What we told the TSC about the Integrated Rail Plan

The Transport Select Committee has now published the written evidence submitted to their inquiry on the Integrated Rail Plan. Here is what we told them (you can see it on their website here):

Stop HS2 is the national campaign group against HS2.

The IRP exists for two reasons: to provide political cover for the cancellation of parts of HS2; and to try and satisfy the vested interest groups which have lobbied for HS2 and the ‘HS3’ element of Northern Powerhouse Rail. Whilst it might be argued by some that HS3 itself has also been downgraded in the IRP, the proposals for a trans-Pennine high speed link had never really been anything more tangible than a political slogan to this point.

As such the IRP as a whole is a jingoistic sticking plaster driven by lobbyists and political rhetoric, masquerading as a strategic plan. The forewords set the tone for this, being full of spin and exaggerating what is actually in the report.

There is no better example of this than the fact that whilst it is called the ‘Integrated Rail Plan’, it is in reality limited to a handful of proposals in the northern part of the Midlands and the southern end of Northern England. Even in those areas it fails to even mention many of the more obviously deserving rail projects such as restoration of closed lines and electrification in that area, or indeed transport provision in and around railway stations. The idea that a plan could be called ‘integrated’ when it completely fails to consider how exactly people get to stations is laughable.

The vast majority of the spending in the plan is for HS2, with three quarters (£72.3 billion out of £96.4) allocated to the different phases of HS2.

As such, it is not apparent what the ‘Integrated Rail Plan’ is actually intended to integrate with. It is also abundantly clear to anyone paying even the slightest bit of attention that the IRP exists almost exclusively in and around the ‘red wall’ seats which turned blue in the last General Election, or specifically the areas which are expected to be the main battleground in the next general election. Whilst it is very welcome that these areas have been prioritised for infrastructure spending after years of neglect, it is very obvious that a the report contains a number of projects which could be started in time for the next General Election, and it is hard not to believe that after the cancellation of HS2 East that they have cynically been selected in and around this very narrow area of the north of the Midlands and the southern part of Northern England. This sort of practice has happened for decades and is sad testament to the state of politics, but when the party of Government favours specific areas over others for infrastructure spend, everywhere else suffers as result.

In short, the IRP is everything we have come to expect from a Government transport proposal, it is a complete mess, a testament to what happens when policy is driven solely by political need and written as a result of determining priorities after only seeking the input of vested interest lobbyists. Yet again, actually bothering to assess the ongoing transport needs of the country and devising a programme which seeks to address them is completely beyond the Department of Transport, and we have a proposal which just like HS2 sounds like it should be a good idea, but has not been thought through and as a result has obvious problems with it, is light on detail and would end up costing many billions more.

We welcome the cancellation of HS2 East

At Stop HS2, we of course welcome the cancelation of HS2 East.

The justification for cancelling HS2 East used by the Government echoes many of the things we have been saying for over a decade: that more benefits can be delivered to more people, more quickly, for less money and without the environmental destruction, by upgrading existing infrastructure. Effectively, Government has endorsed our position on HS2, as did the National Infrastructure Commission’s report; “Rail Needs Assessment for the Midlands and North”, which in December 2020 reached the view that “Prioritising regional links is likely to deliver the most benefits”.

However, there are many, many obvious omissions from the IRP report. For example, besides the fact that the spellbindingly obvious long-term strategic plan for UK railways should be electrification of the entire network, small sections such as the lines to Hull and Middlesbrough and the Calder Valley line are easy wins but have not been considered in this report. It also seems inconceivable that a plan seeking to improve rail services across the Pennines does not consider reboring Woodhead Tunnels 1 and/or 2, or the 11 miles of missing track between Skipton and Colne.

Whilst the IRP makes vague promises to improve capacity, the report itself still focusses on the sexiness of reducing journey times. Caution should be advised as promises of capacity increases with HS2 have proven to be illusionary. Many of the speculative figures for ‘released capacity’ as a result of HS2 rely on promises which contradict each other: that high speed services will be removed from the WCML, but at the same time fast services to second tier cities won’t be cut; or that local trains will be able to run faster whilst having many more slower freight trains on the same lines. When it comes to capacity release there are many lobbyists promising the Earth, yet after over a decade of planning HS2, there is still no working timetable to demonstrate how these promises would be fulfilled. Until this process is complete and draft timetables are in the public domain, any promises of capacity release should be treated with the upmost scepticism.

Does the IRP represent value for money? – The answer is a resounding ‘no’

While the IRP refers to a spend of £96.4 billion, the vast majority of this – £72.3 billion – is being spent on HS2. This means the value for money from the IRP as a whole is very dependent on the value for money from HS2 – and this is somewhere between ‘poor’ and ‘low’ from the DfT’s own documents.

One of the biggest uncertainties coming out of the Covid 19 pandemic is the long-term effect on rail passenger numbers, which dropped to 4-6% in the first lockdown. Passengers have been returning to the railways, but this return has not been even across the different types of passenger, and it is abundantly clear that in terms of long distance commuting and business travel, which HS2 is specifically being built for, passenger numbers have not returned in anything like previous numbers and it is likely they never will.

It is clear that many of the apparent changes to working and travel patterns will be permanent, as now both employers and employees are aware how working from home can, and does, work. While there will always be a demand for travelling to work in offices, it is likely that the days of everyone who works in such an environment embarking on a five-day long-distance commute are over.

This is again consistent with the position Stop HS2 has taken for over a decade, that video conferencing, remote working and other technological innovations would reduce the demand for highly-expensive long distance travel. Covid 19 has meant that changes which would otherwise have been gradual and have taken place over the space of a decade or so, have happened overnight.

The reduction in passenger numbers has a huge impact on the benefit cost ratio for HS2. The latest HS2 Business Case, published on Monday 24th January 2022 acknowledges these changes, but their best case ‘low impact’ scenario (from Covid related passenger reductions) still has a BCR, including wider economic impacts, for HS2 of just 0.9 – in the ‘poor’ value for money category. If passenger numbers stay reduced for longer, the medium and high impact scenarios give BCRs of 0.6 and 0.4 respectively – meaning that the expected economic benefits from HS2 are far less than the cost of building it.

However, this assumes that the economic activity is genuinely new, rather than displaced from elsewhere. One of the problems with high-speed railways is that economic activity is sucked towards the areas around the stations. The fact an updated business case for HS2 did not accompany the announcement of the cancellation of HS2 East and the publication of IRP, shows that the business case is not being used to inform decisions, but seemingly has been updated purely for information.

We also note that the HS2 Strategic Business Case says that ‘Evidence for (more productive) clusters arising’ from HS1 is ‘mixed’ and has the following negative impacts: ‘No significant increase in office supply to date; employment data for the HS1 corridor highlights relatively poor performance, even when considering the 2008/09 recession’.

Continuing Obstinance and Vague Information.

There are a number of significant problems with the IRP proposals, with elements that are particularly vague or mark a continued refusal from the DfT to accept obvious problems such as:
the fact the plan identifies bottlenecks but does not suggest how these will actually be tackled;
what the solution for improving connectivity between Leeds and Bradford will actually be;
and the absolute mess that are the plans for Manchester Piccadilly station.
The issue with Piccadilly is reminiscent of the problems which HS2 have had with London Euston. For over a decade, HS2 Ltd have been told by expert after expert that their intention to run 18 trains per hour into the physical footprint of the land they procured was impossible. After twelve years, and half a dozen proposals there is still not a workable solution for Euston station, and this failure (along with the geological realities in Yorkshire and the East Midlands) was a significant factor in the decision to cancel HS2 East, as Euston simply could not cope with the proposed throughput.

In Manchester there is a similar prevailing obstinance which is being driven by the same reasons, that the station site should be a hub for redevelopment, and that this redevelopment would be a cash cow to help subsidise the scheme. As a result, the project is being stuck with the insane proposal that east-west trains would use HS2 terminus platforms, meaning through trains would have to turn around at Piccadilly, which will significantly reduce reliability and capacity. Reorienting the proposed platforms at Piccadilly and housing them in an underground box would solve these problems. Given that the approach tracks would all be in newly dug tunnels, this is the obvious solution but has been consistently dismissed by the strategic minds at the Department for Transport.

To re-iterate, the IRP exists for two reasons: to provide political cover for the cancellation of parts of HS2; and to try and satisfy the vested interest groups which have lobbied for HS2 and the ‘HS3’ element of Northern Powerhouse Rail. It represents a huge missed opportunity for improving and levelling up the Midlands and the North.

Joe Rukin and Penny Gaines for Stop HS2.
27th January 2022

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