High Speed Rail - Transport Committee Contents

Written evidence from Allan Whittow (HSR 43)


The behaviour of the DfT and their wholly owned subsidiary HS2 Ltd raise a number of important issues which I am sure your Committee will wish to consider.

If we want the best transport strategy, short and long term, for the nation, it would be logical to start from the problems that need to be addressed. Since 90% of the passenger and freight transport is by road, you might expect spend to reflect this pattern - perhaps using comparative Benefit/Cost Ratio to prioritise between road and rail. Further, both road and rail use is mainly relatively short distance - well under 50 miles. So the natural startpoint might be that long distance rail should be allotted perhaps 5% of the transport budget. With a few notorious examples UK has a good long distance travel infrastructure. Market research suggests the main problems are local, eg commuter distances, including congestion, potholes and distracting traffic deterrents. These are generally soluble by non-glamorous incremental works, and we must welcome those that can be implemented most quickly and cheaply - in every case the solution follows from the identified problem.

If someone wants to start from a particular "solution" they will try to make the problem fit solution, discourage review of alternatives, and generally put barriers in the way of objective analysis. A symptom is to keep switching the rationale for the trophy project they have set their heart on. And any "consultation" will be handled not by the DfT but their agents who have information on just one option rather than the whole range. Obfuscatory documentation can help deter intelligent interest by those who will later find they are to over-pay for the wrong solution.

Which scenario rings true for HS2 and the present Consultation?

The DfT's attempt to justify their HS2 proposal was originally based on the economic or business case, but that collapsed because of the unrealistic traffic forecasts and unrealistic valuation of time "saved" by business passengers. As a simple example, HS2 Ltd incurs no extra cost for staff working late at their roadshows, let alone for their time travelling home afterwards. Mr Andrew Tucker of HS2 Ltd, who claims to be an economist familiar with the analysis, confirmed to me that the project does not depend on the business case. He also confirmed that the cost/benefit analysis has been made from a government perspective, not a national case (though he was not familiar the difference) - why else would he include fares as a benefit for the case ? From a national cost/benefit perspective every economist should know that fares are a benefit for the government but a cost for the passenger, so drop out of the figures. My Tucker even began to claim that HS2 would cost extra because it would follow on from the massive Crossrail spend - almost as though keeping that construction force employed is the real justification for HS2!

Environmental benefits were DfT's claim for justifying the project, but even on a carbon basis HS2 does not reduce carbon because higher speed is very wasteful and extra travel offsets the small number transferring from (increasingly frugal) cars and the handful from air. Mr Tucker claimed HS2 was very open about not including in their assessment any of the environmental disbenefits, but could not point to a single phrase acknowledging this in their massive display. No value has been put on the environment for flora and fauna, let alone humans and national priorities like AONB. Why do their noise calculations show only the average rather than peak noise? This may make sense for continuous road traffic, but is ludicrous for trains and planes which are intrusive but random - would they claim that a nuclear explosion every decade is inaudible, on average?

Healing the North/South divide might be nice, but HS2 is almost totally useless as a way to do so. In HS2 Ltd's analysis 95% of all benefits go to travellers (the rich few, or those on expenses) and only 5% to wider economic benefits - two thirds of which go to London and the South East anyway. Apart from a few retail parks round the very few stations, the main area of redevelopment is in Royal Oak, but enlightened MPs should know that is not very far north.

The need to increase the capacity of rail is their latest claim for a compelling reason. But if we are desperate for extra capacity, we cannot wait till 2026 or 2033. Fortunately there are well developed plans for the West Coast Main Line prepared at DfT's request which can increase capacity by the same amount as HS2 with speeds of 120-150 mph - gradually to match growth, but starting now and potentially in place by 2015, costing roughly one tenth of HS2, and serving the real needs of the population with plenty of interchanges to and from more local services. Speed is not our main priority in our small island. WCML RP2, and the equivalent on ECML, should be put in hand now.

If there is a need for even further capacity beyond, it might make sense to consider plans for a new route to more distant destinations, eg Newcastle and Scotland, using mid-speed (therefore more environmental) trains, and not adding 35 miles by going via Birmingham ! But even this would be hard to justify compared with increasing (to six tracks ?) the ECML to keep the interchanges with existing trains. High Speed is relevant in UK only if we are integrated with Europe, and have joined the Shengen Agreement. This is of course speculation, so should be considered only when the strategic objectives are agreed, but it does illustrate the sort of question that should be addressed before spending hundreds of millions on consultants working detail on a single scheme that is only one, unpromising, option.

I wish you every success in establishing the changes in approach needed to ensure we make the right transport decisions. Just think how let down people would feel if they were forced to commit their £1K per household (NPV @ 2009 prices !) for a new speed toy they would never use that, by 2026 would almost certainly no longer be enough to impress the world.

May 2011

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Prepared 8 November 2011