HS2 Questions

Examining the issues around the proposed High Speed 2 route

Has Professor Begg gone off the rails?

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Prof David Begg, Director of the Campaign for High Speed Rail, responded to the new paper, “A Better Railway for Britain” without apparently taking the trouble to read it. He commented, “Groups opposed to high-speed rail keep touting the same, discredited alternative. Giving it a different name doesn’t change the fact that it would result in fewer services than HS2, fewer seats than HS2…”

What he missed was the first half of the paper which takes a broader look than HS2, looking not only at capacity, but also at quality, better connection, maximising modal shift, charging fair prices and delivering a more affordable railway.

The routes into London from the North are already fast, already have the bulk of the market for travel to London and are not particularly congested services (with the notable exception of the first off peak service out of London, which is of course artificial and easier remedied).

Other routes need action or investment much more urgently and the first half of the paper draws attention to these issues and opportunities: inter urban lines such as Liverpool to Manchester, which is slower than it was 100 years ago; and intra-conurbation commuter lines. These will drive more modal shift than HS2. Meanwhile commuter trains from the South and SW are more congested than the West Coast Mainline. And the overcrowded fast commuter trains from Milton Keynes could be relieved within 5 years with modest investment; this cannot wait until 2026.

As well as missing this important part of the paper, Professor Begg makes a number of highly misleading remarks.

1. “Alternatives would damage the reliability of services”

Begg says Network Rail believe that introducing even one additional service at Euston could have damaging effects on reliability (giving as evidence a link to a document which in fact makes no mention of Euston or this claim). However, HS2 Ltd say that current services could be run on 14 of the 18 platforms. These two statements cannot both be true. HS2 want to completely rebuild Euston – causing 8 years of chaos – to make space for thousands of extra passengers who would have terminated at Kings Cross.

2. “Upgrading existing lines would create chaos for commuters”

Capacity can be doubled without any significant infrastructure development. If further capacity is required, this can be achieved by dealing with a small number of specific bottlenecks. This is very different from the wholesale track and signalling upgrade of the West Coast Main Line and very different from the utter chaos that would be caused by the complete rebuild of Euston and disruption to Great Western and Chiltern services at Old Oak Common.

3. “Alternatives would create worse, not better, services”

Begg says the alternatives would offer none of the enhanced connectivity that a high-speed line would offer, ignoring the problem that HS2 would not connect directly to either Birmingham Airport or the main Birmingham station, or to the other main cities in the Midlands. This negates the benefit of speed for many passengers as they have to change trains and event stations to access HS2.

4. “Alternatives would not deliver sufficient capacity, and are at best a short-term fix”

Begg again misquotes Network Rail and includes a link which does not back up his statement. The Government say demand will increase 102% to 2043. The alternative suggest in part two of “A Better Railway for Britain” shows how capacity can more than meet this both at peak and off peak times. Capacity can in fact be trebled, meeting forecasts well into the 2nd half of the century. If we find we do need another line, we can review options in 20 or 30 years – when perhaps Government debt will be under better control.

5. Alternatives are costly without bringing required benefits

Begg talks of the “huge infrastructure works” required for train lengthening, whereas the work is minimal compared with the disruption the construction of HS2 (which anyway has much longer trains). He says “Removing first-class would also significantly reduce earnings from the line, and hence have a negative impact on the business case” even though First Class utilisation is only 20%, so cutting one of the four carriages will have virtually no effect. Finally, he says that “The last upgrade of the WCML ended up costing £6bn more than originally predicted.” However, the limited amount of work is a stark contrast with HS2, the case for which assumes assumptions about new technology, not currently available, to meet the claimed capacity.

As The Economist said this month:

“In most developed economies high-speed railways fail to bridge regional divides and sometimes exacerbate them … Especially in smaller countries, upgrading existing, slower networks often makes more sense. Capacity can be increased with longer trains and extended platforms. Some spacious first-class carriages could be converted to more compressed second-class ones; pricing may ration demand more effectively at busy times. Better signalling can increase the average speed of journeys. Britain’s non-high-speed trains, for example, are already quicker than most other countries’ equivalents. Some trains that currently run at 125mph could go faster if signals were upgraded – even if unveiling a new signal box might appeal less to politicians than inaugurating a futuristic new service.

Britain still has time to ditch this grand infrastructure project – and should.”

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Written by hs2questions

September 14, 2011 at 1:10 pm

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