High Speed Rail - Transport Committee Contents

Written evidence from the North West Transport Roundtable (HSR 18)


—  The North West Transport Roundtable welcomes the House of Commons Transport Committee inquiry because we object to the fact there were no national consultations on alternative schemes, design standards or routes for HS2. Options must be fully assessed and should include examining what could be achieved with the same investment in the existing rail system and in small measures. Together they have the potential to deliver benefits more widely and fairly around the UK than HS2.

—  We advise an ongoing questioning approach to the claims for wider economic benefits being made for very high speed railway lines in the UK which assume phenomenal patronage based on an extra-polation of the high growth in rail journeys of recent years—despite warnings in a Government White Paper of only four years ago that growth rates are unpredictable due to lifestyle changes.

—  In the UK, very high speed rail can offer users only small time savings but has the potential to cause detrimental impacts on millions of passenger journeys, the existing rail system and the environment and would not reduce CO2 emissions. We point to the emphasis placed by public transport users on reliability rather than time savings yet again in the most recent national passenger survey.

—  We support the HoC Transport Committee in its call for a national transport strategy which will clarify how transport will be delivered at a sub national level and in a holistic manner now that Regional Spatial Strategies (and Regional Transport Strategies) have been scrapped.

—  We believe the findings of SACTRA (the Standing Advisory Committee on Trunk Road Assessment) in their report "Transport & the Economy"—in relation to new road infrastructure—apply equally to building a super fast strategic rail system. No automatic assumptions should be made that it would bring huge economic benefits to certain areas. It could just as easily suck workforces and investment away (in this case to London). We therefore query claimed economic benefits for the regions.

—  Greater emphasis is needed on environmental implications and on environmental capacity in relation, amongst other things, to parkway rail stations on Green Belt causing calls for new roads.

Who we are, why we were established and our approach to influencing policy

The North West Transport Roundtable (NW TAR) operates under the auspices of the Campaign for Better Transport (CfBT). We are an umbrella body that promotes sustainable transport, healthier lives and low carbon lifestyles. The regional roundtables came into being in the late 1990s to represent the opinions of organisations and individuals who believe in sustainable transport and to try to bring about more environmentally friendly transport and planning policies. We engage only on policy issues (we are not a direct action organisation) and we do so at a variety of different levels. Many of our recent outputs are viewable on our website www.nwtar.org.uk.

Point of clarification

All the specific questions posed by the HoC Transport Committee for this inquiry refer to HSR (High Speed Rail) and not to HS2 (High Speed Two) but appear to be primarily about HS2. For the record, UK law defines the HSR network as consisting of the existing West Coast, East Coast and Great Western Main Lines as well as the High Speed One Line (HS1). But these questions clearly relate to the provision of new ultra high speed capacity. So, for the purpose of answering this series of questions in an uncomplicated manner, we answer assuming they are talking about new strategic rail infrastructure which is additional to/ faster than the existing high speed system.


Q.1:  What are the main arguments for or against HSR?

A: The main arguments in favour have been set out by the UK Government itself, but only in the last two years. They were initially promulgated latterly under the previous Government by the previous Secretary of State for Transport, Lord Adonis, who presented to parliament the 150-page "High Speed Rail" paper in March 2010 and more recently by the current Transport Secretary, the Rt. Hon Philip Hammond, M.P., whose department predicts wider economic benefits for HS2 of around £44 billion., plus revenues of £27 billion. and claims strategic journey times would be "slashed". But, it should be noted, this approach and these predictions are at odds with the Government's direction and opinion of only four years ago. The White Paper "Delivering a Sustainable Railway" of 2007—which looked 30 years ahead—ruled out a new high speed line due to the uncertainty of future passenger growth rates and the way that people will use rail. It said: "In future, when people have double today's income and half today's carbon footprint, behaviour patterns may change significantly". NW TAR aligns itself with this cautious approach. We have adopted a very questioning attitude to ultra high speed rail in the UK and the benefits being claimed for it.

In terms of arguments against, in the first instance we take issue with the modus operandi adopted for HS2. Why were there no national consultations on alternatives (inc. design standards) and on routes? The DfT's own WebTAG (Wider Economic Benefits Transport Appraisal Guidance) calls for a robust examination of possible alternatives to transport interventions. We share the doubts raised by leading commentators such as independent rail analyst Christian Wolmar and Andrew Gilligan of the "Sunday Telegraph". The latter, in an article on 6 March 2011, describes HS2 passenger projections as "quite heroic" in view of the plan to start from day one with 14 trains an hour each way between London and Birmingham, rising to 18 an hour each way or 342 daily in each direction. This compares to 10 non-stop TGV trains a day each way between Paris and each of Lyon, Valence and Avignon on France's LGV Sud-Est.

Based on HS2's own documentation, the "Telegraph" calculates that up to 750 trains every day to places not on the new high speed line would be slowed down or scrapped and almost 40 million passenger journeys a year, on current figures, would be affected. If rail travel usage rises as expected, the number deleteriously impacted could grow to 60 million by the time the line opens in 2026. And time savings would not be as great as claimed because: (a) the best journey times now are better than stated and (b) rail connections would be poor. On the second point, the city centre HS2 stations in both Birmingham and Manchester would have to be specially built, separate from the existing principal mainline stations. The article, which also points out that over 70% of any regenerative impacts are forecast for London and not the regions, goes into much greater detail than has been replicated here, can be viewed at: www.telegraph.co.uk/news/uknews/road-and-rail-transport/8364407/High-speed-rail-running-rapidly-right-off-the rails.html.

One of the government's main arguments in favour of HS2 is time savings but NW TAR would point to the fact that in survey after survey, public transport users rate reliability above journey time. Passenger Focus report again in their Spring 2011 newsletter that the latest National Passenger Survey shows "punctuality is the biggest driver of passenger satisfaction". The Transport Committee will also be aware of debate amongst transport planners about the value the transport appraisal system places on time savings. Many have been calling for some time for a down-grading in the way time savings are evaluated in cost-benefit analyses, especially as it has been shown travellers themselves tend not to notice modest time savings.

In addition, NW TAR have concerns about proposals for parkway rail stations, which would create massive parking lots on open countryside and generate new traffic movements and calls for new/up-graded roads. We question why the government has opted for such a very high speed system that requires near straight rail lines with maximum noise and other impacts on communities, tranquillity, wildlife and landscapes. (Phase 1 alone would damage 10 SSSIs, 50 ancient woodlands and four wildlife reserves). Meanwhile, it would appear there would be no reduction in CO2 emissions as originally claimed because of the amount of power demanded by the super-fast trains. We also share the concerns of many other organisations and individuals that investment in the existing rail system would be seriously compromised.

Q.2:  How does HSR fit with the Government's transport policy objectives?
(i)  HSR is designed to improve inter-urban connectivity. How does that objective compare in importance to other transport policy objectives and spending programmes, including those for the strategic road network?
(ii)  Focusing on rail, what would be the implications of expenditure on HSR on funding for the "classic" network, for example in relation to investment to increase track and rolling stock capacity in and around cities?
(iii)  What are the implications for domestic aviation?

A: NW TAR, in common with the HoC Transport Select Committee, finds it difficult to grasp where the government is headed in terms of transport policy or to understand how policy will be enacted in an holistic manner at a sub national level. We note the Committee's report, 'Transport and the Economy' and its call for a White Paper on transport strategy which would explain how spending on transport will deliver economic growth and plug the holes left by the scrapping of Regional Spatial Strategies. Mechanisms to deliver sustainable transport at the sub-national level have been removed and we fear that, along with them, so have many sound ideals and concern for wider environmental impacts. Following the Comprehensive Spending Review, the go-ahead was given for a list of road schemes and the "Plan for Growth" paper launched along with the Budget flagged up a weakening of the planning system per se and the creation of 21 Enterprise Zones, all measures which will encourage and increase car travel.

To date the Coalition Government have produced one Transport White Paper which has two key government objectives. "Creating Growth, Cutting Carbon", published in January 2011, cites these as: "to help create growth in the economy and to tackle climate change by cutting carbon emissions" (Foreword by Norman Baker, MP, Parliamentary Under Secretary of State at the DfT).

On the first objective, the White Paper says, in view of the fact that most journeys are short ones, it wants to make short journeys by public transport more attractive. However, as explained in response to Q.1, many local rail journeys would actually suffer if HS2 was built and experience in other countries where there has been an emphasis on very high speed rail has often been that the traditional rail system has deteriorated. (France is a prime example). Consequently, there is the potential for many local economies to suffer. But, in any event, we would point to the fact that no detailed comparative work appears to have been carried out of the alternative of investing the same amount of money in the existing rail network. It might well prove to be the case that if there was more electrification, more passing loops, longer and better quality rolling stock, longer platforms, high quality stations, line re-openings and spurs, signal and track upgrades, improved rail freight facilities and better ticketing systems for passengers that the benefits to the economy would not only be greater but more fairly distributed across the country.

Re. the second objective. The faster the high speed trains, the more power they demand and the increase in power required is exponential. The system envisaged is a very high speed one. Not only would CO2 emissions not decrease, they could increase if the projected switch of air passengers from short haul flights fails to occur or if it does happen and the slots those planes occupy are taken by longer haul flights. Also, we would draw attention to the fact that there are no Birmingham-London domestic flights.

Q3:  Business Case
(i)  How robust are the assumptions and methodology—for example on passenger forecasts, modal shifts, fare levels, scheme costs, economic assumptions (eg about the value of time) and the impact of lost revenue on the "classic" network?
(ii)  What would be the pros and cons of resolving capacity issues in other ways, for example by upgrading the West Coast Main Line or building a new conventional line?
(iii)  What would be the pros and cons of alternative means of managing demand for rail travel, for example by price?
(iv)  What lessons should the Government learn from other major transport projects to ensure that any new high speed lines are built on time and to budget?

A: The assumptions being used make a leap of faith that rail passenger demand will continue to grow at the rate it has been doing in recent years. And, just as the original case for road building had more to do with declamations by political figures that "the economy needs them", there appears to be a large element of similar assumptions in respect of a high speed railway and the effect it might have on the West and East Midlands and the northern regions. We would point out that Japan built the world's first high-speed line in the 1960s but has struggled economically for decades and we would remind the HoC Transport Committee of the findings of SACTRA (the Standing Advisory Committee on Trunk Road Assessment) in relation to roads. In their report "Transport and the Economy", published in 1998, they made the point that highways work in two directions (as do railways). SACTRA concluded that providing new highway infrastructure does not necessarily bring investment to an area, it can make it easier to out-commute and therefore suck investment away from a targeted area. The same could apply to HS2 which could make it easier for people to live in Manchester and Birmingham and work in London. Effectively, the regions might merely become dormitory zones for the capital. It also needs to be appreciated that the cost of the project would fall on the taxpayer but they would not necessarily benefit in the long term. The high speed line to the Channel Tunnel which cost taxpayers more than £6bn. has been sold to a Canadian pension fund on a 30-year lease for a third of its cost because it has generated insufficient income.

Re. the value of time in the transport appraisal system. Many experts in the field are now seriously questioning the current approach to this. At the UK Transport Appraisal Summit in early April even the key speaker in defence of the New Approach to Appraisal, independent consultant John Bates, acknow-ledged there was scope for improving valuations and that transport schemes fuel land use changes. The leading speaker calling for reform was David Metz, visiting professor at UCL's Centre for Transport Studies and a former chief scientist to the DfT. He warned that faster journeys translate into more longer distance commuting and consequently pressure for more house building, higher land value and property prices.

As far as the impact of lost revenue on the "classic" network is concerned and being able to properly evaluate the pros and cons of resolving capacity issues in other ways, these matters must surely be the subject of studies to be funded by government? Such studies should have been carried out before the route for HS2 Phase One was announced and before the current nationwide consultation was launched.

On the matter of managing travel demand—be it for rail or other modes—there has been much emphasis in recent years on reducing the need to travel by having sustainable communities, access for all to fast broadband, making better use of facilities such as video and telephone conferencing, more home working and the provision of homes that are better designed to accommodate home working. The case for these measures has not altered because there has been a change of government. As to using price to control demand, we would baulk at this suggestion because of its implications for social exclusion and the fact it would work against reducing unemployment. In any event, public transport fares are too high now.

Rather than concerning itself with getting major transport infrastructure projects built on time and to budget, the government should consider instead the benefits to be gleaned from carrying out a whole series of smaller measures which it has been shown can cumulatively have considerable effect. In the recent past the DfT has accepted that this approach can reap widespread benefits.

Q.4:  The strategic route
(i)  The proposed route to the West Midlands has stations at Euston, Old Oak Common, Birmingham International and Birmingham Curzon Street. Are these the best possible locations? What criteria should be used to assess the case for more (or fewer) intermediate stations?
(ii)  Which cities should be served by an eventual high speed network? Is the proposed "Y" configuration the right choice?
(iii)  Is the Government right to build the network in stages moving from London northwards?
(iv)  The Government proposes a link to HS1 as part of Phase 1 but a direct link to Heathrow only as part Phase 2. Are those the right decisions?

A: The five questions under the "strategic route" heading assume that the case has been made for HS2 and also that the correct route has been chosen for Phase One. NW TAR do not agree that this is the case.

In addition, we would highlight the point that the number of stations now proposed for HS2 has the effect of nullifying one of the Government's key arguments for building it, ie. time savings. Just as initial claims about reduction in CO2 emissions have proven to be unfounded, we note that claims about time savings are also constantly being eroded. A stop at Old Oak Common is regarded as essential by the promoters of the scheme in order to achieve connections in Greater London, but it would not be possible to achieve connections in Birmingham or Manchester city centres because access to New Street and Piccadilly stations cannot be achieved. In the time that would be lost travelling between the existing stations and the new ones, all time saved on the inter-city journey would be lost. Meanwhile, there is a perverse case being argued for having parkway stations at Birmingham and Manchester Airports which would involve significant areas of Green Belt being given over to parking, despite the Government having declared its determination to protect Green Belt, and despite the fact that local rail connections between Manchester Airport and the strategic rail system are very poor and the positioning of an HS2 station at Manchester Airport would foster calls for the network of SEMMMS roads to be built (affecting yet more Green Belt!)

As the current proposals stand, HS2 would not be accessible to the majority of the communities it passes through. If there were less, it would be even less accessible. If there were more, the case for a new high speed rail system effectively disappears altogether and the discussion might as well be about building new and improved conventional rail infrastructure which can be more easily adapted to consider the environment. NW TAR would welcome more and more detailed discussions about this.

NW TAR calls on the Government, through the Transport Select Committee, to take a step back and re-assess the whole case, this time fully factoring in environmental considerations.

Q.5:  Economic rebalancing and equity
(i)  What evidence is there that HSR will promote economic regeneration and help bridge the north-south divide?
(ii)  To what extent should the shape of the network be influenced by the desirability of supporting local and regional regeneration?
(iii)  Which locations and socio-economic groups will benefit from HSR?
(iv)  How should the government ensure all major beneficiaries of HSR (inc. local authorities and business interests) make an appropriate financial contribution and bear risks appropriately? Should the Government seek support from the EU's TEN-T programme?

A: The first two economic rebalancing and equity questions are asked from a positive rather than a neutral perspective. Instead of only looking for evidence of how HSR will promote economic regeneration, the Transport Select Committee would be well advised to also look for evidence of how it might not. On that front, we would point to Ashford in Kent. It is 38 minutes from central London - the same time distance it is claimed Birmingham would be from London if HS2 were built. Christian Wolmar points out that whilst unemployment has come down in Ashford since the HS1 line opened, it has fallen by less than the Kent, South Eastern and British average and house prices have risen by less than the Kent and South Eastern average. He also draws attention to the Dutch new high speed line rail line that opened last year. It is failing to attract sufficient patronage due to high fares and technical problems. Teething problems push up costs and deter users from the outset. The system that the UK is proposing involves a high-tec specification. This means it would be more susceptible to teething problems and cost escalations. It might take some time to bed in and along the way create a large army of disappointed customers.

As far as "supporting local and regional regeneration" is concerned, we would re-iterate the first paragraph of our response to question three on page four, where we quote the findings of SACTRA. The actuality could be that London sucks economic benefits away from the north—whatever the shape of the network.

As to which locations and socio-economic groups would benefit from HSR, it apparent that London and groups A and B (who can either afford to pay the fares themselves or are in the type of employment that pays for their travel) would be the main beneficiaries. Almost certainly, there would be a premium for using trains domestically on HS2 as there is on HS1. This being the case, it is difficult to see that too many average UK citizens would reap any noticeable benefits other than for the very occasional leisure trip.

It is unclear to us how local authorities could be made to bear the costs of the project, particularly as the government is committed to "Localism" and giving local authorities more autonomy and especially as some authorities such as Staffordshire have already declared they are against it.

Re. the TENS programme. The NW TAR has long been sceptical of the lack of evidence behind TENS—the Trans European Networks. TENs have always appeared to be more about aspiration than reality. We are reminded that only a few years ago, an origin and destination survey carried out on the M62 established that less than 1% of the drivers using it travelled the full distance from Liverpool on the west coast of the UK to Hull on the east or vice versa. Yet the M62 is officially part of a "TEN" that crosses Europe. That said, we can see that there is a much stronger case for very high speed rail services across the continent of mainland Europe than there ever will be for them in the UK where the distances are so much smaller and the dense populations in many areas make strategic projects so much more difficult to bring forward.

Q.6:  Impact
(i)  What will be the overall impact of HSR on UK carbon emissions? How much modal shift from aviation and roads would be needed for HSR to reduce carbon?
(ii)  Are environmental costs and benefits (including in relation to noise) correctly accounted for in the business case?
(iii)  What would be the impact on freight services on the "classic" network?
(iv)  How much disruption will there be to services on the "classic" network during construction, particularly during the re-building of Euston station?

A: Perusing the documentation provided by the government, it is apparent that HS2 would be at best carbon neutral and has the potential to increase carbon emissions.

We do not believe environmental costs and benefits are adequately assessed by the present transport appraisal system and the issue of environmental capacity is often totally overlooked. Values placed on small time savings account for a disproportionate amount of cost-benefit analyses both generically and in this specific case. Also, whilst the preferred route for Phase One of HS2 recognises the need to protect landscapes with highly rated designations by placing part of the route in tunnels, designations such as Green Belt are clearly given little weight. There is also a major issue around the noise impacts of the very high speed trains. Here we would flag up the charter drawn up by nine environmental NGOs about the best way to make HS2 work if it does become a reality ("The Right Lines: A Charter for High Speed Rail").

Regarding rail freight. This has the potential to produce 70% less CO2 than equivalent road journeys but there is a land use issue which must not be overlooked. To encourage it investment in the "classic" system would still be required as well as in freight loading facilities and the National Planning Policy Framework and the National Policy Statement on national roads & rail networks need to be helpfully worded. But, it is imperative sustainability is the over-riding criteria to ensure rail freight depots are not used as stalking horses for further expansive development on greenfields/ in Green Belt, as has happened in the past.

In respect of disruption to the "classic" system during construction of HS2, we view with horror the knock-on effects of re-building Euston. Millions of people would be forced to use cars for their journeys and many would probably not return to public transport, particularly after such a long time span away from it, and a generation of young people would be discouraged from making rail travel part of their lifestyles.

We hope our comments are of some value and we hope that the entire project will be reassessed.

May 2011

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Prepared 8 November 2011