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Realism should rule in infrastructure debate

So here we are again. Business case for High Speed 2, take five. In some ways this reminds me a little of Lewis Carroll’s the Hunting of the Snark — not a poem in several chapters, according to Carroll, but an Agony, in several Fits. The progress of HS2 is indeed agonising, and the paroxysms of opposition do seem fit-like. And, like much of Carroll’s work, many dismiss it as nonsense.

There are those who think that taking five tries at the business case for such a large project smacks of desperation. Among those is Evan Davies, presenter of Radio 4’s Today programme, who noted that the argument in the new document had shifted from the increased speed of travel to the improvements in carrying capacity. Doesn’t that mean you’ve run out of ideas, he asked transport secretary Patrick McLoughlan yesterday.

double decker train

Double decker trains: not likely to be an easy or cheap option for the UK

But of course capacity has been at the centre of the strategy of HS2 from the start, as readers of our coverage of the project will know. The Engineer has been broadly supportive of HS2 because we’ve always spoken to the engineers involved in planning the project rather than politicians, and they’ve given us arguments that make more sense. Whether they make £50bn-worth of sense is another matter, and that’s an argument worth having (and where our support comes up against serious questions).

It’s the issue of capacity and alternatives which the latest study seeks to answer. This government’s record with statistics is dodgy to say the least, so its conclusions must be subject to scrutiny. But the assertion that upgrading the West Coast Mainline to provide the same capacity benefits as HS2 would lead to 14 years of service disruption and weekend closures should at least inject some more realism into the arguments of HS2 critics.

It’s always seemed that suggesting the approach of upgrading existing lines as an alternative has seemed glib, as though it would be easy, or cheap, or free from any disruption. Whether or not the business case document is correct, there can be little doubt that such a severe upgrade would cause a long period of chaos. Other ‘simple’ fixes would surely also require more complex work than might first appear — can you just replace current rolling stock with double-decker trains without extensive rail replacement, reinforcement, rebuilding of bridges, and station refurbishment to cope with extra passengers?

If the report refocuses the pro and con camps on the actual issues, rather than on rhetoric which doesn’t address the actual engineering, then that has to be a good thing. A project such as this needs to be discussed, and not in the context of political point-scoring and hysteria.

The argument that HS2 will take express trains off the West Coast line and allow it to carry more stopping services seems sound and is familiar to us. It’s also argued that this would allow the West Coast to carry more freight, taking heavy traffic off the road. The arguments are strongly dependent on the demand for rail continuing to rise, and this is something worth debating — with increasing internet capacity and ‘virtual meetings’, do businesspeople really need to travel that much? If not, would non-business travel justify the cost? Would people rather take the train than drive?

We idly wondered whether the arguments over HS2 would have been different if the project were scheduled to start in the North, with phase one connecting Leeds and Manchester to Birmingham and phasetwo completing the link to London. Would there have been less opposition, with the plan more clearly emphasising the connectivity where there is currently none? The cynical view is that of course there wouldn’t – the opponents would just be saying “Why build the line in the North where there aren’t enough people to use it? Put it in the South where the trains are so full that the doors won’t close!”

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Readers' comments (27)

  • I think the northern sections will be all that we should consider building. Fewer excuses to travel to London will perhaps make the southern section largely a luxury we can do without. London is well served with transport even now.

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  • Re-opening the Great Central line would increase capacity with virtually no disruption to existing lines and would be much lower cost. Money saved could be used on other projects such as Oxford - Cambridge and bottle necks in the north.

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  • The threats of disruption to WCML and indeed ECML and MM is a equal on both sides of the argument on HS2. (8-10 years at Euston according to HS2 Ltd) The road disruption to motorways and major trunk roads during construction will be considerably worse if HS2 goes ahead.

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  • Well at least HS2 has got engineering in the news.

    Capacity is of course the real reason for justifying the project. Another supporting one I would add is that the UK suffers from the twin issues of having the world's oldest network - compounded by the fact that due to an abundance of coal it continued far later in the steam age than was good for it, and the network shows the mark of this from tight rail curvatures, narrow tunnels, arguably difficulties with signaling etc. By preserving old bridges even we cannot take advanteages of new forms of civil engineering (composites anyone?)

    HS2 should allow for a demonstration of how a 21st century version of what is disparagingly often called a Victorian technology - can be built - without the drag of the legacy of the past. Of course by allowing the bean counters (of both shades of green) to have undue influence if it does go ahead, we will end up with one that may as well have been designed and built with 1965 technolgies.

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  • £50bn would install enough tidal generation to make new nuclear the more expensive, short-term option, saddled with huge decommissioning costs.

    Tidal should be designed, built, paid for and publicly owned by Britain. Neither nuclear nor HS2 look like they'll deliver such desirable benefits.

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  • And building tidal generation would solve the capacity problem on the railways how, exactly?

  • £50 billion could also clean up the Fukushima mess. I too listen to Today.

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  • Why should UK money clean up Fukushima, and again, how does that address lack of Railway capacity?

  • There is one simple way to increase capacity - run the trains closer together !
    We see repeated proposals to do this with cars on motorways, it would be much simpler with trains. Smaller stations would need to be modified to allow through trains to bypass them when others are stopped. We could build the new control systems etc. that would be needed then sell them to the rest of the world. We led the world in Victorian times, HS2 is just an extension of that. We should lead the next railway revolution.

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  • Replacing signalling systems is not 'simple'. Ask anyone who tried to use London's Victoria Line in the last few years.

  • I wonder if building the thing won't increase the number of people who decide to travel rather than catering for an increased demand.

    I am inclined to scoff at the speed argument but there is a turning point where some minutes saved make you decide that you can "get there and back" without it being more trouble than it's worth. i.e. once you get the journey under a maximum acceptable travel time it will trigger people to use it. In such cases, not building it would just make people accept a marginally less desirable situation of having to use the phone.

    As an example - the internet is full of traffic from 'file sharing' (i.e. piracy) sites, people using youtube, playing games etc. This is all great but are we ready for the transport equivalent?

    I am glad you mentioned double decker trains because to me that mirrors the difference between Concorde and the 747. Is speed the cheapest way to increase capacity?

    e.g. I can imagine doubling the speed of trains, perhaps tripling it - at what point does it become very difficult to increase capacity by increasing speed? Could you grow more by preparing the kind of track that would eventually allow double-wide, double-height trains rather than ones that go 4x as fast? Presumably you need to build new track in both cases but a 2w2h train could also presumably be made to go a bit faster if you built the track well to start with.

    I would like to see options to capacity being discussed since that's the crux of the issue - even if it's only to show why they are not the answer.

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  • HS2 is proposed to increase capacity by creating a new route for express services, not by travelling faster.

  • OK, if it's just a new route that's needed then why does it have to be high-speed?

    If the speed is just to make the route "suck up" traffic to free the rest of the network then why couldn't it suck up that traffic with taller trains rather than faster ones?

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  • As it was explained to us, if you're going to build a new line from scratch, you might as well make it high speed, because the extra cost is minimal.

  • Chaps, there are some very pertinent points here but I'm starting to get confused. Sticking a bullet train on a track used by normal trains is asking for trouble. OK, I hear you say, it will be on a separate track (will it, when they start the cost cutting measures, are you sure?) 200 miles per hour is OK cross country in the US or Australia but let’s face it, is the UK really big enough when the major cities are less than 200 miles apart. I just don’t get the speed argument and faster is not necessarily better. (Especially the way cars and pedestrians ignore red lights these days. We are talking about 50 BILLION pounds here, forget old hats and excuses, I vote for monorail, or for all those who don’t want an eyesore in their backyard, set the TBM’s boring now, technology can put picture screens where the windows should be (ALA BBC Breakfast News), it works in London and it would work here. Up here in the North we have plenty of disused coal mining tunnels that we could link in to. It’s not cloud cuckoo land, it’s the future and we have the technology. I too watch the Simpsons.

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