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We're still in the dark over high-speed rail

Another day, another voice criticising the government’s plans for high-speed rail. This time it’s the National Audit Office, which argues the business case and the strategic reasons for developing HS2 haven’t been made clear enough.

Yesterday’s report concluded that the Department for Transport has put a high emphasis on the journey-time savings without clearly showing how this will benefit the economy, particularly outside of London.

The NAO also says it isn’t clear whether the business case presented so far includes the second phase of the scheme connecting Birmingham with Manchester and Leeds, which has a stronger but less certain economic case because designs are less well developed.

You don’t need to convince The Engineer that the plans for HS2 and the reasons for building it haven’t been laid out clearly enough – we’ve been saying so for a year. The NAO report really just underlines the point that what’s needed is more information.

Despite presenting itself in a defensive way (such is politics), the government in a sense agrees with this point. Transport secretary Patrick McLoughlin released a statement saying the NAO’s argument ‘depends too much on out of date analysis and does not give due weight to the good progress that has been made since last year’.

The DfT told The Engineer a more advanced business case was already underway and would be finalised later this year. And it claimed the NAO had largely overlooked the case for the second phase of the project (it seems like everyone’s doing this).

In response, the NAO said its report was based on the latest available data, and at this point the whole thing threatened to descend into political squabbling.

The difficulty is that a project as huge, costly and time-consuming as HS2 is very difficult to effectively analyse. The latest consultations on the scheme will likely conclude before we’re able to see the latest data – which might help convince people of HS2’s benefits – but even once we have it, how much faith can we really place in it?

Take the argument that the construction of a high-speed rail network will reduce carbon emissions by encouraging people to take the train rather than fly or drive. As the IET’s transport policy adviser, Chris Richards, pointed out to me (and, indeed, people have been saying for years), it’s not actually clear high-speed rail travel would make substantial carbon savings.

Even if we shift to low-carbon electricity generation, HS2 trains will need much more energy than current ones to reach their high speeds. Plus, we don’t even know HS2 will encourage a significant number of people to drive or fly less given how much more expensive train travel already is and our inability to reliably predict future oil prices.

Similarly with the business case, conflicting information abounds on whether effectively bringing Manchester, Leeds, Birmingham and London closer together will help regenerate the North of England or suck more wealth and talent into the South, pulling investment away from smaller towns in the process.

Chris Richards, who added that the IET has long been highlighting the flaws in the government’s analysis, said the new report raised memories of a previous NAO study of HS1 (the Channel Tunnel rail link).

‘The original business case for HS1 included things like journey time savings but the report found the project cost exceeded the value of these time savings. Unfortunately for HS2, they’ve used exactly the same rationale. In 2026 we could suddenly turn around and find the project costs completely outweigh the benefits.’

The thing is we don’t now see HS1 as having been a big waste of money. Even if the line hasn’t lived up to all its expectations, we generally view the benefits of a direct high-speed connection to Europe as worthwhile.

So perhaps we need to start stripping away the tangential arguments and looking simply at what is the best way to match rail capacity to demand. We need to see HS2 as what it is: not a way to shave 20 minutes off a trip from London to Birmingham or a carbon-cutting measure but an attempt to improve the wider rail network and inject some international prestige into our infrastructure.

Many people, including the NAO, say the arguments for alternative options (another upgrade of the West Coast Mainline, for example) haven’t been properly explored. Engineers at the IET, IMechE and other organisations disagree. Ultimately it becomes a political decision based on how much the British public and business community want a big upgrade of the railways at a cost of £30bn.

Readers' comments (20)

  • HS2 is only worth doing it we can afford the fares charged once it is in operation. Reduced journey times will attract a premium compared to the price of tickets for conventional rail. As rail fares already attract criticism for being too high, how much of a market is there for HS2?

    On a personal level, HS2 will only become useful to me when it reaches Scotland. At my age, the whole issue may be a moot point!

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  • The future of high speed rail.

    There has been great volumes of talk recently about the high speed rail links proposed for the UK and I feel obliged to pitch in with my thoughts on the issue. Let me first state that although I currently work as a Design Engineer for a company which designs and manufactures products for the rail industry worldwide, the opinions expressed here are my personal view and in no way reflect any opinions or policies of my employer.

    While I accept that the UK's rail network lags behind the rest of Europe and that years of under investment have left it in need of much improvement. I have yet to be convinced that HS2 is the best answer. My feeling is that the political weight behind this plan comes from the desire for Great Brittan to be seen to be joining in with the expansion of high speed rail that has happened in mainland Europe and is being wholehearted embraced in China, and as such, is the desire for a "me too" product rather than part of any coordinated or integrated transport policy. The fundamental problem with HS2 is that it is nineteenth century technology. It's a big heavy train, it just goes faster than the ones we have now. Here in lies the problem, to accelerate large masses to high speed takes time and therefore distance as well as energy, hence the stations need to be few and far between or you will never get up to speed. In a small relatively densely populated country like ours the system only really works for people already close to the stations.

    If we can afford to invest the time and money for HS2 I think it would be better to try and develop a transport system for the twenty first century and lead the world rather than following. The automotive industry is already pointing the way. There have been recent experiments conducted into wirelessly connected vehicles travelling in convoy, so that the lead vehicle controls the speed and more importantly the braking of all those in the convoy thus allowing reduced gaps between vehicles to free up road space. There are also many research projects currently under way at various universities and companies around the world, looking into the development of autonomous vehicles, the most publicised of these being the Google car. The great advantage of a rail way is that the operator has complete control over all the traffic on the network, so these sort of technologies could be introduced relatively quickly.

    I envisage a system of small lightweight semi-autonomous carriages, carrying perhaps eight or ten passengers. These would be more easily accelerated to join the flow of traffic on the "main line". Two tracks or lanes on the main line would allow for traffic in both directions, while near the stations this would become four lanes to permit individual carriages of the "train" to leave the main line and stop at the station. After the exchange of passengers at the station the carriage would accelerate up to speed before rejoining the main line, blending in with the traffic as it did so. The carriages of the train would not be coupled together in the conventional sense but instead would be individual elements travelling in close convoy. This is just a brief outline of the system I have in mind, the main concept is that the high speed network I propose would serve more stations along the route and therefore more of the population.

    Once autonomous cars have arrived on our roads, the business man in Coventry wishing to travel to London will face the following choice: Diving to the station to catch a train to Birmingham, thereby spending at least twenty minutes travelling in the opposite direction before he even boards the high speed train. Or. Entering his final destination as with a current sat nav, then sitting back to make phone calls and work on his laptop while the car drives itself direct to the destination. Given that scenario, the wrong choice of high speed rail will make it the expensive white elephant it's critics are claiming.

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  • Like every other government project,including a few I have worked on, this one has the now added Northern extensions thus ensuring we will not know the data until later upon which we must make decisions now.
    It is a pity "they" sold off the rolling stock originally bought for the "Northern Eurostar links" sold because of lack of demand for high speed links from the North.

    Perhaps this will be repeated with HS2?

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  • I completely agree with Terence Mair and have previously made similar suggestions myself. It would requre a radical rethink of the system, but could largely use existing infrastructure (with extra loops at some stations) and would replace our Victorian approach to railways which the rest of the world has followed. We have an opportunity to lead the next railway revolution and more importantly to sell the technology to the rest of the world.

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  • I agree, HS2 is a "CatchUp" idea. The need for "High Speed" trains in a country that by nessesity needs multi-stop trains to make it economically viable is stupidity. Not enough thought has been applied based on data available. A "High Speed" train will not bring extra prosperity to town like Barnsley, Rotherham etc no matter how much the Government might wish it.

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  • Absolutely classic case of the worst decision being -----not making a decision.

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  • I'll start with the disclaimer that I have been sceptical about HS2, and indeed any UK HSR, for a long time. The reasons are some engineering and energy issues, some economic issues and some intractably British planning issues.
    However, the latest report does highlight the morphing of a perfectly reasonable [to any engineer or scientist] advocacy of 'evidence-based policy' into the politicians' reliance on 'policy-based evidence' to support flimsy cases for projects. They really ought to say that for some things, there is insufficient or conflicting evidence and go on an act of faith, or acknowledge that they use the evidence that suits. There is evidence that Paris has gained from TGV to the expense of other cities - Lyons losing at least one HQ to the other end of the line for example, and Seville losing out to Madrid similarly in Spain. Regrettably, I don't have citations to hand, but will post when I do. To the earlier commenter noting the lack of a Scottish link in HSR: If the case for end-to-end HSZR were so strong, it should not matter at which end the process started. It is definitely seen by some as another London/SE-centric view on transport policy. But that takes us even further away from engineering...

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  • We are still in the dark over HS2 until market research is done honestly and the results published. Simply, has an on-train survey ever been done on Birmingham and Manchester and Leeds routes to determine how many passengers are (a) on business and (b) travelling all the way from London to the above cities? What is the percentage?
    What will be the realistic journey times on most trains,that will inevitably stop at Old Oak Common, Birmingham International , Manchester Airport, Nottingham/Derby interchange etc before reaching their destination. Stop the sexy waffle and let the public know some practical facts.

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  • I'm with Terence Mair on this one. Why try to drag 19th century technology into the 21st when we have better systems around the corner. It would be a complete waste of time money and energy to put in this HS train link. Let's have some serious lateral thinking - well done Terence.

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  • This sounds like the usual financial fudge. Publish the cost of Stage 1 but factor in the benefits of future stages into the business case. If Stage 1 gets built (and I hope it doesn't for all the reasons in other posts above and it will almost certainly overspend by a factor of 2) it will not show the payback originally claimed because the benefits have not all been achieved. However this is where the next sleight of hand comes in! The extensions north will be justified on additional benefits, not just of the extension traffic, but the additional London to Birmingham traffic, but only set against the incremental spend. ("well of course the London to Birmingham cost is now sunk cost") so the benefits have been used twice to justify the half the spend each time. This can be done several times for more extensions if the public is gullible enough! HS2 will be like the Channel Tunnel - a great piece of symbolic engineering that will always lose money because people will not pay the fares required to make it economic.

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