Over the last few weeks the Government seem to have been trying their hardest to undermine the case for HS2, as they have decided not only to go ahead with cheaper alternatives for delivering capacity across the whole rail network, but also Chris Grayling has also gone so far as to say that high speed railways aren’t really needed – well not if they aren’t going to London.
First off, Grayling confirmed his intention to drag the Trans-Pennine route firmly into the 1970s, saying what they had been referring as ‘HS3’ up to this point could aspire to having speeds of up to 125mph. The Transport Secretary said there was no need for it to go as fast as HS2, ‘as the distances between proposed stations are relatively short’. Of course all this did was confirm the double standards he first showed when cancelling electrification projects in the North of England, as the distance from Liverpool to Hull 127 miles, or in other words 10 miles longer than the 117 miles between London & Birmingham.
This of course also flies in the face of one of the most ridiculous justifications for HS2 from politicians; that if you’re going to build a new railway then it “Might as well be high speed”, but this isn’t the only part of the reasoning for the necessity of HS2 that is being undermined.
On the 10th May, Grayling then announced that the new vision for Britains railways was a ‘digital revolution’, that by the time HS2 is due to be complete, 70% of trains would be running in-cab signalling. On the day, this was heralded as being a great modernisation drive, with a surprising lack of emphasis of the benefit of doing it. As we at Stop HS2 have been saying for eight years, bringing in in-cab signalling is a viable alternative for HS2, if the justification that HS2 is needed for capacity reasons is to be believed.
The reason is that one of the main constraints on the railways is that fixed signalling dictates capacity, whereby one train cannot enter into a fixed block until the train in front has cleared the next one, even if this distance far exceeds the safe stopping distance of the following train. In cab signalling means that your train knows exactly where the train in front is, meaning it can get much closer to it, but never gets too close. This means there is less empty space on the network, meaning you can run more trains. So it did seem odd that Government didn’t seem to be particularly interested in mentioning that the main benefit of their plan is to increase capacity, something which for the last eight years they’ve been saying only HS2 could do.
The lack of depth of detail in the plans was almost certainly down to the fact that this announcement was almost certainly intended as diversionary smokescreen, as by the Monday, Grayling was re-renationalising the East Coast Mainline, something he really didn’t want to be seen to be doing, and the exceptionally vague ‘digital railway’ announcement was certainly meant to divert at least some attention away from that. We have to remember that six years ago to demonstrate that “It’s not a case of either/or, we’re doing both” when it was put to then Transport Secretary Patrick McLoughlin that HS2 was going to eat up all the rail infrastructure budget for decades, he announced an “Electric Spine” across the rail network. Since then, Grayling has come along and cancelled all of that project, including the electrification of other lines that had been planned well before McLoughlins’ announcement in 2012.
As such, it was no massive surprise that the capacity benefits of the ‘digital railway’ were glossed over, as Government have kept claiming that HS2 is the only thing that could deliver ‘the necessary capacity’, despite the fact it delivers capacity where it is needed the least as the greatest cost, 20 years down the line and actually requires £11bn in cuts to existing services. In-cab signalling has long been pointed to as an alternative to deliver capacity across the network as have other things, some of which have already been done in some places, such as reducing the number of first class carriages, lengthening trains, addressing infrastructure pinchpoints and amending timetables.
Bizarrely, even though London Midland have twice in recent years added capacity simply by rejigging their timetable (and of course lengthening trains) on the West Coast Mainline, politicians have continued to argue that the tracks were full and it wasn’t possible to add more trains. That was until this Monday, when timetables were changed all over the country with the intention of increasing capacity, further undermining the case for blowing £56bn+ on HS2.
It would most certainly be interesting to see how much these changes would knock down the benefit-cost ratio of HS2, but we somehow doubt the Government are in any rush to reassess the business case.