High Speed Rail - Transport Committee Contents

Written evidence from Steve Rodrick (HSR 143)

What are the main arguments either for or against HSR

A national transport plan

1.  It is essential that the UK prepares a national transport strategy to identify what the country's transport needs are and how investment and timing priorities should be set. The commitment of so much money to high-speed rail in the absence of a national context for investment in all forms of transport is premature. The plan prepared not so long ago by Rod Edington is a good starting point. It would also help to settle those who believe that high speed rail is a political vanity project. In the absence of any thorough justification it's a label that will stick.

High Speed Rail will significantly increase carbon emissions

2.  Based on published information it clear that HS2 will lead to significantly increased carbon emissions. Despite best efforts to de-carbonise the national grid, fossil fuel generated energy will remain a significant component of generating capacity for many decades. The significantly higher energy demands of high speed rail will increase directly carbon emissions compared to classic rail. The proposal to offset this by attracting air passengers and for airlines to both subsequently withdraw those flights but not replace them with flights to other destinations, is not credible. The aviation industry is almost certain to use those valuable slots to replace those withdrawn short-haul flights with long haul, especially from the London airports. This will lead directly to significantly increased emissions. For example, a long haul flight to the far east will cause emissions ten times that of a UK domestic flight.

3.  The combination, in addition to the embedded carbon in construction of high speed 2 and the stated aspiration of Birmingham Airport to increase its passenger throughput by 9 million passengers per year if a Birmingham Parkway station is built, mean HS2 should not be allowed to proceed. It should be a basic principle of major government investment that it will provide a significant contribution to meeting UK carbon reduction targets.

The opportunity costs of investing in high speed rail will be significant

4.  There are more pressing transport needs which would provide better value for money and greater improvements to services used by more people over a wider geographic area. Improvements to the existing rail network, bus services (have we forgotten more people use buses than trains), the quality of the road network, cycle lanes, shared space initiatives footpath enhancements would provide more benefits to more people at lower cost. In so doing the economy would benefit to a greater extent in the short and long term and carbon emission reductions achieved. The extraordinary improvement in the emissions performance of cars should be noticed and welcomed. It is conceivable that in time they prove to be the lowest polluting form of travel.

Does high speed rail really stimulates economic regeneration?

5.  The evidence that high speed rail stimulates economic development is weak. It seems is largely confined to an area within close proximity to the stations themselves. The city centres of Birmingham, Leeds, Manchester, Liverpool, Glasgow and Edinburgh have been successfully regenerated in recent years. The economic problems of these cities do not lie in their centres. There is no evidence that the more peripheral areas benefit. The oft quoted example of Lille is misleading. Lille enjoys a unique location in Europe. It is notable that unemployment in Lille, always higher than the French average, has risen faster than the French average despite its central position in a European network.

We already have high speed rail

6.  Claims that that UK "will be left behind" lack any rationale that is pure politicking trying to justify expenditure which would fail any reasonable value for money test. In comparison with countries with high speed rail, the journey times between our main cities is shorter - they are trying to catch up with the UK. The more important time is that from door to door rather than station to station. In this context the modest time savings achieved by HS2 are even less impressive.

7.  The Government has failed to explain that there are several definitions of high speed rail. Perhaps to the surprise of most, many of our existing routes capable of operating services at 200 kph can already be considered as high speed. Surely it is a higher ambition to provide most of the country with a high speed network by upgrading all intercity routes than just a few cities with a very high speed line.

IT reduces the need to travel

8.  The advance of communications IT in recent years has been very impressive enabling instant communication whilst on the move and increasingly displacing the need to travel. IT makes it possible to work nearly anywhere at any time. This has much reduced the imperative to get a journey over with as quickly as possible. Arguably some journeys provide a working environment better than in an office, rendering the reading of reports, for example, more achievable than in a busy office environment. Faster journey times are more likely to bring social (ie getting home to put the kids to bed) rather than work time benefits.

9.  It is interesting to note that in no other form of travel is there a desire for much greater speed. It is not clear, therefore, why it should matter so much for rail travel. Certainty, punctuality and value for money are all more important to the traveller.

Reducing the Need to Travel - Reducing the demand for long distance travel

10.  Except for a few instances nobody travels for its own sake - it entails a time and monetary cost. Better still, not to travel at all unless there is an overriding reason to do so. With advances in technology and awareness of the costs, most businesses will increasingly reduce the need for their staff to travel - a pattern already becoming well established. For most people improvements to short journeys in and around where they live and work will have greater value. Building a few hundred kilometres of high speed rail in 20 years time may contribute a small amount to national pride but will do little for most people. It is a fair bet the majority of the population will never use it. Making a difference to the journeys that most people do most days will have a far greater value to society and the economy. In this respect the UK often compares badly to our counterparts.

Congestion and Crowding

11.  The media and HS2 Ltd would have us believe that all inter-city trains, especially on those on the West Coast Main line, are crowded to bursting point. However, the reality is very different with very few trains full and passengers left to stand. It is interesting to read that HS2 Ltd anticipate that HS2 services will have higher load factors than current services.

12.  The challenge is to prevent the crowding from happening without having to build an entirely new line - surely the worst of all options. A good start will be to reduce the need to travel in the first place. The obvious options then are:

—  Make trains longer.

—  Have fewer first class and more standard class carriages.

—  Do what you can to increase the speed of existing services.

—  Introduce reservation only trains for peak hours - that will happen anyway with HS2.

—  Change pricing policy to even out demand.

13.  As so many employers are switching to flexible work patterns the traditional rush hours will increasingly become a thing of the past. The scope to work at home will also reduce the need for so many people to travel into the city centres in the first place.

3.  Business case

14.  The forecasts for the numbers of passengers who will use High Speed 2 do not seem to be realistic. It is impossible to understand why, unless the population increase dramatically, so many more people would want to travel between Birmingham and London on a daily basis, especially for leisure trips. No explanation is provided by HS2 Ltd on the motivation for such journeys. The forecasts can only have been prepared by desk based statisticians and not based on research which actually asked people what sort of transport improvements they wanted.

15.  The estimated costs of HS2 are vast. But it is a reasonable expectation that the costs will exceed those given now. This looks like an extremely complicated project and many unexpected problems will arise. Other factors will, no doubt, intervene and eventuality the costs will rise. As the Government will have made such deep, long term and irreversible commitments there will be no turning back and High Speed rail will gobble up yet more scarce funds. Such a prospect fills most taxpayers with dread - it looks like yet another debt we will load onto the next generation. A more sensible strategy would be an incremental one, which provides more flexibility and lower risk.

4.  The strategic route

16.  This proposed route will create yet another London centric transport network - with the added bonus of even more preferential treatment for Heathrow. A more imaginative approach would be to build the last leg to London. I have no doubt those captains of industry who routinely sign letters calling for yet more public funding to be spent on projects which suit a small number of large corporations would be filled with dread.

17.  As someone who lived in the north of England and Scotland for 30 years it is hard to see how saving 40 minutes on a long journey makes any difference at all. A day trip from Glasgow to London is still impossibility unless you fly. The door to door time will barely changed. Saving a few minutes will probably be welcomed but it won't suddenly trigger great economic activity. High speed IT might, but not a train.

5.  Economic rebalancing and equity

18.  HS2 will almost certainly generate more economic activity in London than anywhere else. It is difficult to see Londoners making their way to the provinces is equal numbers as those travelling to the capital. The result, economic activity gravitates to London again. Ironically the majority of tickets will be bought by those in the midlands and north, draining billions of pounds from the regional economies.

19.  I have read of Chambers of Commerce in northern cities saying HS2 is essential for their well being, but I have yet to hear any of them explain or give a real example of how it would make any difference in practice. As is so often the case, the prospect of a shiny new toy largely paid for by someone else is seductive, and those easily seduced lose their grip on reality.

6.  Impact

20.  As the energy needed to move an object multiplies by the square of its speed, trains travelling at 400 kph will use 4 times that of a train travelling at 200 kph. As HS2 plans to transport 4 times as many passengers as currently use those routes this means that HS2 services will use up to 16 times that of comparable services now (assuming broadly similar seating capacity) . That is a lot of extra energy and carbon dioxide. I believe that HS2 hopes to balance those emissions by "ending domestic aviation". Presumably that really means London to Glasgow and Edinburgh. It is hard to see why passengers would entirely abandon planes when the HS2 save so little time. However, even if they did, do we really expect airlines to keep those valuable landing and take off slots free? Those airlines flying out of Gatwick and Heathrow will be falling over themselves to replace domestic flights with one to the far east presumably, as the main growth market. That means each cancelled UK flight will be replaced by one which emits about ten times as much carbon.

21.  The next effect of these two HS2 induced impacts is a truly massive increase in carbon emissions. The law of unintended consequences makes an entrance! Yet another argument for improving the existing railways so we can all benefit, and concentring on those local journeys which genuinely need to be improved.

22.  A look into the crystal ball also suggests that IT will play a far larger part in our lives than those planning this expensive railway, using taxpayer's cash, are willing to accept.

Do we really want to trash the countryside?

23.  The British care about nothing more that the countryside. We have long lost the art of building beautifully. With the best of intentions the cutters of budgets and aesthetically blind will turn this into yet another eyesore.

June 2011

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Prepared 8 November 2011