As I’ve written here before about the doubts that I have about high-speed rail being a panacea for the UK’s transport problems, I was keen to look at the Tory’s much heralded plans to build a high speed route (High Speed 2, or HS2) linking London with Birmingham, Manchester and Leeds at some point in the next 19 years. As this was such a flagship announcement for the Conservative conference, thought I, no doubt I will at the very least be able to download a nice little pdf booklet from the party website setting out the approximate routing, construction cost estimates and some statistical justification for the line’s claimed economic and environmental benefits.
How wrong could I be? After trawling my way round the Tory website (not a happy experience at the best of times), the sum total of available information on the vast policy proposal is this 200-word press release. Shadow Transport Secretary Theresa Villier’s speech is no longer deemed important enough to appear on the Conservative website, but luckily is available here so we can get another 700 or so words of ‘detail’. From the information available, the HS2 plan seems to be a back-of-the-envelope operation of the highest order. I’ve said before that this is a back-of-the-envelope sort of blog, so there is a danger of pots seeking to describe the colour of kettles here, but then again, I’m not Her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition. I don’t get in excess of £4.6m of state funding per year to assist me in policy formulation, although I am open to offers (leave them in the comments, please). So I think I’ll stick with my description.
So, without anything more detailed than a list of five locations that HS2 will serve, a highly optimistic overall budget figure and some estimated journey times, a proper analysis of the scheme is going to be tricky. However, we can start to identify a few of the specific issues that are going to cause the scheme to run into difficulties and also consider whether this is the best use of money for the railways. Let’s start with a few specific problems, working south to north on the Google Map above (train symbols mark issues with stations, markers are route issues and the aeroplane is…well you work it out).
London St Pancras: despite the rest of the route being sketchy at best, the Tories have apparently already plumped for which London terminus to use, presumably for reasons of name recognition and association with Britain’s existing high speed line. Problem is, it’s an incredibly bad choice, because there simply isn’t room at St Pancras for another major service. Take a look at this aerial photograph taken when the conversion to its new international status was still underway. The huge curved structure at bottom centre is the original trainshed which now houses Eurostar services. Whilst these platforms aren’t yet at capacity, we can safely assume that an increase in demand for international rail travel as oil prices remain high, plus the possibility of rival operators seeking to run European services, mean that there certainly won’t be any capacity there by 2027. The international platforms extend under the new roof (the huge rectangular structure). On either side of this are sets of domestic platforms: on the left serving St Pancras’ original customers – services to the East Midlands. The right hand platforms are not currently in use, but will be at full capacity from December 2009 when high speed services to Kent start operating. There is no other space at St Pancras. OK, this is probably nit-picking, and if Tory Rail is ever built it would probably go from down the road at Euston, which will have plenty of spare capacity if high speed services replace most of the current Birmingham and Manchester services, but it is a clear example of just how un-thought-through this proposal is.
Heathrow: The big boast of this scheme is that it will mean there is no need for a third runway at Heathrow. Now, I’m strongly opposed to any expansion of Heathrow (and unlike the Tories, not just because I get a lot of votes from under the flight paths) and would welcome any scheme that would make a third runway unnecessary. This isn’t such a scheme. According to Ms Villiers
A high speed link from St Pancras to Heathrow, connecting to the north, could replace up to 66,500 flights a year.
This figure is, not to put it too strongly, codswallop. The table below gives the number of flights (in both directions) from Heathrow to locations to be served by or within the catchment area of the new line, using timetables from BAA – note that the annual figures are probably over generous because I have multiplied today’s departure numbers by 365, therefore not taking into account the lower number of flights at weekends.
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Some way short of 66,500, I think you’ll agree. Now, whilst you can make the case that flights to these destinations from other London airports might be cut with the advent of HS2 (although as these are mainly budget airlines they are likely to be competitive with the high fares needed to fund a high speed line), these will have no impact on Heathrow capacity. The removal of the small number of flights detailed above is not going to make the argument about the size of Heathrow go away if it happened today, let alone in two decades’ time. If Ms Villiers were to be actually concerned about cutting the number of flights operating out of London, she might like to ask her colleague Mayor Johnson to re-consider his approval for a 50% increase in flights from City Airport – adding 40,000 flights a year to London’s airspace by 2010, mainly to destinations already served by high-speed rail. And as for building a new airport in the Thames estuary – well, the less said about that the better.
Getting out of London: How? The traditional European method of dealing with the problem of getting high-speed trains out of heavily built-up metropoli is for them to run along existing railways until they enter more sparsely populated areas where building a dedicated high-speed lane is feasible. Of course, this means that the trains must travel at ‘conventional’ speeds and fit in alongside existing commuter and long-distance traffic. Both of these lengthen journey times, particularly if it is over a significant distance. If HS2 is to leave from St Pancras then it makes sense for the trains to use the Midland Mainline route that heads north from there at least as far as Elstree, where the north London sprawl begins to thin out, a distance of 13 miles on congested lines. Following the completion of the Thameslink Programme in 2015, the fast lines will be carrying at least 12 trains per hour, many with a top speed of just 100mph, leaving little room for the number of high-speed services necessary to make HS2 worthwhile, at least without cutting already crowded commuter services. The alternative to this would be a tunnel, which whilst faster, would be phenomenally expensive. Given that the Crossrail project, which involves a 13mph tunnel under London, is estimated to cost around £16bn (and the bulk of that cost will be for the tunnel), a similar tunnel for HS2 wouldn’t leave much change from the Tory’s £20bn budget for the route to complete the remaining 300 miles or so. On the other hand, some money could be saved by running the line in the open across the green spaces of Ms Villiers’ Chipping Barnet constituency, but she may not be that keen…
The South Midlands: The same problem occurs throughout the route of a high-speed line: where does it actually serve? After all, for the trains to enter major towns and serve existing centrally-located stations, the only economically feasible method is for the high-speed route to end on the outskirts and for the trains to use the slower and congested existing routes into the town centres, thus increasing journey time. It would make little sense for HS2 not to serve huge South Midlands towns like Milton Keynes, nor are the shire counties through which the line will cut be too happy if they see a swathe of their countryside damaged by a high-speed line with no pay-back in the form of a station. The alternative to the trains joining existing lines is to build brand new stations in the outskirts or rural hinterland of the town – a favourite tactic of the French with their high speed lines, where such stations are known as gares des betteraves (‘beetroot stations’) thanks to their location in the middle of arable fields. Such stations have rarely been successful and tend to have pitiful train services. Situating the station some distance from the town they are serving not only increases the city centre-city centre journey time, thus limiting the value of the high-speed line, but also encourage people to drive to the station, increasing carbon emissions and suburban congestion.
London – Birmingham: Villiers claims that HS2 could deliver a London – Birmingham journey time of 40 minutes. Now, I’m not hugely convinced that without any detail on routings, how much of the journey will be on conventional lines or trains’ stopping patterns that such a claim could be made at this stage. Given that I am certain that significant sections of the route at either end will be on lines with a 125mph maximum speed and that it will be hard to economically justify more than a couple of trains per day which don’t make at least one stop en-route, a 150mph average would be very hard to maintain. The 06:16 TGV running between Paris and Marseille, making one stop and with only very short sections on non high-speed track averages 144mph. I would therefore expect something much more like a 50min journey time to Birmingham via HS2. Given that from December of this year, the standard journey time from London Euston to Birmingham New Street will be 1hr 23 mins (including 3 intermediate stops), following completion of most of the southern West Coast Mainline upgrade, then the value from HS2 for this journey begins to look a little questionable. As there is no air competition between London and Birmingham and the RAC estimates a driving time of 2hrs 17 minutes, it is hard to see how HS2 will attract many more passengers to rail, especially at higher fares. If rail travel will not actually be increased on the London-Birmingham section, or if HS2 simply increases unnecessary travel and longer distance commuting, then the high-speed line becomes an environmental negative. Beyond the energy and resources used in the line’s construction and the ecological disruption that it will produce in the rural areas it must cross, we would simply be shifting passengers to a more polluting form of transport: the existing rolling stock, 125mph-capable Pendolinos, consume 14.17 kWh/km, whereas for French TGV and German ICE high-speed trains the consumption can be as high as 24 kWh/km. Calculations which show a lower per passenger carbon footprint for TGVs than for UK trains such as Pendolinos are based on France’s electricity supply being primarily from nuclear power rather than fossil fuels, as in the UK, and on higher load factors for their trains.
West Midlands: the same problem arises as with London – the West Midlands is a vast, built up area, with well-established stations in the city centres at Coventry, Birmingham and Wolverhampton. To reach these stations, there is unlikely to be any alternative to high-speed trains joining congested conventional lines – unless yet more highly expensive tunnelling is to be envisaged. The alternative is again for out-of-town stations to serve the cities, with the additional journey time and inconvenience of changing modes that arises from that negating many of the benefits of high-speed rail.
North Midlands: The same problems as arose to the south of Birmingham arise again to the north – how would HS2 interact with major towns such as Stafford, the Potteries conurbation and Crewe, all of which currently have fast and frequent rail services direct to London (and Birmingham) from their town centre stations. If towns like these are by-passed by HS2, they could well share a similar fate to French towns such as Chalon-sur-Saône, a similar size to Stafford and Crewe, which once benefited from being on the main Paris – Lyon line. Since this was reduced to a secondary line for passenger purposes by the opening of the first TGV route, Chalon and similar towns lost most of their through trains to the capital and other major cities, with those that remained being slower, stopping services. Such a fate would be economically detrimental to the towns by-passed – and few of the north midlands towns need any detriment to their economies.
London – Manchester: The Tories claim that London to Manchester timings would be reduced to 1 hour 20 minutes, which seems a somewhat more realistic claim than their Birmingham journey time, as it only requires an average speed of about 122mph. But once again the saving doesn’t really look that impressive compared to the 2 hour 4 minute journey time that will become standard from this December. With this latter timing easily beating air on a city centre to city centre basis (with a generous air timing being: 1 hour central London – airport + 40 mins check in + 55 minutes flight time + 30 mins to Manchester city centre = 3 hours 5 minutes) and with car travel (3 hours 52 minutes) being out of the time equation, the main factor on which airlines will be able to compete is price – and HS2 would be a step backwards in this respect. Network Rail claims that the upgrades to the West Coast Mainline have already resulted in a 40% shift from air to rail in the London to Manchester market, and this at a time when rail has been hamstrung by near constant disruption due to the upgrade engineering works and before the increased journey times and frequencies launching in December. This suggests that with the correct pricing structure and increased capacity, conventional rail is more than capable of taking out airlines from Manchester, without the vast cost or increased emissions of HS2.
Into and out of Manchester: For which, see West Midlands. Precisely the same problems arise here: how will HS2 cope with the huge Manchester conurbation. In particular, will high-speed trains have to trundle along the existing lines for the last twenty minutes of their journey from Stockport, given that any other option would mean mass demolition of homes and blighting numerous communities?
The Pennines: England’s backbone presents a pretty formidable obstacle which will be a lot more complex and costly for HS2 to cross than the straight line on the map suggests. By heading for Leeds, the Tory proposal rejects probably the most cost-effective trans-pennine route, using the trackbed and tunnels of the abandoned Woodhead line, which once linked Manchester and Sheffield, but which would be too far south for this route’s purposes. Whilst gradients are not too much of a problem for high-speed electric trains, difficult topography makes for expensive construction. The obvious solution, a long base tunnel, would be prohibitively costly within the £20bn budget set, yet any surface route would run into formidable environmental problems, most particularly how it would pick a path avoiding or minimising damage to the South Pennine Moors and Dark Peak Sites of Special Scientific Interest.
London – Leeds: No-one is really trumpeting the time savings on this one, preferring instead to talk about the, admittedly impressive, 17 minute journey time between Leeds and Manchester. So, to do the maths ourselves, 1 hour 20 London to Manchester + 17 minutes to Leeds, giving us 1 hour 37, and also giving us the reason why this isn’t being touted too much: its just not a very impressive timing, thanks to the roundabout route via Birmingham and Manchester. The fastest timing on the Leeds to London route is already just 2 hours 6 minutes (and until a few years ago was 1 hour 59, before an extra stop was added). The trains in use on this service are 140mph capable and some limited investment in existing infrastructure to allow them to reach this speed would make a sub-2 hour journey possible. Even with existing timings, air travel between Leeds and London is minimal and the train service has had to be doubled to half-hourly to cope with demand.
The North and Scotland: Doesn’t exist. At least not in this plan. The routes where high-speed rail really could make a dent in air use – London to Edinburgh and Glasgow – are completely ignored, admittedly for good reason. Any such line would be completely uneconomic thanks to the fast dropping population density once you get north of Leeds. Whilst high-speed trains could obviously continue north from Leeds to Scotland using existing lines, given how limited the time savings are between London and Leeds, this would be unlikely to save more than 15-20 minutes on the Anglo-Scottish journey time. Whilst rail is already more competitive on time than many people think for such journeys, the only way that a major modal shift is going to occur would be through the removal of hidden subsidies for airlines and a genuine environmental-impact based tax system for domestic air tickets. And the Tories sure aren’t going to go down that road. The curtailment of HS2 at Leeds raises a real political problem however: David Cameron claimed in his conference speech (Is it me, or did he just read out a Daily Mail leader column, complete with rubbish about “‘elf and safety gawn mad” and “the prizes for everyone culture”?) that he was fiercely proud of the Union. Well, stopping the investment in high-speed rail half way between London and Edinburgh, however financially sensible, is going to be seen as pretty symbolic by a Scottish population who won’t have voted for the Tory government. Who can’t see Alex Salmond making vast quantities of political capital out of that?
As hopefully you will have gathered from the above, I believe that the Tory plan for HS2 is financially irresponsible, under-costed (by 2008 standards, heaven knows what the price would be by 2027), over-simplified, represents poor value for money and is at best environmentally neutral. It will tie up all investment in the railways for the next two decades before it brings forward any real benefits, and the last Conservative government demonstrated what happens when the rail network goes unfunded for twenty years or so. I’m pretty certain that HS2 (in this form) will never be built, but I worry that the next government will use it as greenwash for at least a couple of electoral terms before finally shelving the idea. If it is built, I hereby promise to buy Theresa Villiers a hot beverage of her choice from the buffet car of the first 180mph train from St Pancras to Manchester.
Now the obvious response to all this is ‘Ah, but at least the Tories are thinking about major rail investment and trying to shift passengers from air to trains’. Indeed – there is some truth in that, although I’m a long way from believing in any genuine Conservative conversion to the merits of public transport. What I would point out, however, is the following extract from then Transport Secretary Ruth Kelly’s speech to Labour conference, forgotten in all the hoo-har over her bungled departure:
So Labour will develop options for a rolling programme of electrification of our railways – potentially the largest programme of electrification in our history. I have asked Network Rail to consider the case for new lines if passenger numbers continue to grow in the future. And if we need new lines, of course we should be asking whether they should be high speed.
I hope we will hear more from this in the near future from Kelly’s successor Geoff Hoon: electrification, hopefully coupled with works to increase capacity, is a far more sensible and achievable way of modernising the railways, increasing the capacity for passengers and freight, and cutting still further the environmental impact of rail travel. And such a programme would deliver real benefits within a decade, not two. We need more of that sort of thinking and less pie-in-the-sky dreaming about travelling the long way round to Leeds, quite fast.
At some point I will put together a list of how I think a hypothetical £20bn could be better spent on Britain’s public transport network, but as I’ve already written nearly four times as much on HS2 as the Tories have every published, that’s for another day. All change please, all change.