It seems clear that the best way to deal with anyone who opposes the London-Birmingham high speed rail link (HS2), is to brand them a self-serving nimby. For now this demonization is proving the easiest way to skip over the fact that there is no business case, no environmental case and no money to pay for it.
In response to the public comments received on the transport section of ‘The Coalition: Our programme for government’, the Government state; “By far the largest number [of which] were focused on proposals for a high speed rail network and broadly fell into three themes: what role will the high speed train fulfill in the UK; what route will the line follow; and, what consultation will there be.” In coming to that analysis they have both completely ignored the comments, and forgotten that the whole point of the consultation was to suggest ideas to Government. While there were some asking questions of the route, the actual idea that 49% of respondents put to the Coalition was stop HS2, full stop.
The DfT are heavy on touting the environmental credentials of HS2, and therein underlies in inherent problem; HS2 sounds good, but the benefit ends there. The bare minimum I would expect from a project like this is that it would be environmentally sound, but the plans for HS2 produced up by ARUP aren’t even close. When the entire nationwide project is complete, The Government believe it will “play a significant role in promoting a low carbon economy thereby helping to make our country greener and more sustainable” and “will almost eliminate the need for internal domestic flights.” The reality of the proposal shows that 65% of HS2s projected passengers will have transferred from normal trains or cars which pollute less, while another 27% -over 14 million passenger journeys each year -will not need to travel at all until it is built.
Due to the energy needed to get to the speeds involved, HS2 is only 25% less polluting than air travel, and that’s if the passenger forecast can be trusted. Far from cutting CO2 emissions from planes, HS2 will surely increase them. Besides the obvious point that there are no flights between the first two airports to be linked, if internal flights are scrapped when there is a national network, those flight slots will simply end up being filled with bigger planes going further. With Birmingham International getting the approval for an extended runway, linking it via HS2 to Heathrow helps get round the third runway problem, the only remaining problem there being how far from the airports the stations will be. Even ARUPs environmental assessment went so far as to say the new railway might lead to an increase in CO2 emissions, but this takes no account of either the construction related pollutants or the destruction of all that green stuff.
Recently, the press seem to be backing up the idea that opposition is parochial and comes solely from the picturesque and tranquil villages will destroy, with the implied editorial that one is unable to make an omelette without breaking eggs. This has helped HS2 to become for now at least, the white elephant in the cabinet meeting room. Surely after the real cuts, it will be spotted and hunted.
Financially, there is a simple answer to the question of why HS2 is a bad idea; its little brother in terms of size, straightness and speed, HS1. Just before the budget, Transport Secretary Phillip Hammond announced the sale of the Kent railway, heralding it as a “national success story.” I have to admit to being uncertain as to what criteria he bases this assessment on, and am concerned that HS2 might be an even bigger ‘success’. HS1 is being sold for £1.5bn, a quarter of what it cost to build and further evidence of its success was demonstrated just before the election, when services were finally cut due to usage not matching the demand forecast. In 2005 the high speed link through Kent was meant to carry 21 million passengers per year, but managed just 7 million. A similar methodology seems to have been applied to the forecasts for HS2, with the only difference being that this time they needed a king sized fag pack to fit all the noughts on. The given part of the West Coast Mainline carries 45,000 passengers per day, but HS2 will somehow magic that into 146,000. Part of the plan to incentivise people onto HS2 will be to cut current services to London from cities like Coventry. Coventry would not have a HS2 station, but would lose two-thirds of current inter-city trains to the capital. Having to go ten minutes in the wrong direction to Birmingham International, before transferring a mile or so by monorail over the M42 to get HS2, will be the incentive for the people of that city.
In Kent, the desolate car parks as Ebbsfleet International Station stand as testament to the folly of HS1. There is planning permission for 9,000 spaces, but only a quarter of the current 2,000 spaces get used. There is little sign of the rest of the business regeneration this was meant to bring. What it has brought about is fenced off scrubland and more miles of road than railway. Of course, many of the roads in Kent were added after the public consultation and Government approval. Only when the construction firms were engaged was it realised that access roads would be needed. There is no sign of a single construction road on any of the HS2 maps and all you have to do to see the level of errors is compare adjoining maps which should, but don’t, show the same things on the overlap. The technical appendix drawn up by ARUP mentions a 75 metre footprint for HS2, made up of 25 metres inside the internal fences supplemented by 25 metre vegetation free zones on either side, but this also seems to be an absent aspect of their plans. To put that in perspective, the pitch at Wembley is only 69 metres wide. This a runway, not a railway.
The other fact not to be missed when considering HS1 is that at the end of 2009 Lord Adonis restructured the debts of the parent company London and Continental Railways. Cynics might say he was shaping it up for sale by taking £5.2bn of debt off the books. He placed that liability of debt firmly on the shoulders of the taxpayer, but don’t worry, he said it was always meant to be our problem. Given all this, is this really the sort of ‘success’ we want to repeat on a much bigger scale?
The stated construction cost of HS2 back in March was meant to be £17.8bn, but that was before additional links to HS1 and Heathrow were ordered by the new Government. The aforementioned additional access roads will have to be added on, as will compensation. In terms of compensation, the final scheme will now be announced after all the cuts have come out, showing just how selfish anyone who says it’s unfair must be, no matter how much it might seem like a better deal was on offer in 1844.
Philip Hammond set the tone for those conversations with his response to the interim ‘Exceptional Hardship Scheme’ consultation. EHS will only pay out if you no one offers 85% of the asking price for a property, and if you are selling for the ‘right reasons’. Whilst the HS2 report claims only 350 homes will be directly affected by HS2, the 4,500 respondents to the consultation got the bare minimum. The DfT recognised that the provisions of the 1990 Town and Country Planning Act had been missed, so now farmers and businesses will be covered, and in terms of having the ‘right reasons’ for selling a property, the Secretary of State graciously conceded that both the death of the owner and the repossession of a property are legitimate reasons forcing a sale. In doing this, all Hammond did was close the really obvious gaps on one aspect of the HS2 plans. The problem is that this width of gap appears throughout those plans.
They say time is money, and personally I am most keen to see the figures and methodology involved in calculating that for HS2 passengers, time is worth about £10.10 each, or £32.3bn to the country. I’m especially interested to know how leisure passengers, i.e. people who are travelling in their own time for their own reasons, will save £11.1bn by getting there quicker. If we ignore this obvious benefit of HS2, the shaky business case shows that even if HS2 hits targets over sixty years, it will have cost the taxpayer £12bn. The likelihood of course is that like HS1, it will be sold long before then at a much greater loss. So the question is why do this? Is it intended to make the UK even more of a transfer hub, with airports to everywhere being connected by 250mph trains? Is it to enable business and residential development along the line and at the stations? Is it a shoe horn to create the demand for electricity to necessitate new nuclear power stations? Is it just a big bravado thing? Is it all down the 1996 EU directive which called for an EU-wide high speed rail network? What is driving all of this?
One person it is hardly worth asking that question of is Terry Hill, who George Osbourne appointed to chair the Infrastructure UK steering group, which will oversee an investigation into ways of reducing the cost of delivery of major infrastructure projects. By pure coincidence, Terry Hill also is board member and the ‘Global Market Leader for Transport’ at ARUP, the firm that produced the plans for HS2. It’s also fair to say that the previous government engaged ARUP to devise the HS2 plans without tendering, and that there is possibly a judicial review of the procurement process on the way. The real problem with Hill is that he claims his best solution to date so far was HS1 as it “Transformed Britain’s links with continental Europe, the economic development of the Thames Gateway and gave rise to the London Olympic 2012 success.” I do so hope the answer to the ‘why’ question isn’t simply that ARUP, and Atkins before them, punted the railway they want to build.
Although the initial reason for individuals and about 50 local action groups examining HS2 plans may well have been ‘not in my back yard’, the opposition will broaden out as even the simplest analysis of the plans leads to the conclusion ‘not anywhere’. HS2 isn’t just a white elephant; it’s a whole herd of them being blindly shepherded toward a cluster of financial black holes. If the penny doesn’t drop soon, tens of billions of pounds will drop into the bottomless pit that is our generational national debt.