upgrade started as an exercise in stupendous optimism. It was to be the first application of a yet to be developed technology that did away with the cost and capacity limitations of line side signals and train detection. It was a case study in how not to do a project. It involved completely renewing track signaling and electrification – the same track and signalling that the services need to use on a daily basis.

Lessons have been learnt: Chiltern Railway (with its Evergreen projects) show how it can be done to time, budget, with minimum disruption, and without subsidy.

As the SoS knows RP2 is totally unlike the previous WCML route modernization project. It’s about addressing specific pinchpoints. Much can be achieved without interfering with the track in use and how to mitigate impacts is even discussed in the write up published. Crucially there are opportunities for further lengthening the fleet (to 11 car on all services and 12 car for all but Liverpool), which is not disruptive.

There will be some disruption to passengers (again factored in by DfT’s plans), but minor compared to the disruption and dislocation HS2’s construction will wreak on communities the length of the line for years at a time

4. Demolition of houses: SoS says ‘a very large number of houses would need to be demolished’ (4 Nov speech) if WCML were up graded to provide the capacity improvements.

The SoS may inadvertently be reading the wrong brief!

It’s HS2 that requires a swathe cut into central Birmingham for a new station, and effectively a new station built at Euston, on ground that people currently live on. It will also cut a swathe through the countryside demolishing and rendering uninhabitable numerous dwellings. This is in contrast to RP2 for which the creation of the additional platforms at Euston and Manchester can, like almost all the other improvements, be achieved on existing railway property.

Its staggering that SoS rejects improving existing infrastructure on basis of its impact on residents, when the alternative that he supports is building a new railway that has massive impacts on 100,000s of residents, businesses and habitats.

5 No huge journey time improvements: SoS says ‘no upgrade of existing infrastructure can deliver the huge improvements in journey times’ that HS2 delivers (4 Nov speech)

He is right! It is entirely true that the alternatives cannot deliver huge improvements in journey times. But the journey time savings the SoS refers to are worth little. The reason his Department thinks a 30 minute saving is so important is because they believe no one works on trains and so there will be a massive productivity benefit from reducing this wasted time.

The SoS has himself expressed disquiet at this assumption[4], but said it would make little difference to the answers. In fact it makes a massive difference as it accounts for a quarter of the benefits. To ignore the increasing use of technology by passengers on trains never mind now but in the future is simply unrealistic.

It is no defense to say its just using standard DfT assumptions, its still at odds with the facts, never mind past studies done for DfT on this topic. Neither is it a defense to say sometimes people are not working but using their laptops for leisure purposes[5], unless of course we never do this in working time elsewhere! In fact DfT recognize the issue may not be a gain in working time but a loss by referring to studies that show people would not use the time ‘saved’ usefully, but waste it for example getting up later[6]!

It is not as if our current journey times are poor by comparison with the rest of Europe. Again the facts speak for themselves. What Eddington said about the UK having extensive fast inter-city services is still true. We have routes capable of 200km/h (125mph) – with quicker rail journey times between the capital and the five largest cities than in other major West European countries (averaging 145 mins in UK, 151 mins Spain, 184 mins Italy, 221mins France, and 244 mins Germany).

6. No transformation benefits: SoS says a new high speed network would bring ‘a step-change transformation to of our economic geography’ (4 Nov speech), that would not be delivered by an upgrade to existing infrastructure.

He is right that an upgrade would not deliver transformational benefits. But neither would HS2. Nobody has yet produced credible evidence that HS2 would deliver any rebalancing of the economy, never mind ‘tackle the north/south divide more effectively than half a century of regional policy,’ as the SoS said.

The wider economic benefits, such as they are, are already included in the business case using DfT’s approach – and they were just 11% of HS2s benefits (£3.6bn). But HS2 Ltd thought there might be something extra and employed experts from Imperial College to assess whether high speed connections would lead to economic growth. but they got a disappointing answer – the potential was very small – £8-10m/a.

The Transport Select Committee has heard evidence from two recognized experts in this area (one who advises HS2 Ltd) who both said there is ‘no convincing evidence base’ to support transformational benefits. Surely the SoS does not want to build a railway on basis of unsupported supposition?

The Prime Minister says HS2 will breathe economic life beyond the M25. But the best regeneration prospect identified by HS2 Ltd is Old Oak Common. Not in the West Midlands, not outside the M25, not even outside the North Circular!

In fact the redistributive effects may mean its London, UK’s dominant city, not the regions that benefits. Buried in the detail is a DfT assumption that trips to London will grow twice as fast as those from london – and given 70% will be leisure travelers, the consequences are obvious.

One can only deduce the current emphasis on transformational benefits is to create a smokescreen behind which the Government can attempt urgent repairs on business case already holed below the water line


HS2 Action Alliance

20 November 2010

[1] Speech by Philip Hammond at Transport Times High Speed Rail Conference (4 Nov. 2010)

[2] Response by Philip Hammond to oral question raised by Tony Baldry, MP (28 October)

[3] Theresa Villiers at Lobby Day 25 October, Portcullis House

[4] At meetings with representatives on the route on 22 September eg in Amersham

[5] At meetings with representatives on the route on 22 September eg in Amersham

[6] As raised at the HS2 Ltd/DfT Technical Seminars of October/