High Speed Rail - Transport Committee Contents

Written evidence from Dr Paul Thornton (HSR 08)

The material I have submitted is directly pertinent to the committee's current enquiry into the strategic case for High Speed Rail. The documents particularly impinge upon the questions as set out in the committee's announcement of the inquiry:—Question 1, Question 2.1 and 2.2, Question 3.1, Question 4.3, and Question 6.2.

I have to declare an interest. My home lies some 100 yards from the proposed line. It will however be enclosed at the nearest point by a "cut and cover" tunnel such that HS2 Ltd assures that the detriment to my quality of life will be negligible. Mr Hammond cannot therefore claim that my evidence is biased as nimbyism.

My only similar prior experience of submitting evidence to a select committee related to concerns about the NHS national computer database scheme. That evidence has been vindicated as that scheme has been disastrous both in terms of cost and failed implementation. I recognise substantial parallels. Not least, Ministers have been persuaded to advocate a technological solution which is more grandiose than anything similar delivered elsewhere, and that is unsupported by technical experts other than those who are likely to benefit from the lucrative contracts that will follow. I hope the Transport Select Committee will be more assertive in dealing with the naked emperors in this scenario.

However, the documentation I have submitted derives not from my own opinion but was obtained through the terms of the Freedom of Information Act.

The documentation I have submitted confirms two key issues.

1.  Guesstimated planning, and so costing, for the routes north of Birmingham: The HS2 Ltd cost estimates for the two branches of the railway to the north of Birmingham are based upon route plans that are so vague and unconsidered that HS2 Ltd claim not to be able to replicate them. Calculations of both construction and running costs are wholly dependent on clear knowledge of the route. As such, the engineering, economic and business cases for the entire HS2 project must be regarded as intrinsically inaccurate with massive potential for underestimate of costs.

2.  The real rail priority for Yorkshire Local Authorities: The local authorities to the north east, currently claiming support for the HS2 proposals, have previously documented alternative proposals as being far less costly while providing much of the advantage now claimed for the HS2 proposals. Even with the HS2 proposals in their sights, these same authorities have continued to press particularly for the upgrading of the Midland Main Line as a priority. The strength of their arguments has even been acknowledged by the Chief Engineer at HS2 Ltd in an unguarded personal comment made in an email revealed under the Freedom of Information Act.


On the 4 October 2010 High Speed Two (HS2) Ltd submitted a report to the Secretary of State for Transport that documented their proposals for the high speed rail lines in a Y configuration to the north of Birmingham, to Manchester, and to Leeds.


At para 4.14, Table one, it shows the route lengths for the proposed corridor between Lichfield and the centre of Manchester broken down apparently very precisely by the type of terrain through which it passes—Rural flat, Rural Hilly, Urban length & Tunnelled Length. Similarly at Para 4.32, Table 5, equivalent figures are provided for the route from Birmingham to the East coast main line (ECML) via Leeds.
FromTo Rural Flat
Rural Hilly
LichfieldSW Manchester 283001 59
SW ManchesterCentral Manchester 005 611
SW ManchesterWCML (Warrington) 853 016
Total (miles) 86

FromTo Rural Flat
Rural Hilly
Birmingham (Coleshill)Leeds Centre 69218 5103
South LeedsECML 66
Total (miles) 109

The cost of the construction is very much determined by the overall track length and the type of terrain through which it passes. Small changes in overall length or shifts between type of terrain would result in substantial changes to overall cost.

I submitted an enquiry to HS2 Ltd under the terms of the Freedom of Information Act. The full exchange is accessible on line at the link below.


I requested the route from which these distances have been measured.

In response, HS2 Ltd claimed that:

—  no map was used in this process.

—  "Broad route corridors, based on straight lines (with some basic movement to avoid significant and clearly identifiable landscape features) for both the S and Y", were used.

—  they are unable to reproduce the location of those "broad corridors".

Against that background, the cost estimates of the HS2 proposals are wholly unreliable.

The claim that as much as two thirds of the route from Birmingham to Leeds will be across land which is "flat" implies that the responsible authors have never been north of Leicester. High speed trains do not do curves or hills. Wherever there are hills they require high cost infrastructure-cuttings, embankments, bridges, viaducts and tunnels.

The notion that this route can be built with just five miles of tunnels is implausible. A greater tunnel length is proposed just to get HS2 through the Chilterns. HS2 Ltd claim an overall route length from Coleshill to Leeds of 103 miles. Constrained to that distance no route can go far enough east to avoid the Pennines.

The chief engineer at HS2 Ltd has advised one of my neighbours that track in a tunnel would cost approximately ten times the cost of the same length of track in flat countryside.

The submitted documentation includes a further response from Sir Brian Briscoe, Chairman of HS2 to my MP, Mr Jeremy Wright, dated 11 April 2011. Sir Brian adds little new information and continues to obfuscate. The letter confirms that Sir Brian is completely unable to substantiate the claimed route mileage and terrain type information. As a consequence the provided estimates of cost for the routes north of Birmingham cannot be validated or independently corroborated or scrutinised.

Sir Brian claims that "we undertook work that was at a sufficient level of complexity for the required degree of accuracy." The committee might wish to know what he regarded as the required degree of accuracy? What margin for error does he regard as acceptable in this "high level estimate"? And can he substantiate that such a margin of error is realistic under his methodology?

It would be entirely possible and appropriate for HS2 Ltd to replicate the previous work using "online maps and online distance measuring tools" and to publish that information as I originally requested. I shall continue to pursue this directly with HS2 Ltd under the provisions of the Freedom of Information Act but I hope that the Transport Select Committee will also pursue this line of enquiry.

Genuine analysis of the London to Birmingham section is wholly dependent on a proper cost benefit analysis of the entire project to Leeds and to Manchester. Sir Brian is explicit that more precise cost estimates will not be published until the end of the year, long after the closure of the Government's consultation in respect of the Birmingham to London section. Indeed, even then, Sir Brian acknowledges that the estimates can only be vague—"high level"—until the routes for the northern sections are determined.

This is a classic example of the wrongly ordered decision making that results in cost creep and gross overspending in respect of public capital projects. The northern routes must be determined and properly costed before there is a contractual commitment to commencement of any part of the HS2 route.


As a Yorkshireman living in exile, I am clear that if the economic benefit to the north of England came close to the claims made by the Department of Transport, the authorities in those areas would have been clamouring for just such a development for several years. While those local transport officials have jumped on to the HS2 bandwagon, even now the HS2 proposals are not their priority.

"Leeds City Region"i and "Sheffield City Region"ii are umbrella bodies for the numerous local authorities within and around each of those cities. In August 2009 they published an overview report, "The case for High Speed Rail",iii along with a detailed technical report "High Speed Rail to the Leeds and Sheffield Regions".iv This latter includes an analysis of the economic arguments but particularly includes consideration of an upgrade to the existing Midlands Main Line, which runs north from St Pancras, (Co-terminus of HS1) Diagram attached. That route connects two important airports, as well as the major East Midlands (Leicester, Derby, Nottingham) and Yorkshire (Sheffield, Leeds) conurbations.[10]

This line has not been upgraded as have the East and West Coast main lines. Its journey times are correspondingly now very slow. An upgrade to the Midlands Main Line could therefore bring many of the benefits claimed for HS2.

Accordingly in December 2009, the East Midlands Development Agency, Sheffield City region and South Yorkshire PTE co-authored with ARUP a further report presenting the substantial case for an upgrade to the Midland Main Line.v This report was submitted to HS2.

A FOIA enquiry has revealed an unguarded response from the Chief Engineer at HS2 to that report in an email dated 23 December 2009 sent to the South Yorkshire Passenger Transport Executive as follows:

"Thank you. You will appreciate this has arrived a little late to be considered within our report however we will acknowledge that we have received it and will reflect on it to Government in the New Year as part of the discussions we will doubtless be having.

On a personal note—this is purely me—I think there has to be care not to undermine a very strong business case for a proper high speed line by proposing an investment in an intermediate solution which gives a proportion of the benefits and potentially allows government to say 'they have got part of what they wanted so the priorities now move elsewhere.' As I say, this is purely my personal comment, not the view of HS2 Ltd which will only properly review your submission in January".

His recognition that that upgrading the Midland Main Line would provide an alternative to HS2 confirms that it merits substantial further investigation.

His warning seems to have had a negligible effect. The four northern bodies omitted to mention the potential of the Midlands Main line when they wrote to the Secretary of State on 6 July 2010 urging that the east branch of the HS2 "Y" route be given priority over the inverted S, although they did reciprocate their claim by observing that the western side of the country has already benefited substantially from the huge investment in west coast main line.vi However, at the same time, in a public document they observed;

Shouldn't we be focusing on improving existing rail lines?vii

"It is unlikely the high speed rail network will serve Yorkshire before at least 2025, so there will be a need to deliver improvements to existing routes in the short to medium term. In the shorter term, a £560 million package of improvements is expected to be delivered by 2014 to address capacity bottlenecks. These measures, along with a revised timetable, could reduce journey times to London from Doncaster, Leeds, Wakefield and York by 10-15 minutes via the East Coast Main Line (ECML). Furthermore, a £70 million scheme could reduce journey times between Sheffield and London by around eight minutes. Previous analysis by Network Rail also demonstrated electrifying the Midland Main Line (MML) would produce a very strong business case, with lower operating costs and higher passenger revenues covering the infrastructure costs over a period of 60 years."

And having apparently secured the Y route to Yorkshire through Phillip Hammond's announcement at the beginning of October 2010, Midland Main Line improvements were immediately back on their objectives as essential. The northern bodies again wrote to the Secretary of State on the 11 October 2010 "While welcoming the news for HSR to our area in the long term, some existing rail routes are in need of improvements now. Existing proposals to upgrade and electrify the Midland main Line, East Coats Main Line, Transpennine and Leeds-Sheffield links can deliver substantial benefits at modest costs. We would ask that you prioritorise these shorter term investments to support the regions' economic recovery and growth. We will let you have details highlighting why these shorter term investments represent such good value for money shortly."


The main claimed justification for HS2 is not the effect on journey times between London and Birmingham but for journey times and rail capacity for destinations to the North. It is therefore bizarre that the High Speed rail proposal will be considered by parliament in separate components rather than as a coherent whole project.

The Transport Select Committee should insist that the proposed hybrid bill does not proceed until the detail of the entire intended route is clarified and so can be properly and accurately costed. Only from that point can the committee exercise its obligations to properly test whether the marginal benefits claimed for the whole HS2 Ltd scheme, compared to existing line upgrade opportunities, really merit the enormous additional construction costs and then the massive subsidy costs into the long term.

I hope these observations assist the committee. If I can provide clarification on any of these points please do not hesitate to contact me.

June 2011


i http://www.leedscityregion.gov.uk/

ii http://www.sheffieldcityregion.org.uk/

iii http://www.dft.gov.uk/pgr/rail/pi/highspeedrail/hs2ltd/stakeholdersubmissions/pdf/leedsandsheffield.pdf

iv http://www.dft.gov.uk/pgr/rail/pi/highspeedrail/hs2ltd/stakeholdersubmissions/pdf/leedsheffieldtechnical.pdf

v http://www.dft.gov.uk/pgr/rail/pi/highspeedrail/hs2ltd/stakeholdersubmissions/pdf/midlandmainline.pdf

vi http://www.sypte.co.uk/uploadedFiles/Corporate/The%20Economic%20Case%20for%20High%20Speed%20

vii http://www.leedscityregion.gov.uk/uploadedFiles/Research_and_Publications/Transport/High%20Speed%20

10   It is noteworthy that via the East coast main line, Leeds already has excellent existing fast rail links to London such that HS2 will reduce that journey time by just 20 minutes, but this differential will be eroded further by further improvements to the east coats main line in the interim. Back

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Prepared 8 November 2011