High Speed Rail - Transport Committee Contents

Written evidence from the Institution of Mechanical Engineers (HSR 62)

1.  What are the main arguments either for or against HSR

Arguments For

The main arguments for High Speed rail (HSR) are economic. The Institution of Mechanical Engineers (IMechE) has consistently supported the development of HSR as an integral part of a sustainable transport infrastructure as in the UK's long term economic interests. It will enable regional development as part of a broader socio-economic policy.

Modern economies rely heavily on cities, and cities rely on good communications for access to them, between them, and movement around them. The global shift is towards greater use of railways because of their inherent strengths:

—  The capacity for high volume movements between urban centres.

—  The environmental advantages which include:

—  Low land take per unit of capacity.

—  Low reliance on fossil fuels (subject to electricity generation mix).

—  No significant emissions at point of use.

—  Low energy requirement per passenger kilometre.

There is nothing special about the UK cities and demographics that nullifies these advantages.

Additional factors which support HSR are:

Proven technology
Sustainable efficient movement of passengers in high volumes does not depend on any technological breakthrough. All of the technologies required to achieve HSR levels of performance are already in proven operation. This brings high levels of certainty and lower risk into decision making.

Europe and network benefits
The UK has a direct rail connection to Europe, where rail and HSR are an important and growing part of the transport infrastructure. Experience shows that rail is an attractive option for travel between the UK and near European cities. Presently this impact is restricted to London and the South East but HSR will significantly spread this opportunity.

Capacity where it's needed
Recent growth in the attractiveness of rail has taken the existing network to the limits of its capacity in key flows. The growth has been despite a perception of relatively high fares. HSR provides the capacity the system needs on a prime routes key to the development of the UK economy and demographics.

Journey time is an important factor in modal competition. Continued movement towards rail as an efficient mode in applications that play to its strengths (eg Inter-City travel) depends on development of high quality public transport services. It is clear that HSR is part of this development. The competitive position of the rail mode will decline and its advantages will be lost to the country unless the quality of the rail offering continues to improve through suitable investment.

Laying down railway infrastructure is a long term investment and decision. The benefits are inherent and sustainable. It is not possible to imagine a role for London as a world city without the rail infrastructure that serves it. This infrastructure was built largely by the Victorians and has already lasted 150 years. As we lay down new rail infrastructure it is important that we do not restrict its future flexibility in speed and capacity. The plans developed for HSR are in line with global and European standards.

Arguments Against

The faster the travel, the more energy is consumed, the greater the noise, and all other factors being equal, the safety risk is higher. The energy and noise issues are fundamental to the physics of air resistance. They can be mitigated by good aerodynamic design but cannot be eliminated except by speed reduction. The IMechE has consistently argued that our trains should go as fast as they need to, not necessarily as fast as they can. Nevertheless it follows that a flexible infrastructure allows for them to go as fast as is safe and efficient to achieve the necessary economic benefits. This speed is currently around 350kph, but can be expected to rise towards 400kph over the life of the investment.

The safety risk can be designed out to such an extent that the Japanese HS system has operated in a densely populated corridor for 50 years without a single passenger fatality from a train collision or derailment. HSR should have a dedicated infrastructure with the same design elements.

2.  How does HSR fit with the Government's transport policy objectives

2.1  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?

The policy objectives are driven by the government's socio-economic and climate change objectives:

(a)  The proven ability of good rail communications to revitalise and regenerate regions and cities provide an excellent fit with the socio-economic objectives.

(b)  The key 2050 climate change objective is indirectly met through:

—  Modal shift from less sustainable modes.

—  Release of capacity on the existing network to meet shorter journey length needs.

—  The attractiveness of the rail mode through high quality service provision.

2.2  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 major cities?

Compared to London, other UK cities have less dense use of their railway infrastructure. It follows that increasing this density makes economic sense. In general this is achieved first by longer trains, more frequent services, and electrification. These improvements require less capital than building new capacity and infrastructure. Both new lines and improvements to the "classic" network will be required in future with a balance to be struck on socio-economic grounds. The needs and the solutions are complementary, not mutually exclusive.

2.3  What are the implications for domestic aviation?

To a limited extent, HSR will reduce the level of internal domestic air travel which will release airport capacity for essential longer flights. The UK aerospace industry therefore has an opportunity to retain its position as a global power in technology and manufacturing and service delivery. By way of contrast the UK railway engineering industry will further suffer if its home market does not participate in the global and European rail shift to HSR.

3.  Business case

3.1  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?

The IMechE's position in relation to this question is related to our competence on the issue of engineering costs. We believe the assumptions and methodology to have had an appropriate level of peer review and professional input. This is coupled with recent (HS1) experience that gives a great deal of confidence in the cost side of the business case presented.

3.2  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?

By way of contrast with the positive HS1 experience mentioned above, upgrading the West Coast Main Line (WCML) has been likened to "open heart surgery half way up the Matterhorn". The financial costs are high and relatively unpredictable. Such a project on a key route would inevitably involve completely unacceptable levels of disruption that damage the attraction of the rail mode and delay its full contribution to the government's transport objectives.

Building a new conventional line would not necessarily be cheaper or quicker, but would artificially limit the future flexibility of the route as part of the network. The land take and visual impact would be near identical. In the limit, trains on a High Speed line can always slow down for environmental reasons if required to do so. On the other hand, signalling or curvature constraints built into a railway are expensive to remove, as is witnessed by the recent WCML upgrade experience.

3.3  What would be the pros and cons of alternative means of managing demand for rail travel, for example by price?

There is a logical case for travel pricing to be related to the full cost of provision including all external costs. On the other hand, constraining the achievement of socio-economic goals through artificially raising the price of any mode does not make sense. Taxation policies need to support the overall strategy. Indirect beneficiaries (e.g. property developers, affected landowners, growth businesses) should also bear their share of the costs. Some subsidy of non-economic transport activities (eg high peak operation) may also be necessary to meet economic and demographic objectives.

3.4  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?

Recent experience suggests that the UK has the skill base and know-how to deliver major rail infrastructure projects on time and to budget, even when they have some involvement with the existing infrastructure (eg HS1 and St Pancras). The major delay for UK plc lies in a planning regime that injects uncertainty and delay.

4.  The strategic route

4.1  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?

4.2  Which cities should be served by an eventual high speed network? Is the proposed Y configuration the right choice?

4.3  Is the Government correct to build the network in stages, moving from London northwards?

4.4  The Government proposes a link to HS1 as part of Phase 1 but a direct link to Heathrow only as part of Phase 2. Are those the right decisions?

There are no overriding engineering based reasons that make the IMechE question the proposed route or build phasing strategy. Nevertheless engineering costs will be contained to a minimum if the government can provide the confidence in a rolling programme that will support private investment in the skills and equipment required for highly mechanised and efficient production of new railway in a competitive environment.

5.  Economic rebalancing and equity

5.1  What evidence is there that HSR will promote economic regeneration and help bridge the north-south economic divide?

5.2  To what extent should the shape of the network be influenced by the desirability of supporting local and regional regeneration?

5.3  Which locations and socio-economic groups will benefit from HSR?

5.4  How should the Government ensure that all major beneficiaries of HSR (including 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?

We have no response for these economic questions.

6.  Impact

6.1  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?

We understand that the overall impact of HS2 on the country's Carbon emissions by the key date of 2050 to be limited or broadly neutral. It will provide extra capacity with the potential for it to be low or even zero carbon. The degree of modal shift required will vary depending on the speed with which each mode improves its Carbon efficiency relative to the other modes. Nevertheless, a half-full train running on green electricity has the lowest carbon emissions per pass. km of all land transport, by a significant margin. This position does not need new evidence to support it. The IMechE has always argued that the UK energy policy needs to reduce the Carbon emissions in the generation mix. When this has been achieved the Carbon penalty associated with higher speed rail travel will be largely eliminated. Electric trains operation in Sweden has emissions per pass.km several thousand times less than the UK average due entirely to this factor.

6.2  Are environmental costs and benefits (including in relation to noise) correctly accounted for in the business case?

The IMechE has no evidence to question the accounting for environmental costs in the business case. It would appear from the lack of complaints related to HS1 operation that the noise impact can be overrated by objectors at the planning stage. The external costs of all transport modes based on fossil fuel use need to fully reflect the health effects, including for example, the respiratory affect of poor air quality in cities.

6.3  What would be the impact on freight services on the "classic" network?

Increasing the available capacity on the "classic" network delivers the opportunity to increase those services which will contribute most to the government's transport related socio-economic objectives. In some cases these will be freight services designed to produce the optimum modal mix between coastal shipping, trunk rail and local road distribution networks.

6.4  How much disruption will be there to services on the "classic" network during construction, particularly during the rebuilding of Euston?

The building of a new line implies that the majority of the disruption will be to other modes and city life in the affected areas. The recent experience of HS1 at St Pancras suggests that this can be contained by good construction practice and engineering design.

May 2011

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Prepared 8 November 2011