Should we go ahead with HS2?
16 March 2017 • Author(s): Graham Ellis
Regular European Railway Review blogger, Graham Ellis, delves into the subject of high-speed train lines, specifically HS2.
As a transport professional; I am becoming fed up with people asking me to justify high-speed rail in the UK. Following the Royal Assent for the HS2 project, lots of people keep telling me that this is a white elephant and should never have been considered as it only benefits travellers from London to parts of the North and is a detriment to those living on the route of the new line.
In some ways they are correct in that it will benefit passengers out of London but, what they have not realised is that our rail network is at capacity and if we want to get freight off the roads then the railways are currently the only viable option to that. When I explain to them that the building of HS2 will relieve both the East and West coast mainlines to allow more freight paths they start to see a reasonable approach to our infrastructure but are still worried about the cost implication. However, if we look back into history it is clear that many pioneering engineering projects faced massive public criticism, whether it was James Brindley building canals, the Stephensons building their rail networks across the North and then down into London or even Isambard Kingdom Brunel building the Great Western Railway from London to Bristol - whatever was proposed was railed against until work actually started and the benefits of the new mode of transport was experienced.
What is HS2?
The initial plan is for a new railway line between London and the West Midlands carrying 400m-long (1,300ft) trains with as many as 1,100 seats per train. They would operate at speeds of up to 250mph – faster than any current operating speed in Europe – and would run as often as 14 times per hour in each direction.
This would be followed by a v-shaped second phase taking services from Birmingham to Manchester and Leeds. The Department for Transport says there will be almost 15,000 seats an hour on trains between London and the cities of Birmingham, Manchester and Leeds – treble the current capacity.
When will it open and how much will it cost?
The first phase of the £56 billion railway is due to open in December 2026, with trains to travel at high speed between London and Birmingham before continuing on the existing West Coast Main Line. But earlier this year, the Public Accounts Committee cast doubts on this deadline calling it “overly ambitious”.
The onward legs to Manchester and Leeds could start being built in the middle of the next decade, with the line open by 2032-’33. In June 2013 the government revised the cost of the project upwards, due to an increase in the amount of tunnelling required on the route. This took the estimated budget from £32.7 billion to £42.6 billion at present values – with the cost of phase one increasing from £16 billion to £22 billion.
Looking at the cost aspect, then there is some concern. A recent parliamentary report from the public accounts committee reported that the electrification of the Great Western Line had a number of problems, and that both Network Rail and the Department for Transport had to take note of the following:
- Network Rail must ensure that all risks to the project are identified, monitored and controlled and use this information to identify with the Department the critical path for the whole modernisation programme, setting out how the infrastructure, new trains and planned services will interact with each other by March 2017.
- Network Rail must improve its ability to produce realistic cost estimates, including making greater use of data from completed projects. Network Rail must make sure that robust and detailed plans, including a critical path, are in place for infrastructure projects before starting construction works and consider whether an Order under the Transport and Works Act would be preferable to multiple individual planning consents and other approvals.
- The Department and Network Rail need to ensure that they plan major developments to rail services in a way which brings together trains, infrastructure work and the operation of services. As part of this, they should obtain independent assurance on the deliverability of their plans. We will expect to see this approach on forthcoming major programmes including the Midland Main Line and TransPennine upgrades [and I suspect HS2].
So should we go ahead with HS2? I think we should. Network Rail has stated that the West Coast Mainline will effectively be full by 2024 with no further room for expansion of services along that corridor. With the pressure on the Government to reduce pollution there is a need to reduce road traffic and rail is the only way to provide a viable solution to that problem. It has been suggested in some quarters that air travel could be an option but that just does not stack up, apart from the long wait times before boarding a plane there is also the need to get to and from airports.
Let me give you an example, I am traveling to Solihull for a meeting so I board the train at Southampton Airport Parkway and some two and a half hours later I am in Solihull having changed trains once in Banbury. Now, suppose that I was flying at around the same time, if a flight actually exists, which it does not, then I arrive at the airport some 45 minutes prior to the flight, board and fly and then I have to de-plane and get a train from the airport to Solihull; that journey taking 50 minutes with two trains. Looking at possible timings they are around the same as for the train all the way and costs are likely to be similar. The one area that is not under challenge is the pollution aspect – the aircraft utilises aviation fuel and the train diesel fuel, both of which pollute.
On the whole, my preference would be for the train all the way as I can reserve my seat and get tea and coffee on-board whilst talking on the phone and working or reading and no other inconveniences when boarding. The flight means I have the aggravation of the security shuffle, belt, watch, medical alert bracelet off, coins out of my pocket and all electrical goods into a separate box etc.
I would love to have a high-speed link from the south coast to both London and the Midlands/North but that is not going to happen anytime soon and so I have to choose between driving or using the train and I now find that the train is the easier option as I can work on the move.
Whatever you think about high-speed lines, you also have to look at the cost to the passenger. In Europe, there is no real extra cost to the service as it is subsidised in the main but, here in the UK, we have chosen a full cost recovery system. I was amazed when I went to the local train station to book my rail ticket - according to the online search engine the normal return price to Solihull was £172 and with a senior’s rail ticket that dropped to £113 but the chap at the station arranged a split ticket for me at normal fares for around £62. Why oh why is our ticketing so complicated? Just give me the cheapest option and let me choose what is best for me.
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