HS2: strategic wisdom or grand folly?

Source: Rail Technology Magazine April/May 2012

Jonathan Tyler of Passenger Transport Networks, York, argues that ‘strategy’ is a key word in the presentation of the plan to build a high-speed railway connecting the North of England and the West Midlands with London; but it is also an abused word because it can conceal disordered thought. Effective and legitimate strategies need context, roots, meaningful data, scenarios, sound analysis, and vigorous debate about diverse options. This article tests the plans for HS2 against those criteria.

I may be thought a surprising sceptic. I have spent a 50-year career evangelising for excellent public transport. It was my research that first measured the relationship between speed and demand, and I am the only person (it seems) to have designed a timetable for HS2.

I rely on trains for my journeys, and I revel in travelling from York to Zürich in a day. But my education inculcated a probing approach to documents and arguments, and I have been ‘green’ for a long while. As the HS2 story has unfolded I have become exasperated.

The Government’s case is that rail demand will go on rising, that economic growth requires demand to be met, that sufficient capacity cannot be provided on the ‘classic’ railway, that a new line is the only solution and that if built it should be to the highest feasible standards.

This sequence has a seductive logic, and I do not disagree at every detailed step, but the scale and timescale of the project make unpicking it imperative.

This is particularly important because the documents are replete with Sir Humphreyisms. The paper explaining the decision to proceed seems determined to sideline the mass of critical comment received in the consultation. One would expect persuasive rebuttal of some points, but the relentless dismissal of every one (except for those dealt with by costly deviation of the route) becomes wearing. And when one frequently encounters the weasel word ‘consistent’ (with stated policy) one is entitled to be suspicious.

First then, the context. The capacity justification for high-speed rail had been developing for some years (adroitly driven by Greengauge 21) when the project was seized upon by Theresa Villiers as a substitute for a third runway at Heathrow and by Andrew Adonis as a signal of green modernity. The Heathrow association never had a credible rationale, and ironically the spur to the airport is now justified as strengthening its hub status – the very factor reigniting the runway campaign. As for the Adonis crusade, one can both admire single-mindedness and distrust confident certainty that no other course of action is conceivable.

Disquiet about the political context was compounded when HS2 Ltd was set up to establish the business case for building a new railway. An arm’s-length unit might be the right vehicle for managing construction, but creating a dedicated company at the start precluded properly objective analysis.

Moreover the company shows signs of being too excited about building a perfect and technologically-advanced railway to impartially evaluate options.

Another weakness is the preoccupation with protecting property interests. This meant secrecy in the surveying of the route (conducted at great expense), presentation of a fully-formed scheme that pre-empted effective debate about strategic issues and now a reluctance to reconsider routes and station locations. The error is being repeated with the alignment for the ‘Y’ extensions north of Birmingham.

Finally a governance matter has to be raised. Noticeably few doubts have been publicly expressed from within the railway industry. It is difficult to believe that no one shares the public dissent. Could it be that Train Operating Companies are acting in misguided solidarity or dare not cross the Department for Transport (DfT) for fear of being marked down in franchise bids, and that the big consultancies perceive future revenue streams and choose not to rock boats?

This lack of an appropriate context for developing a project of the magnitude and consequences of HS2 does not bode well.

Next, roots. Solid strategies grow from deep thinking, clear principles, coherent ambitions. It cannot be said that recent governments have displayed those virtues in their railway policy. Sustained muddle characterises the crucial question of whether our railway is merely a quasisupermarket consumer business or whether it has broader social functions; the franchising process degrades any sense of a national network; and the role of the railway in different markets and geographical settings is too rarely evaluated.

The result is that the high-speed project has sprung from a rather narrow set of contemporary circumstances. Explanations for the rising volume of rail travel include (though not exhaustively) the improved quality of the offer, plentiful disposable income (for some), worsening conditions on the roads (and at airports) and the promotional activities of train companies. Extrapolation of those factors into the distant future is at best unwise, and other aspects should be reviewed.

Take in particular that on the one hand rail’s modal share varies between very high on the trunk London routes, modest almost everywhere else and too often abysmal, and that on the other national policy is supposed to be about getting people out of cars in order to alleviate congestion and substantially reduce climate-threatening outputs of carbon. One might expect a strategic study to define a programme that would raise the lower shares and achieve significant transfers to rail. Instead we are offered a scheme to enhance the already outstanding and leave the mediocre trailing behind.

The language deployed to support highspeed travel is tendentious. DfT documents conjure up images of business people zooming about doing deals while such travel – and how important (beyond mere aspiration) speed is and whether the traffic really will grow dramatically – is never investigated in depth (observation suggests there is not as much of it as people think). They then slide into discussing leisure travel and attribute to it exaggerated economic value with a resort to rhetoric. Going away for the weekend on a promotional fare may be very nice, but it runs contrary to the necessity of cutting carbon by travelling less.

In short (though plentiful examples could be quoted) and as many consultees pointed out, HS2 lacks credibility because it is not rooted in a comprehensive strategic view and rests on implausible volumes of traffic. It is not too late to remedy that – and the outcome might still propose selective railway construction.

Third, meaningful data. There can be no worthwhile public debate when trainloading figures are declared commercially confidential, when we do not know how much of the growth on the West Coast Main Line (WCML) is attributable to the generation of highly marginal trips, when calculations supposedly underpinning the proposals are hidden behind impenetrable modelling and when no-one has initiated a radical review of the railway’s potential markets across the country.

Which brings us to scenario-painting. It is extraordinary that just when the world is more uncertain a place than ever we are locking ourselves into a massive and inflexible project – on the basis of an expectation that present trends will continue inexorably. One is tempted to laugh when one reads about discounted costs and benefits arising in 2092, but this is a serious matter.

Consider the possibilities. The world’s climate may turn catastrophic and force governments to act, with travelling an obvious target. The downsides of globalisation are becoming ever-more apparent, and acquiescence in its inevitability may be reversed in favour of a rediscovery of community enterprises and local production, thereby undermining forecasts of eternal growth in freight. And those outcomes will be mightily and disruptively reinforced by scarcity of resources – energy, water, rare metals, food – as humankind runs up against the raw fact that expanding the material consumption of a swelling population in a finite world faces absolute physical constraints.

I do not argue that the worst will necessarily happen. What is irresponsible is that no effort has been expended on these scenarios (I would have minded less if studies had been done and yielded a reasoned business-as-usual argument). Instead, supporters of HS2 pursue ‘sustainable economic growth’ without understanding that this mantra has lost all meaning. When it falters a strategy that cannot deliver any interim benefit and which, once started, cannot be modified will be seen to lack wisdom.

We come now to sound analysis. I have already suggested deficiencies, and here I address two further issues of substance, namely station location and timetabling. Government and HS2 documents are littered with references to the importance of connecting the high-speed line with the classic network, but the reality is quite different, with awkward links and extended interchange times.

Indeed HS2 is emerging as a railway set apart from the older system and thereby only benefitting areas immediately adjacent to its stations – and those customers easily able to access them by car (at an unmeasured carbon cost).

It is telling that attention is being diverted from the Birmingham problem by a focus on regeneration of Eastside, while no-one explains how the segregated eastern arm of the ‘Y’ will help the many travellers who now journey through Birmingham on the North East … Yorkshire … South West / South Coast axis. Similar arrogance on the part of HS2 surrounds the planning of routes and stations in London.

We urgently need full and open analysis of the benefits of an alternative network-wide strategy to enhance the classic railway with new sections that would add capacity or reduce journey-times and retain the connectivity advantages of existing nodal stations.

An astonishing feature of the HS2 proposals is that they are devoid of serious timetabling. I do not expect a working timetable for a railway that will not open until 2026, but the absence even of some defined concepts indicates promoters who are unsure of their objectives. The published diagrams are bare in the extreme, do not evince an understanding of the importance of frequency and pattern and have apparently not been tested in any simulation of how the railway might work. That so much evaluation is built upon such weak foundations is troubling both in general and for one particular reason.

HS2 Ltd has convinced itself that it can run 18 trains/hour on its core section. This is several more than on any existing highspeed line, and I am not alone in querying the optimism, especially given that the route will not (and should not) be self-contained. Yet even if 18 is achieved – reliably, dayin, day-out – all the expectations that are being heaped upon HS2 cannot be realised.

If one adds up what each region is bidding for, plus fantasies about frequent Heathrow services and through trains to Europe, the answer is nearer to 30 trains/hour. And that is before one factors in open access operators demanding paths.

DfT and Network Rail cast aspersions on the timetables proposed by proponents of upgrading the existing main lines while not demonstrating a credible scheme of their own. If in due course their optimistic capacity proves undeliverable then the economic case will be undermined.

Finally, what about vigorous debate? We are having that, but it is wrongly focussed. We should not be arguing about the threat to the Chilterns (let alone individual property compensation) when there has been no national conversation about what we want from our railway.

Do we want a system that affords everyone across the country reasonably good and reasonably equal services (in the Swiss style) that will cater for more of their everyday mobility, as a real alternative to increasingly problematic private transport – or do we want to widen the range of quality and perpetuate the dominance of London ? And is it sensible to commit to a grandiose project in uncertain times when the same scale of spending could yield countless smaller schemes, together with dramatic enhancements of our urban networks – and do so gradually over the many years between now and when highspeed nirvana may (or may not) materialise?

A fully-referenced and footnoted version of this article is available at:

Above image: The benefits of generally raising speed limits to enable this Voyager to run more often at its maximum of 200 km/h have not been tested. The TransPennine train in the background works a route with the unambitious maximum speed of 160 km/h. And the array of restriction signs illustrates why investment is needed in the classic railway sooner than 2032 (Image: Paul Bigland)

Tell us what you think – have your say below, or email us directly at [email protected]


Les   08/11/2012 at 19:22

Good article. One of the things that really annoys me about this turkey is that is only for those travelling between London and Birmingham. Nobody else gets a station. Just so it can be high speed for a few, the people who actually live on the route are completely denied access. They get their lives made a misery and their property blighted and in return receive absolutely nothing. I assume the planners have done their sums, but I really can't see this vast number of expensive journeys being a reality. People are entranced by the 'glamour ' of high speed trains and the technology and the projected environmental benefits while completely ignoring the fact that environments in which people live are going to be trashed. Just another aspect of the modern world where new, fast and shiny is always wonderful and anyone who disagrees is old-fashioned, a luddite, or, that most irritating and stupid of words, a 'Nimby' Its my back yard and its my legitimate concern, thank you. Oh, and this case sensitive code thing is really, really irriaiing.

Anthony Lloyd   17/06/2015 at 19:58

Well the previous comment says it all only for the few could be also another white elephant with so many fingers in the proverbial pie, apologise for the clichés but it has to said

Gb   28/08/2015 at 16:17

A fraction of the projected costs of HS2, if spent in a targetted manner on our current railway system with reinstatements (e.g., MR & GCR routes to Manchester, and the reconnection of several routes lost in the late 1960s) plus enhancements and developments where they are most needed to increase capacity and connectivity, would be a far better way to spend our limited resources at this time of austerity. This is no more than a vanity project for the few. Wake up UK Govt!

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