The pack of cards begins to fall as the UK still scrambles to save HS2

By Madeleine Wahlberg

Readers will have noticed that the launch of Phase two of HS2 was accompanied by the usual references to the need to ‘catch up with Europe’. Over 3 years we have regularly posted blogs on this site arguing 3 things:

  • As far as the EU is concerned, the UK already has an extensive HSR network. The EU counts trains travelling at over 200 kph on existing  tracks as HSR so the west and east lines up to Scotland, as well as the line to Bristol and HS1 all already count as HSR. See map on page 2 on this link:

So actually we are not ‘behind’ Europe.

Our classic service is much better than much of the provision in Europe, and other European countries think that investment in regional classic and commuter services is exactly the way to go if it’s jobs and regional growth that are wanted. Across Europe the Swiss system, that has said ‘no’ to HSR but ‘yes’ to massive rail investment, is widely held up as the new model. We have even quoted the President of the SNCF (French rail) Mr Pépy ‘We risk having longer and longer high-speed lines which are used less and less; … The whole basis of the high-speed rail revolution – that the TGV should be the “normal” means of travel, not just something affordable by the business elite – is under threat. (State railways are) Decaying… facing a financial impasse… and heading for the wall’.  So, investing massively in the classic and commuter services would put us where others in Europe wish they were – not ‘behind’ Europe.

  • Across Europe, governments are pulling back from the mad dash for HSR. So, stopping to think about a rational and NATIONAL (Miliband please note!) transport plan with massive rail investment right across the existing network as part of that, would put us in the top class, not ‘behind’ Europe.

Here is a quick ‘catch-up’ on HSR schemes hitting the buffers across Europe.

The HSR line between Amsterdam and Brussels has just been stopped – reflecting both a technical problem with the trains and an economic problem with pricing. Apparently ticket prices trebled in 3 years. With an alternative way to get between those same cities by rail (as there will be in the UK with HS2) load factors on the Dutch HSR varied between 7% and 15%.

A few weeks ago we heard from activists in Florence that the dismal scheme to tunnel under that ancient city centre has been stopped for a re-think. This is the news that we got:

“The judiciary has blocked the work of the milling machine which was about to begin excavation of the first tunnel. The reasons are: corruption, faulty materials (risk of disaster if they are used), false documents, air pollution and groundwater pollution from tons of contaminated sludge. Defective materials were seized and 36 people, including officials, engineers, politicians and entrepreneurs are being considered for many offences.”

There is also lots of news from both the Italian and the French side of the Lyon – Turin proposed HS2 Ltd link. This is the scheme that No TAV in the Susa Valley has been opposing for around 22 years! There are two main strands of breaking news:

Firstly, press releases itemise a series of corruption scandals; fake tenders; obstructing competition (SNCF have apparently been fined €61 million by the Competition Authority for this); falsified accounts; criminal involvement and imprisonment of CEOs engaged in this Lyon – Turin HSR proposal. Here are some of the press releases (in French)

Secondly, there are summaries of various reports by the ‘Cour des Comptes’ (which translates as the Court of Auditors – we will call them commissioners here) which recommended that the Lyon – Turin HSR project should be deferred.  (Link in French:

Lyon-Turin      See a commentary here – (you can get it to auto translate into rough English),20454.html

The commissioners’ reports are deeply critical of the environmental improvements claimed by the Turin Lyon HSR proposal. They note that other countries have chosen to improve existing networks to achieve the same aims at far lower costs; and they highlight that alternative, less expensive proposals have not been “thoroughly explored”. Does that sound familiar to critiques of HS2?

Further the commissioners’ reports question the figures for freight transport that are used to justify the HSR project, noting that these are hugely overestimated and have been declining since 1999: “the forecasts were overestimated and … the continuation of current growth rates … was not plausible”. They note that the existing line (yes – there is an existing line!) is running well below its capacity before even more capacity is added by a new line.

At the public inquiry in February 2012, it seems the Court also noted the contradictions between the claimed net benefits of the scheme and the socio-economic studies set up a year earlier: “the net present value is negative in all scenarios”. Their suspicions mean that they have also stressed the absolute necessity for independent experts to certify the costs of the project, away from any conflicts of interest ‘past present or future’.

All of this seems to amount to ‘no business case, no social case, no economic case, no capacity case, no environmental case’ and yes – the Court is also very critical of the fudging on where the money for the Lyon-Turin scheme is supposed to be coming from – so no money to pay for it either!

That takes us smartly to one of the most iconic HSR projects – Stuttgart 21 – which last week fell into deep trouble. Here are 2 links in English

Earlier blogs here have followed the S21 struggles including the overthrow of the Stuttgart Regional and City governments for the first time replacing Conservatives with the Greens. There was a referendum behind the decision to proceed with S21 BUT on the basis that it would not cost more than then stated. Well, surprise, surprise the costs are going up and up. The Greens are refusing to find the extra monies and calling the bluff of the national government to cough up as costs go up or to stop the project. As the Spiegel article says, “It looks like it may be on the path to becoming the country’s second outsized white elephant” (the first being Berlin’s new airport that has been shelved – note Boris!). Now I wonder why one of the groups against S21 have asked STOP HS2 where to buy a blow up white elephant????

Deutsche Bundesbahn have been set up as golden boys – the model to follow. Kwasi Kwarteng MP on the Transport Select Committee (TSC) 12th July 2011 used the phrase “unalloyed success” to refer to German HSR [Q232 HC1185iii]. You will see that the Spiegel article above suggests another view is more appropriate – and with lessons to learn for HS2: gross over-estimation of demand and gross underestimation of costs. Rather like the Turin-Lyon line too!

Finally we heard about this week’s announcement in relation to Portugal.  Reports trace a chaotic situation.

Last Spring the Portuguese Cabinet decided to cancel all work on the HSR link between Madrid and Lisbon – much too costly for too little benefit. So the EU cancelled the money assigned to that project because the TEN-T money is only granted on a ‘use it or lose it’ basis, linked to a key implementation date.

However, distraught at having to implement their own rules on this, suddenly the EU found different money so as to proceed with the project. It wasn’t only different money, it was BIGGER money.  As the article says, “funding for the project had been increased to 40 percent of the total, as opposed to the 25 percent granted under the previous and now nullified agreement.”

What was the response? The Portuguese Minister for Transport, Sérgio Monteiro, said ‘thanks but no thanks’. He had meanwhile been working on another plan and said, “The TGV died in November of 2011. This cancellation is irreversible.” The new focus is all on investing in rail freight, not passenger transport.

So there we have it. Across Europe there is a deep questioning of the HSR projects. Does it feel like we should be ‘catching up with Europe’ or does it feel like we should not be repeating their mistakes???

8 comments to “The pack of cards begins to fall as the UK still scrambles to save HS2”
  1. Thank you Madeleine for this excellent article, I will publish this page by linking in my daily clippings service from the UKIP staff in Brussels, which is full of eurosceptical articles and headed by the Daily Express clippings (which are pro-withdrawal from the EU), and facts concerning politicians’ vanity projects which rule our lives more than economic sense.

    Anyone who would like to subscribe to my service, please email a request to:

    Transport Policy Advisor, UKIP, Brussels, European Parliament

  2. Thank you Madeline Wahiburg for your excellent article.

    Thank you Paul Harlow for the Abraham Lincoln quote and excellent comments.

    HS2 Vote it Out ….yes we can!

  3. Very well written…

    I believe there are many powerful sources behind this horrific proposal…specifically the bilderberg group…

    Google for yourselves, they are a scary and most powerful group………….

  4. I do hope that Madeleine Wahlburg has sent this article to the ministers involved in the diabolical scheme named HS2.Preferably in capitals.

    • So do I Elaine, but I doubt very much they can be bothered to read it, let alone note the implications of its content.

      Have you tried corresponding with the Secretary of State for Transport on the matter of HS2? Try it and see what response you get.

  5. Even if it takes 3 hours to get to London it’s still faster than taking the plane what with having to arrive 2 hours before take off for security checks. Plus you can’t use your phone on the plane whereas you have more room to use laptops and phones on trains. Why are we letting ourselves be “railroaded” (forgive the pun) into spending billions in taxpayers money for little reward or improvement. It is a simple argument – few ordinary working people would benefit and this government is spending our hard earned money for the benefit of big business ie their mates.

  6. London is concerned with its Canidae.
    I hear they are over-run in Westminster and Whitehall .
    As Boris said “They may appear cuddly and romantic but they are also a pest and a menace.”
    In the Chilterns we know our Canidae particularly when they appear fluffy, wear baseball caps and have a penchant for hugs (more so if there is a photo opportunity or a sound-bite.)The well spun Canidae tries to hide its volpine rapaciousness and assume the green credulity of the innocent ovis.
    Do not believe the spun suffering of the battling Dave and Gideon (poor lambs) as their integrity and skills are questioned in the media,
    Even Conservative Home seem to have lost faith, predicting this ‘a one term government’.
    Their concern was the Government’s lack of understanding of the new, vibrant urban communities and lack of appeal to same. (They take the loyalty of the shires for granted. A privilege too long conceded given all the Party’s record ),

    At the Confederation of British Industry the Prime Minister David Cameron expressed his parliamentary intention to”get a grip” on applications for judicial review. It would appear in order to quell citizens rights and limit their influence on public sector decision-making.
    Of course public sector decision making is supposedly democratic and on behalf of the people. Judicial Review only occurs if there are sufficient grounds for a review to be granted. As part of these ‘improvements’ The Government intends to reduce the time limit for cases, charge more for review applications and cut the number of opportunities unsuccessful challengers are given to appeal a decision from four to two. This removes the balance of Judicial Review (which is quite costly) from even more demographic groups and will render JR even more the preserve of the wealthy or those groups with substantial backing.
    It is interesting that neither the Conservatives nor Libdems represented these sorts of issues in their manifesti. Quite the contrary these were the parties of the Big Society, Localism, and devolved democracy.
    These legal changes appear to be applicable to Stop HS2 and similar associations.
    The legal changes currently proposed by the Government aim to change the process whereby issue groups work together and bring a challenge.
    It aims to silence the balancing challenge to the developers lobbying for expenditure of public funds (on themselves and their latest infrastructure plans).
    In this case the presence of so many opposing local authorities (many con or libdem) and environmental agencies should have alerted HM Government that the so called consultancy under ttaken in their name had failed to convince the people or their local authorities.
    It may frustrate the PM that he does not have dictatorial powers and rights and that his will is subject to scrutiny and debate.
    His response is to change the law and access to legal scrutiny rather than to question why consultancy has failed. This is indicative of the true nature of the beast. “Why David what big teeth you have…”

    It suggests that fluffy notions of Big Society, Localism, and devolved democracy were the sheepskins in which the wolves were hiding.

    “This country, with its institutions, belongs to the people who inhabit it. Whenever they shall grow weary of the existing government, they can exercise their constitutional right of amending it or their revolutionary right to dismember it or overthrow it.” — Abraham Lincoln, 4 April 1861


  7. Very well written article and I’m sure will touch a number of nerves of those who back this farcical so-called project.

    Here’s how I see it- even if those who back the project now realise it’s fundamentally flawed, doing a u-turn will be nothing short of embarrassing.

    The government has only one plan; to fuck us all with a high speed train.

    Please don’t moderate this comment- they need to see how we feel with the use of expletives (and even that’s just scratching the surface).

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