HS2: Sir David keeps to the fast train

Originally posted on 51M:

Back in 2013 the government gave up on speed and said HS2 was all about capacity. One of the principal reason for this volte face was that the proposition that people didn’t work on trains was unsustainable.

So did the speed ‘benefits’ drop off the radar? Not a bit of it. Unlike Nellie this particular (white) elephant has not packed her trunk and trundled back to the jungle. Speed is still the dazzling unique selling point rolled out by HS2 Ltd an every opportunity.

This week time savings for cities, including Derby, were revealed by the head of HS2 Ltd, Sir David Higgins.

It was interesting that Sir David was careful to qualify his comments.

He said it would not necessarily be more convenient to get from Derby to London via HS2 as this would depend on where the passenger lived in the Derby area and that HS2 would have a “tough time” competing with the Midland Mainline for use from people living near the city’s train station. Furthermore, better connectivity between Derby and Toton station was vital to achieve the London time savings, provided by some kind of “Metro” service such as a light rail or tram service.

Sir David was commendably careful in these statements but it would have also been helpful to point out that the HS2 services are not simply ‘additional’. An integral element of its business plan is that there will be reduced services throughout the classic network.

Referring to the subject of rail infrastructure schemes in 2015, the Chair of the Public Accounts Committee, Meg Hillier, said such projects appeared to be plagued by rampant optimism.

Sir David provided evidence of such a disposition when he said that the current target date for completing the HS2 line through the East Midlands – from Birmingham to Manchester and Leeds – remained 2033 but that this could be moved forward if there were “fewer constraints on cash”.

Given the runaway finances of HS2 – rising from £33bn in 2012 to £55.7bn in 2015, the possibility of fewer constraints on cash coming into play looked an unlikely scenario.

Current rail infrastructure schemes are coming in substantially above estimate. To quote one staggering example, the estimated cost of the electrification of the line from London to Cardiff line has risen from £847m in 2013 to between £2.5bn and £2.8bn in 2015. It would take optimism of the most rampant kind to believe HS2 will not be prone to similar inflationary pressures, once shovels finally start to sink into the ground.

Sir David continues to maintain that HS2 makes the most economic sense, in terms delivering greater capacity to meet the ongoing increase in passenger numbers. He said the high-speed rail scheme would lead to a 300% “rise in capacity out of Euston.”

This is an extraordinary comment to make with respect to economic justification.

We have known since 2011 that Euston’s underground capacity cannot cope. The cost of accommodating the necessary rise in capacity could be as much as £32bn, if a Crossrail 2 solution is pursued. Sir David’s ‘economic sense’ appears to require that such a mind boggling sum is kept well away from the balance sheet.

On the topic of flooding he said the HS2 line would benefit from flood protection that leaves it susceptible to flooding that has only a 0.1% chance of happening in any given year. Such a figure keeps to the ‘once in a thousand years’ previously quoted probability but the 2015/16 floods have shown us that ‘once in a hundred years’ occurrences can come along on a weekly basis….’once in a thousand’, perhaps a bit longer?

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