Friday, September 20, 2013

The Capacity Case for HS2

 (Pointy shiny trains leaving Birmingham at 225mph. Most sensible!)

Few of those who know me will often accuse me of being indecisive on public policy issues in which I take an interest. I am also unashamedly enthusiastic about railways, and can therefore normally be counted on to be in favour of rail investment, whether it is rebuilding steam railways in Snowdonia, or righting the wrongs of Marples* / Beeching in the 1960s.

So, faced with a £42bn programme to build a UK TGV from London to Birmingham, Manchester and Leeds, I should be entirely on board with it, and indeed pushing for it to be built faster and further (to Edinburgh and Glasgow).

Well, not quite. Yes, clearly superfast trains that can get me from London to Edinburgh in 3h 38m almost an hour faster than the 4h 21m best today, and half an hour quicker than the (once a day) best time to Glasgow of 4h 08m. Indeed, London - Scotland would be significantly faster if a high speed line is built north from Manchester to Edinburgh, a distance of approximately 420 miles which at an average of 180 mph would give a journey time in the order of 2h 20m. Wonderful!

(331 miles in a straight line. Well within range for transformation by High Speed Rail.)

Indeed, with a 1h 15m flight time, plus getting to and from the airports, along with faffing around time at the airports, any time under 3h 00m from central Edinburgh / Glasgow to Euston would almost certainly decimate the domestic aviation market, especially as the high speed route will go via Old Oak Common with an interchange for Heathrow for international passengers, and to Crossrail for the City and Canary Wharf. (Better yet if it went via Heathrow, but we're not there yet). A significant reduction in the 299 flights / week from Edinburgh to six London airports (along with lots from Glasgow to London) will make a major reduction in CO2 emissions. Good.

But not at any cost.

The recent Institute for Economic Affairs (IEA) paper arguing that HS2 will cost £80bn has been widely rubbished, as it included all sorts of unrelated costs (e.g. Crossrail 2, which has precisely nothing to do with HS2 and needs to happen anyway for London and the South East) and ignored the fact that the current estimate of £42bn includes £14bn of contingency funds. And though the anti-HS2ers had a good political summer whilst there was nothing in the media, the reality remains that leaders of the Conservatives, LibDems and Labour are all more or less behind the project, though Labour has put a limit of £50bn on the cost.

All very sensible.

But what of the arguments that £42bn is a totally disproportionate cost to shave 30 mins off a trip from Euston - Birmingham and 60 mins off London - Manchester? And that the business case that treats all of these savings as "productive time" as people don't work on trains? These are risible messages, and are probably causing some sleepless nights in HS2 HQ.

(The perils of a mixed-traffic railway - comparatively slow freight trains...)

But they are also irrelevant in that the proper rationale for HS2 has always been one of capacity. The southern end of the West Coast Mainline (WCML) between London and Rugby, is, to all intents and purposes, full. And as a result, as demand rises - for passengers commuting to London, and for freight (largely containers) from the new port at London Gateway, capacity needs to be found from somewhere, or demand needs to be priced off the railway (a bad plan).

Thus, if something must be done, the question "What?" is next. And here's where the real rationale for HS2 kicks in. In the 1990s and 2000s, the WCML was effectively rebuilt at a cost of roughly £10bn. Though now complete, the cost and disruption of widening the southern end of the WCML from four tracks to six at least as far as the Trent Valley is so vast - you'd end up buying a 50 - 100 meter strip of England all the way up the line - including through the towns.... - that it is much easier to build a new line. And if you're going to build a wholly new line, the cost differential in building it for 250 mph operation and 140 mph operation is marginal, and therefore you go for the highest speed credibly possible.

This leads to a second pair of related points - high speed rail does two things very well. First, it is great at out-competing airlines out to around 500 miles with city centre-city centre connectivity. Beyond 500 miles, the faffing about with airports begins to be compensated for by an airliners speed. In other words, it will work brilliantly from London to Edinburgh / Glasgow.

Second, like motorways / freeways, to maximise volume, you need to keep the traffic moving at roughly the same speed to keep it from tripping each other. As a result, removing the high-speed services on the WCML will actually release even more medium speed commuter and freight capacity than you may originally assume. It's not for nothing that the WCML is Europe's busiest mixed-traffic railway.

Which leads to the final point.

Public policy should seek to maximise the benefits and minimise the costs. No great shock there. But HS2 is taking an inordinate amount of time to build as it is being funded on the basis that the money that the Department for Transport (DfT) is currently spending on Crossrail 1 will then be spent on HS2. This suggests that it is not being built in the most economical manner, but rather "how much HS2 can I get of £2bn a year, please?" DfT should urgently show that it is building the line as efficiently as possible - and if it would be cheaper to build it more quickly, then it should do so. As well as hurry up with true high-speed connections to Newcastle and Scotland's two main cities.

*Frankly, when the Minister of Transport also owned 80% of a large road building company, and closed lots of railways whilst building lots of roads, you'd think it was some sort of disgracefully ill-governed banana republic. But no, Macmillan's Britain. Gits.  

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