A bad deal at any price

Peter’s view of the recent report on costs of HS2 – originally published on his blog here.

I had just settled down to write my next blog when an incoming email alerted me to coverage of HS2 on the BBC Radio 4 Today programme that was still being broadcast at the time. When I investigated I found that the coverage had been triggered by a report by what the BBC referred to as “a group of transport experts”. Since this report was the outcome of a workshop that I had trailed in my blog Speaking truth to power (posted 2 Feb 2016), and which I had been eagerly awaiting, I decided to drop the topic that I had planned for this posting and concentrate upon the report and the BBC coverage instead.

The report tells us that the workshop, which was convened on 23rd May 2016, attracted “some 40 professionals with widely differing views [on HS2]”. It warns us that the report “is intended to reflect the majority view” of those that attended, but that “inevitably its conclusions are not equally endorsed by all participants”. This majority view may be summarised, fairly I trust, as:

  • Of the four objectives upon which the report claims HS2 is “predicated”, the report finds that only one, increasing rail capacity, is achieved by HS2 and has reservations about the effectiveness of even that one achievement.
  • The cost of the full HS2 project equates to £105m per route-km, which compares with £20m per route-km for the TGV line from Tours to Bordeaux.
  • A “lower design speed, as adopted in France and Germany, would make it possible to choose a less damaging route, and at the same time reduce construction, operation and mitigation costs”.
  • The report contests that “a much fuller range of policy options [alternative to HS2] should have been considered” and identifies some candidate proposals.
  • The report identifies shortcomings with the methodology employed to develop the business case for HS2.
  • The report recommends that “a review [of the HS2 project] was needed”, and that this review should be “conducted objectively and dispassionately before we commit to the nation’s largest-ever transport investment”.

On the Today programme (see footnote 1) the BBC’s Environmental Analyst, Roger Harrabin, expressed a very good reason why the report should be taken seriously by the Government:

“It’s a group of academics – many of them quite eminent, many of them retired – who say that, because they’re retired, they can now take a truly independent view on HS2: they think that, broadly speaking, a lot of academia, consultants and big business have been sucked into the great circle around HS2, and will benefit from profits, and they say that they think that has led to insufficient scrutiny.”

Sadly though, as I reported in Speaking truth to power, previous attempts by this group to gain the ear of the Government have been studiously ignored.

Unsurprisingly, it was the claim that HS2 is proving to be five times more expensive than the TGV in France that headlined the BBC report. Mr Harrabin said that initially he “really couldn’t believe” the figures in the report when he had seen them the previous day and “didn’t plug” the story for that reason. He said that he had put the cost comparison “to the Government before lunch [that same day], eleven o’clock” and that it had taken “until seven o’clock in the evening to get a response, and that response was no response; so they didn’t respond to the allegation that it will cost five times as much”.

Mr Harrabin did, however, indicate that the Government had put forward some reasons why the costs for the TGV line and HS2 were not directly comparable, and the Acting Technical Director of HS2 Ltd, Giles Thomas, explained what these were when he was interviewed on the programme by the BBC’s presenter, Sarah Montague (see footnote 2). He said that the TGV route was “a line extension” and that:

“… a line extension doesn’t have any stations, they’re running off into existing stations, whereas High Speed Two is, of course, a network that comprises ten new stations. It’s also, as you said earlier, going through some very expensive parts of the UK, in a much more dense (sic) environment, and, of course, the costs that we are quoting include rolling stock as well, which the TGV line doesn’t.”

These are all perfectly valid points, and the spokesman for the report, Professor Tony May (see footnote 3), in his interview with Ms Montague readily accepted that they were “not comparing like with like”, however the differences identified by HS2 Ltd surely don’t justify a five-fold increase in cost.

One possible other reason for the cost difference – significantly not one identified by Mr Thomas, but something that Ms Montague put to him – is that HS2 Ltd is “set on running [HS2] ultra-fast at 240mph, rather than 190mph, and that, on cost grounds (and actually it goes on, on environmental grounds), but just take the cost one, it’s not worth it”.

Mr Thomas explained that HS2 Ltd was “designing for the future” and ventured that “nobody would thank” the Company if it “ended up building a railway which came into service in 2026, which actually couldn’t then be adapted to future technology” (see footnote 4), to which Ms Montague countered:

“But, as one of your objectives states – an entirely understandable one – one of the aims is to reduce climate change and, because of that speed, it will not do that.”

Mr Thomas’s reply indicates that he had been on that training course that teaches people in his position how to totally ignore any question that has negative connotations:

“Well, the more direct the route, the less impact, in many ways, we have on the actual environment and the countryside. So we have really set about trying to balance the needs of the environment and the needs of people, and the benefits that HS2 offers as we provide some fantastic journey times: up to Manchester in 1hr 8mins and Leeds in 1hr 23mins.”

I think that he may be the only person on this earth who things that building a trackway that goes straight across the countryside, without the ability to divert around sensitive sites, can result in lowering the environmental impact. Anyway, in the proud tradition of BBC interviewers, Ms Montague refused to be diverted from her course:

“… and you accept that the price for having those extra few minutes off a journey time … is to be paid both financially and in a less green result.”

It appeared that Mr Thomas thought that it was a price worth paying:

“… the difference between an alignment of 300kph or 360kph, the difference is so small that one would want to invest that extra money and, indeed, we were asked back in 2011 to look at the differences in speed as part of our consultation and we decided we wouldn’t change the route alignment at all as a result of that.”

This last point is one of which I am acutely aware because, as I reported in my blog Bend it, just a little bit (posted 25 Feb 2012), saving South Cubbington Wood is one of the objectives of that study, which demonstrated that the woodland could have been saved from damage if the design speed had been reduced on the section past my village.

Footnotes:

  1. The recording is available, for a limited time, on the BBC iPlayer. Roger Harrabin’s contribution starts at 13mins55secs in, Tony May’s at 53mins20secs in and Giles Thomas’s at 1hr 32mins 35secs in.
  2. I wonder what the significance of this job title is regarding the position of the long-term Technical Director, Professor Andrew McNaughton. As far as I can determine, no announcement has been made that the professor is leaving HS2 Ltd.
  3. Anthony May OBE FREng FICE is Emeritus Professor of Transport Engineering at the University of Leeds.
  4. This assumes, of course, that the Victorian technology of steel wheels on steel rails represents the future for railway transport, which it probably doesn’t.

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