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

Senior reporter

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 Transport secretary Patrick McLoughlin released a statement saying the NAO’s argument ‘depends too much on out of date analysis and does not give due weight to the good progress that has been made since last year’.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.