Chairman Pip's Railway Thoughts

Here’s the Thing

Posted in Great Britain, High Speed, Infrastructure, Media, Politics by Chairman Pip on 9 February 2011

The clamour against High Speed 2 appears to be growing. The Labour Party (the ones, let me remind you, who authorised it in the first place while in government) are now refusing to make a commitment to build it should they regain power. This is likely Labour opposing the government for the sake of opposition, as the construction of High Speed 2 will create much need jobs for a long time. However the Taxpayer’s Alliance, a pressure group that looks to try and get value for money for the taxpayer, have issued a report that concludes the line will be a “white elephant”, and should therefore be dropped. Its rationale for this is based, seemingly, on a handful of points:

  1. The cost is projected at around £17bn, with journey time savings estimated at around 30 minutes per journey between London and Birmingham, Manchester and Liverpool; they therefore the state that the cost is £500m per minute saved.
  2. High Speed 2 will never produce a financial return. “The value of the net operating profit once it has been built only covers 42 per cent of the capital costs over a 60 year project life”.
  3. High Speed 2 will be carbon neutral, but will not cut greenhouse gas emissions.
  4. Growth forecasts for the use of High Speed 2 are overestimated.
  5. Half of long distance rail journeys are made by people in the top 5% income bracket. High Speed 2 will be “a rich man’s railway paid for by everyone”.

In the media coverage, the Taxpayer’s Alliance states its alternative to High Speed 2 thus:

The need for new capacity can be better served with longer and more frequent trains on the existing quick InterCity service, which wouldn’t need anything like the same subsidy. HS2 should be cancelled.
Chris Stokes, Author of High Speed Rail

Mr Stokes used to be an executive director for the Strategic Rail Authority, and has worked in the rail industry since 1967, according to his biography that can be found here. So presumably he is aware of the massive disruption caused when the routes that the “existing quick InterCity service” use were upgraded to increase capacity? He’s aware that it cost somewhere in the region of £10bn and ten years of work to bring the West Coast Main Line to its present state of capacity? Work that in no small part contributed to the downfall of Railtrack, and has still left the WCML operating at close to capacity anyway. How for instance does he propose to deal with all the other operators that run on the WCML, because let’s not forget that it isn’t just Virgin Trains and their Class 390 Pendolinos zooming back and forth. Five other TOCs, all of which operate trains capable of no more than 100mph, all operate vital commuter and inter-urban services, not to mention the extensive freight use (estimated at around 45% of Britain’s total railfreight traffic runs over the WCML at some point). We are likely looking at another massive upgrade of the route at some point, with another £10bn spent on it. And this is just the WCML. Because High Speed 2 is intended to improve connections to Edinburgh as well as Glasgow, then cancelling it would need to see more trains of the “existing quick InterCity service” on the East Coast Main Line as well. And the capacity issues on the ECML are just as serious as on the WCML, because just as many TOCs and freight operators run on the east coast as the west coast. So there’s another £10bn and massive disruption spent on upgrading that side of the country. However, let’s look at some of the points made specifically by the report, and get away from the (frankly laughable) alternative suggestion.

  1. “The cost is projected at around £17bn, with journey time savings estimated at around 30 minutes per journey between London and Birmingham, Manchester and Liverpool; they therefore the state that the cost is £500m per minute saved.” If High Speed 2 were a one use only thing, where only one train could use it just once and then it self-destructed, then yes you would be looking at a cost of around £500m per minute saved. But add up all of those half-hours of all the people that would use it over the course of its lifetime and see what kind of figure you end up with.
  2. “High Speed 2 will never produce a financial return. The value of the net operating profit once it has been built only covers 42 per cent of the capital costs over a 60 year project life. Find me a public works mega-project that in and of itself makes a financial return and I’ll cheer on Tottenham in Europe for the rest of the season. The financial return that High Speed 2 is intended for is for the economy at large, enabling people to get to places quicker so that they can do business for longer, whether it be for work or for leisure (which, in case you hadn’t noticed, is also a business and feeds the economy; just because you’re on holiday, someone else where you are will be working).
  3. “High Speed 2 will be carbon neutral, but will not cut greenhouse gas emissions.” Yes, High Speed 2 will likely only be carbon neutral in and off itself, but the traffic it removes from the roads and from the skies will bring about the help for the environment that everyone is talking about. Any reduction in carbon emissions by the railways could only be accomplished by a change in the way electricity is generated. But that’s another story.
  4. “Growth forecasts for the use of High Speed 2 are overestimated.” Based on today’s evidence, but who’s to say where the economy or rail traffic will be in five years time, when construction of High Speed 2 is scheduled to begin? In any case, growth forecasts for many major public works projects of this time will be over estimated. Look at the Channel Tunnel. Only now, a decade and a half after it opened, is it approaching anywhere close to the kind of usage figures that were predicted from the outset. Economic growth brings usage growth.
  5. “Half of long distance rail journeys are made by people in the top 5% income bracket. High Speed 2 will be “a rich man’s railway paid for by everyone”.” So who makes the other half of long distance journeys? And what about those people that make local journeys? I’m sure that they’ll be happy to have local trains that are both longer and more frequent as a result of a large swathe of long distance traffic being removed from the classic network and onto High Speed 2. But then I was forgetting that the Taxpayers Alliance plan is to put MORE long distance traffic on the classic network, squeezing local journeys even further.

Britain’s railways are choked. I think it’s fair to say that everyone realises that. Even the Taxpayers Alliance. Explain that High Speed 2 will provide for more frequent local trains to commuters coming into Manchester Piccadilly or Birmingham New Street on a Monday morning, and they’ll likely say “build it now”. The alternative will be spending more than the £17bn estimate for High Speed 2 on upgrading both the ECML and WCML. And this will be taxpayers money, you can count on it. Because where do Network Rail get their money from?

“Report says ‘scrap £17bn rail link'”

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One Response

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  1. […] it turns out, who have constantly opposed the construction of HS2, even going so far as to commission a report on it that came up with what appeared (to me anyway) to be some pretty spurious conclusions. […]


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