In days gone by Secretaries of State for Transport such as Philip Hammond, Patrick McLoughlin and Chris Grayling justified the proposed speed of HS2, which dictated the maximisation of the environmental and social damage it would wreak, by saying something along the lines of “If you’ve decided you need a new railway, it might as well be high speed as it would only cost about 10% more”[i].
Back in 2010 when Hammond was in charge that speed was 250mph, but after a couple of months HS2 Ltd Chief Engineer Andrew McNaughton finally accepted that there wasn’t a train in service anywhere in the world that could go that fast, and spun their way out of it by claiming that HS2 was being ‘futureproofed’; whilst it was being designed for 400kph, trains would now officially only ever go at 350kph or 219mph.
The other thing that very much had the feel of “that doesn’t sound right” back when HS2 was first proposed in 2010 was the idea that HS2 could run 18 trains per hour at the proposed speeds, as again no other train anywhere in the world did this. Whilst the French manage 14 high speed trains and reckoned this could be pushed to 15. 18 was and still is impossible. The idea that HS2 could run 18tph at the proposed speeds depends on braking technology that, despite the hopes of McNaughton that it would be, has still not yet been invented.
So for those who’ve been paying attention it’s no real surprise that HS2 boss Mark Thurston is saying that HS2 might only run 14 trains per hour, though it is a very much surprise he is saying it now, at a time when he still needs gullible politicians whose cities have been promised services on the basis of 18 trains per hour to continue to lobby for HS2 at a time of increased political scrutiny of the costs of project following the Crossrail scandal. HS2 Ltd still haven’t published an updated service pattern to account for the fact that none of the Leeds services will now stop at Sheffield, opposed to the original specification that they all would. Coupling this with taking 4 trains per hour out of the mix can only mean that many of the promises HS2 Ltd have made regarding service patterns can now not happen, but I’m sure they won’t be rushing to tell anyone where those cuts will come.
On top of the number of services, it seems that the headline speed might get cut again as Thurston has admitted the company has been told to go away and look and ways to cut the costs, and one way would be to cut the operation speed of the trains.
Now you might be forgiven for wondering how cutting the operational costs of HS2 by having slower -and fewer- trains could cut the cost of building HS2. The problem is that this revelation has been reported following correspondence between South Northamptonshire Andrea Leadsom and HS2 Ltd boss Mark Thurston, based on what she’d been told he said, so it didn’t cover what he had said precisely.
What has been reported is that to cut the costs of HS2, on top of cutting the number of services, the speed of trains could be reduced by 50kph and ballast track could be used instead of slab track. What Thurston is far more likely to have said – at least we hope he did as this would at least make some sense- is that they would use the cheaper ballast track which would cut the cost of construction, and this would have the effect of reducing the speed of trains.
Whether or not HS2 would use ballast track had long been a bone of contention between HS2 and those along the route, mostly because it took HS2 Ltd over six years to confirm what everyone who had been paying attention from the start knew, that they would use slab track. The is the simple fact that ballast track couldn’t handle the speeds being proposed, or at least the vibrations would be such that the ballast would disperse so quickly as to make the frequency and therefore costs of maintenance prohibitive. Slab track would be fine, but it is more expensive, and as a great point of contention during petitioning, noisier. This wasn’t helped by the fact that during petitioning that it very much looked like the noise impact profiles had been based on ballast tracks, with HS2 Ltd representatives as some points saying that an even more expensive cushioned variation of slab track could be used to reduce noise.
If ballast track is now to be used, it would still mean more maintenance at a higher cost – in fact previously HS2 proponents had said slab would take less than a decade to pay for itself in reduced maintenance costs –but at this point, that isn’t Thurstons’ problem, getting HS2 built for less money is, and ballast is cheaper in that respect. The knock on effect of using ballast track is that HS2 would have to run slower, another 50kph would have to come off running speeds, bringing them down to the 300kph or the 188mph that HS1 runs at through Kent.
Of course whilst it is potentially good news along the route that HS2 might not be as noisy, the chance that the speed might be cut again is a kick in the teeth to everyone along the line, as the proposed speed of HS2 is the one factor of the line that has dictated everything about the design, meaning both the social and environmental damage it wreaks at every point of its’ proposed 351 miles was maximised. The speed of HS2 meant it had to be as straight a line as possible, and every time mitigation that would involve a slight movement of HS2 was put forward, it was said it could not be done because HS2 had to keep to that narrow corridor to allow its’ speed. Now this justification is gone, and the worst thing is because the line is set, cutting the speed will only claw back a fraction that 10% extra that successive Secretaries of State said it ‘might as well’ cost.
When you are seriously considering getting rid of a fundamental principle of a project in order to justify that project financially, surely you have to ask why you are still doing it?
[i] We haven’t forgotten Justine Greening, we just don’t think she actually said anything like this.