The route ahead

Source: Rail Technology Magazine Feb/March 2012

The long-awaited Government confirmation that HS2 is to go ahead did not deter the project’s opponents, who are convinced it is a waste of money with few environmental benefits. RTM asked Julie Mills, of pro-HS2 research company Greengauge 21, to answer some of the common concerns over the route, Old Oak Common, and speed specifications.

The benefit-to-cost ratio of HS2 – the all-important figure projecting the likely economic gains per pound spent – has fallen steadily over time, and would fall further if a more sensible value was given to the monetary value of time spent by businesspeople on trains, opponents of the scheme say, rather than valuing it as essentially non-productive and thus worthless.

For the London-Birmingham stretch, it now sits at 1.7 (down from 2 a year ago), and for the Y network, it is estimated at between 1.8 and 2.5, down on the previous estimate of 2 to 3.4.

Some have called into question the very use of such calculations, which can only ever be very rough estimates, based on virtually unknowable statistics inferred from possible future scenarios. They say that high-speed rail is simply a good thing in and of itself, and so justifies its cost even if the spending is never recouped, noting the freed-up capacity on the West Coast Main Line and other knock-on effects, and the wider social and cultural benefits of faster rail travel between our major cities.


Some wonder whether, despite its scale, the entire Y-shaped network should have been considered as a single project, which does bump up the ratio significantly, as above: the London-Birmingham stretch alone would not be justified, even most HS2 backers would conclude, so it is strange that so many of the arguments about ‘phase one’ treat it as a standalone scheme, just because that is how the Government chose to package it.

The Government announcement in early January 2012 contained more compromises and mitigation measures to reduce the impact on the countryside and noise pollution, but the alliance of action groups opposed to it, including many district and county councils, are committed to fighting it to the last, through the courts if necessary.

Julie Mills, of Greengauge 21, told RTM that despite the fact that some people would never agree that HS2 should go ahead, the Government and those backing the project should always be open to talking about it.

She said: “Clearly, some people are going to be against it; fair enough, that’s their right. But we think there’s discussion to be had, and I think for some of the objectors, there’s discussion to be had with HS2 Ltd during the environmental impact assessment and through the hybrid bill process to make sure we get the best possible scheme and the impacts are mitigated. The communication should carry on; we should carry on discussing the case for HS2 and making clear what we think the benefits are, and helping people to engage constructively with the process, because there’s going to be challenges ahead for everybody.”

Speed and reliability

Many people – some with relevant knowledge, some without – have weighed in on the debate over the route, with all sorts of suggestions as to why their preferred vision would be better (often divorced from economic reality). Is Mills confident that, following so many concessions and compromises, the final route is the best one?

She said: “Since the route was published for consultation, it’s been improved with various mitigations to minimise some of the impacts. It’s been compared against the alternatives and it’s been clearly demonstrated that it’s the best choice over the alternatives. So we’d be fairly confident that this really is the best route – it delivers on the objectives of High Speed 2, delivers capacity, delivers substantially reduced journey time, reliability in its connections to existing networks, and it minimises cost and it minimises environmental impact.”

Britain is a relatively small and densely populated island nation, leading others to question the necessity for 225mph services running on track designed for 250mph, necessitating particularly straight and level routing: much more support could have been won, some say, for a slightly slower but more politically acceptable route, with only the barest affect on journey times.

Mills argued: “225mph is the current best practice across the world. There’s an element of future proofing built in, with the track designed for 250mph, allowing for future technological developments. We don’t know if and when that might materialise, but looking at the history of high speed rail development since the Japanese started doing it, there’s quite a steady record of improving speeds year-on-year, without increasing energy consumption and hence without increasing carbon emissions. So if we can do that in the future, we can take advantage of that built-in future proofing.

“Should we be designing the route for that speed, and does it have a greater environmental impact? Well, if you look at some of the alternative routes that HS2 Ltd have examined and compared against the now selected route, you can see some of the impacts. They tested, for example, the route alongside the M40, and because of the constraints of the M40 – it’s quite winding – they had to design it to a slower speed, 180mph, which is 300kph. So we’ve got a straight comparison there between the slightly slower route and the HS2 route.

“Testing that HS2 route, it adds seven minutes to the journey time between London and Birmingham, and with a 45-minute journey time, that’s quite significant, and that’s worth quite a lot in economic benefit and revenue.”

HS2 Ltd calculates that a 300kph / 186mph line would ultimately cut the benefit to cost ratio figure to 1.3 for both phase one and the Y network, due to smaller journey time savings and fewer people making the shift onto high-speed rail if the journey times are slower.

Population impacts

Mills went on: “But also, more importantly, there’s the impact on population centres – so you might avoid some of the sensitive environmental areas, but instead you’re impacting on settlements and habitations.

“So what you gain in some areas you lose in others, so there’s no straightforward environmental gain that you can point to. The route has to go through a difficult part of the country so you’re going to be having some impacts.

“Rather than adopting a different route that has different impacts, the route that’s been selected has been improved, so they’ve mitigated those environmental impacts and they haven’t needed to put the route nearer to settlements. Of course, if you go near a settlement, you have to have more tunnelling and that has a carbon impact; it’s much more carbon intensive than surface routes.”

Hubs and spokes

Others question the need for the interchange at Old Oak Common specifically – for example, the Bow Group and its transport committee chairman Tony Lodge, who argued the case in the previous edition of RTM for tunnelling under west London from Euston directly to a ‘Heathrow Hub’, from where HS2 would proceed north, with a negligible impact on journey times (and potentially even a one minute time saving using through-lines at the privately-financed Heathrow Hub).

Mills admits that even as a firm HS2 backer, she has her doubts about Old Oak Common. She said: “I’m not quite as positive as the Government on this one. The case that the Government put forward is that it helps manage the demand on the London stations. Euston is busy at the moment, it connects into busy underground lines, so the argument is that Old Oak Common will relieve some of that demand on Euston, by taking about a third of those passengers off and putting them on to Crossrail instead. That manages the impacts and provides the first stage of a connection through to Heathrow via Crossrail as well.

“But another way of relieving the loads on Euston is by taking out some of the existing suburban services that currently terminate at Euston, and putting them into Crossrail. Having a connection between the West Coast Main Line and Crossrail is something Network Rail have put forward in the London & South East RUS, and they’re very much in favour of this. So the people who travel from, say, Tring, or on Milton Keynes services, rather than going into Euston station, they go through into Crossrail, so they get much better accessibility because they’re going through places such as Bond Street, Tottenham Court Road and Bank, and so on. That takes some of the commuters out of Euston and makes Euston a bit easier to rebuild; it means you could reduce a couple of platforms, reduce timescales, reduce the demands on the Underground.

“That’s something that the French have done in Paris – if you look at the way the RER system works in Paris, they’ve got commuter lines going through the centre of Paris, so there’s lots of access points there and you don’t use up terminal capacity. Terminal capacity you use for long-distance trains.”

The Scottish connection

Scotland is now seriously involved in the high speed debate, with the umbrella business and transport body the Scottish Partnership Group declaring that work could begin in Scotland before England, and the Scottish Cabinet Secretary for Infrastructure and Capital Investment, Alex Neil, proposing to “engage fully” with HS2 Ltd and the DfT to agree a joint working plan.

He said: “Let there be no doubt, Scotland is ready to take its share of the hard work and stand together in its support for high speed rail.”

He added: “HS2 is not about the value of shaving 25 minutes between [London] and Birmingham, it’s about building rail capacity that will benefit the whole of the UK. Planning must therefore include Scotland from the very beginning – it is not acceptable to consider Scotland’s requirements after the hybrid bill stages for London-Birmingham or Birmingham-Manchester and Leeds – that could be an entire generation away.”

Mills detected a “shift in tone” from the UK Government on the possibility of an early link up of high speed rail between England and Scotland, prompted by the enthusiasm of the Scottish Government.

She said: “There’s a huge amount of conviction in Scotland about the necessity of high speed rail. I think the DfT now looks as if it’s willing to engage with Transport Scotland, now we’ve made the decision on HS2.

“We’ve got over one hurdle and are now certain we’re proceeding with the project, so it’s a bit easier to think ahead to what else might be done with the high speed rail network and to take a longer-term view. That’s why I think the tone has changed a little bit in the last month or so.

“Hopefully we are going to get that engagement between Westminster and Holyrood, and start developing some constructive plans. I know the Scots are keen to start building as soon as HS2 starts building. If we’ve got an overall plan, then why shouldn’t we start to build some bits earlier? If we can relieve a capacity pinch point in Scotland and achieve some journey time benefits – and if that section of the route can eventually become part of a wider high speed network – then brilliant, let’s go for it.”

Changes to journey times for other services to London

The DfT has now updated some of its February 2011 assumptions about journey times for other services into London once the Y network is complete.

Opposition Labour MPs have accused the Government of a ‘sneaky move’, with the new times – laid out in HS2 Ltd’s document, ‘Economic case for HS2: Updated appraisal of transport user benefits and wider economic benefits’, commissioned by the DfT – having received little fanfare.

Although just estimates at this stage – the consultation on the second phase of HS2 is not even due to begin until 2014 – the revised projections make clear that some towns and regions will definitely lose out.

Wigan, for example, now gets one service an hour instead of two, terminating at Birmingham. York and Darlington will get two services an hour instead of three; one to Birmingham and one to London.

Warrington will not be served, the document suggests, and it also confirms that services to Liverpool will be on the classic network from Lichfield onwards.

Other towns can expect a better service than first thought, however – Runcorn gets two an hour instead of one, Durham gets a service to Birmingham when it had nothing before.

(Image: Ewan Munro)

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


David Dye   22/08/2016 at 20:19

Total waste of tax payers money, when austerity still exists.

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