HS2 – The Transport Select Committee Report
Some Observations by Councillor Nigel Shepherd (chairman of HS2 Amersham Action Group, Deputy Chairman of AGAHST, Action Groups Against High Speed Two). Previously: Head of Transport Research at the Social Research Institute at Ipsos Mori, Associate Director at Faber Maunsell, Principal Consultant at Steer Davies Gleave (the last two being leading transport consultancies).
The Parliamentary Select Committee has just published its detailed findings on what the Government describe as ‘controversial proposals’ on HS2. I am tempted to ask is this the ‘end of the beginning’ or the ‘beginning of the end’. Perhaps it is neither, just like the spin being put on this report by the Westminster publicity machine, to me it looks pretty much like ‘back to the beginning’ - let’s hope so.
If you believed the headlines in the media on the morning of Tuesday 8th November you could be forgiven for believing that this important Parliamentary committee has come down in favour of the current HS2 proposals – it hasn’t. It has in fact quite clinically dissected the current proposals and hung them out to dry. What it has done, and what most opponents to HS2 would agree with, it has come out in favour of High Speed Rail as a concept and in favour of the principle that our strategic infrastructure is tired and old and needs upgrading.
In doing so, it has levelled a series of criticisms of HS2 Ltd, the Department for Transport, and the Government generally that, taken in the round, are a crying indictment of arrogance and incompetence on the grand scale. Let me expand on this; in the opening paragraph to its conclusions and recommendations section (page 55 of the report) the Committee has unambiguously stated that any assessment of the merits of the scheme is hampered by the absence of a ‘transport strategy’. Apparently to some, the Prime Minister and previous Secretary of State for Transport included, the lack of a properly thought out strategy doesn’t appear to be a problem, but to those of us who have taken the time and trouble to look into this matter, and now the Parliamentary Select Committee, it is a fundamental flaw.
Just to be clear, the Government is proposing to spend £32 billion on a single transport scheme that may or may not help develop the North (the committee’s conclusion). In reality it is a transport scheme of questionable merit, that will only be used by a relatively small proportion of the population(mostly senior business men); without first considering the alternatives, without first properly considering the needs of the many. If it wasn’t true it could be the plot line for a Tom Sharp novel, or a Discworld story perhaps.
It should be noted that the last full review of our transport infrastructure, back in 2006 (the Eddington Report), came to the unambiguous conclusion that there wasn’t a case for high speed rail. What has changed between then and now to alter that? In transport terms very little. In political and economic terms, we now inhabit a very different place, and judging it on the basis of this report, it is one that is just a little bit surreal.
Almost whatever aspect of the Government’s HS2 proposals the committee looked at raises challenging issues. Whilst singly, none of them are a ‘show stopper’, taken all together the Government will find it very difficult to sell this ill conceived, and poorly managed, scheme to a sceptical public. In the rest of this short piece I review some of the points the committee make in their report.
One of the key themes in the report is the need for continued spending on less glamorous rail projects that the committee says ‘many believe’ have long been under funded. Interestingly, they throw down a challenge to the Government which in their own words will be an ‘acid test’ of their commitment to the rest of the rail network. That test will be next July (the date of the ‘High Level Output Specification – 2014 to 2019). What does this mean to the HS2 project? In effect the committee is saying that the HS2 project needs to be part of a larger scheme of infrastructure projects if it is to deliver the benefits that are promised.
On the face of it that seems straightforward, however, given the economic realities at the moment this would appear to be improbable (only last week ago the Government indicated it was unwilling to fully fund a major rail upgrade in Manchester, the so called ‘Northern Hub’). The truth is that the Government can hardly afford HS2, let alone a long list of other and equally important projects.
Time. Time has been at the centre of one of the most contentious issues in this debate. The Government has put a very high value on time saved travelling (not just for business people, but leisure travellers as well). Quite rightly the committee has questioned this and recommended that alternative methods of calculation are used instead of, or along side, the existing ones. Those of us opposed to this scheme are delighted by this apparently small point – as it has the potential to light up those dark corners of detail that will, in the end, show the weakness of the case for the current scheme.
Train frequency has been another point of contention. How many trains the line can take has a very big impact on the financial viability of the current project and in order to make the numbers work the Government has chosen 18 trains per hour. Nowhere in the world has this been achieved and in France they only have 13. The committee has called for the Government to justify its case – this is something many of us have been trying to get the Government to do for a long time, perhaps there is a reason for the Government’s reticence, we await with interest their response to this demand.
The route. The report questions why the choice of a maximum speed of 250 mph, that makes it a very high speed line which, in consequence, places severe limitations on its flexibility (it has to go in straight lines, irrespective of the countryside it is cutting through). The committee also called for the business case to assign a monetary value to the rural landscape it will despoil, undoubtedly impacting the business case. Importantly they then go on to say that HS2 Ltd should reconsider its proposed route, taking the above into account, and place greater emphasis on following existing transport corridors. The message is very clear – the design speed needs to be rethought and that has a big impact on the choice of route.
All in all, the lack of a proper transport strategy and the above points, and others, add up to calling on the Department of Transport to ‘go back to the drawing board’. The headlines may have been spun, but the devil, for the Government, really is in the detail. There is nothing wrong with improving our strategic rail infrastructure, there is nothing wrong with high speed rail, but there is everything wrong with the current HS2 project and the ineptitude of the Department of Transport.