Let’s be courageous, part 22

(… continued from Let’s be courageous, part 21, posted on 28 Nov 2016).

In the heading of the final section of his briefing paper, Rich man’s toy: The case for scrapping HS2, Taxpayer’s Alliance Policy Analyst, Harry Fairhead, poses the question, “Is our current approach to infrastructure spending coherent?”. Mr Fairhead comments that attempts over recent years to reduce the budget deficit appear to have been largely to the detriment of capital spending, and that “since the early 1990s, current expenditure has outstripped investment by around £9 to £1”. His conclusion, and one that is shared by many economic commentators, is that we in the UK “appear to have underinvested in infrastructure”.

Judging by the autumn statement that the new Chancellor of the Exchequer delivered to the House of Commons last month, the Government agrees. The Chancellor confirmed that he has ditched the plan to run a budget surplus by the end of this current parliament and “prioritise additional high-value investment, specifically in infrastructure and innovation”. The thinking is that this investment will “directly contribute to raising Britain’s productivity”. The Chancellor explained that this infrastructure will be funded “in the short term from additional borrowing” (see footnote 1).

The strategy is, on the face of it, a simple one. A loosening of the austerity yoke, at least in a rather modest way in one area of government spending – the squeeze is still firmly applied when it comes to revenue spending – will generate economic growth, which will bring in taxes that will contribute positively to the budget in future years. But this does not mean that profligacy can be encouraged: as Mr Fairhead points out the acceptance that “we appear to have underinvested in infrastructure … does not, however, make any project inherently worthwhile”.

The other factor that should be taken into account is that investment in infrastructure is not all win, win; there are future revenue costs associated with such investment that will offset any gains that increased economic activity will bring. The debt incurred will require to be serviced, a charge to be met from the revenue budget in future years. In addition, the use of the infrastructure may generate maintenance and operational costs that are in excess of any direct income generated: a railway scheme, such as HS2, is an example of the type of infrastructure investment that may require an ongoing subsidy call on the revenue budget.

The spearhead of the Chancellor’s announcements aimed at improving the UK’s infrastructure and, in consequence, its productivity is a £23bn National Productivity Investment Fund, “to be spent on innovation and infrastructure over the next five years”. The Chancellor identified a number of areas where investment will be channelled: research and development; housing; transport; and digital communications (see footnote 2). I feel sure that this new fund is to be welcomed, but its significance is perhaps best assessed by reflecting that it represents funding that is less than a half of the budget agreed for HS2.

As Mr Fairhead reminds us “HS2 is expected to cost a very large amount of taxpayers’ money” and “there may be better uses for it” since HS2 represents “relatively poor value for money”. No doubt some of those better uses will be competing for the funds available from the National Productivity Investment Fund.

Although the Government appears convinced that improving transport infrastructure will lead to productivity increase and greater economic activity, the House of Lords Economic Affairs Committee (EAC), following its very thorough inquiry into HS2, remained unconvinced (see footnote 3):

“Evidence we have heard shows that investing in transport infrastructure does not necessarily lead to economic growth. Improvements in transport infrastructure need to be carefully chosen and linked with other policies to ensure that money is spent where it can be most effective in stimulating growth.”

The EAC also found that the Government had failed to demonstrate that “HS2 is the best way of stimulating growth in the country”, nor had it “considered the opportunity cost of spending £50 billion at 2011 prices on this single railway” (see footnote 4).

Both Mr Fairhead and the EAC also raise a question of the morality of spending such a huge sum on, as Mr Fairhead puts it, “enhancing the lives of some of the richest people in the country” (see footnote 5).

In part 1 of this blog series I suggested that an independent review of HS2 was called for and cited Mr Fairhead’s briefing paper as “a good starting point on which to base a critique”. I hope that over this long series I have provided added value to Mr Fairhead’s excellent essay and have convinced you that, as the clock is ticking down on Royal Assent for Phase 1, the need for such a review has become extremely urgent.

After all, the EAC saw the need for the Government “to [re]examine the case for HS2” counselling that (see footnote 6):

“There should be no embarrassment in being prepared to revise the project: the objectives and cost are too important.”

If you agree with Mr Fairhead, the EAC and me, please sign the petition calling “on HM Government to commission an independent technical review of every aspect of the HS2 scheme “

Footnotes:

  1. See columns 901 and 902 of the House of Commons Official Report for 23rdNovember 2016.
  2. See columns 902 to 904 of the House of Commons Official Report for 23rd November 2016.
  3. See paragraph 247 in the report The Economics of High Speed 2, House of Lords Economic Affairs Committee, 1st Report of Session 2014-15, March 2015.
  4. See paragraphs 7 and 8 in The Economics of High Speed 2.
  5. This issue is addressed in paragraph 70 of The Economics of High Speed 2. I first raised the matter more than five years ago in my blog It’s just not fair (posted 11 Apr 2011).
  6. See the Summary on page 5 of The Economics of High Speed 2.

 

Let’s be courageous, part 21

(… continued from Let’s be courageous, part 20, posted on 24 Nov 2016).

If a train design employs magnetic levitation (maglev), the elimination of wheel/track friction and the reduction in train weight that can be achieved by avoiding the need for bogies provide, it is claimed, significant performance advantages over conventional wheeled trains: these advantages include reduced energy consumption, faster operating speeds, better acceleration and braking characteristics and the ability to handle steeper gradients. The guideway (track), we are told, can also be engineered with a much lower footprint and with up to fifty per cent tighter curves, which together with the ability to design to steeper gradients, allows the guideway to hug the landscape, rather than impose vast cuttings and embankments on it, and sensitive areas can be better avoided. Other advantages claimed for maglev trains are: lower pollution and noise levels; less vibration; lower maintenance costs and greater passenger comfort (see footnote 1).

Despite the claimed advantages, it is fair to say that the commercial exploitation of maglev technology for high speed transport has had fairly rocky beginnings. The Shanghai airport service, which operates at speeds of up to 430km/hr over a 30.5km link, is the only high speed system currently in commercial operation throughout the world. Whilst plans have been discussed for a number of high speed maglev systems worldwide, the only other one that has so far actually been started, as far as I can ascertain, is the 286km line between Tokyo and Nagoya in Japan, which is planned to operate at speeds up to 505km/hr and to open in 2027, and even this project has not been without its critics due, mainly, to escalating costs (see footnote 2).

Notwithstanding, maglev must surely be seen as a serious alternative to wheel-on-rail technology for high speed trains. So instead of dragging up the rear in the exploitation of wheeled high speed trains, HS2 could have provided the UK with the opportunity to be in the vanguard of the development of maglev – a technology in which we were once world leaders (see footnote 3) – albeit with the higher technical challenges and risk that being at the leading edge implies.

A response to the 2011 HS2 public consultation by a company lobbying for a maglev solution for HS2 makes interesting reading: efforts by this organisation to bring the advantages of maglev to UK decision makers predate this consultation response by at least five years. The document sets out the claimed advantages of maglev in detail, but a letter dated 1st July 2010 from the Chief Executive of the organisation to the recently-appointed Transport Secretary for the incoming Coalition Government, the Rt Hon Philip Hammond MP, which is included in the response, is particularly interesting (see footnote 4). This letter complains to Mr Hammond that a letter sent by him to HS2 Ltd, shortly after he was appointed, which instructs that company to continue work on the wheel-on-rail scheme, means that “substantial Government funding has been made available to only one of the two possible contenders to prepare its case for the procurement competition” – effectively, the maglev option, if it ever was a contender, had been ditched by the incoming government.

This was, apparently, not what the Conservatives promised when in opposition. The consultation response also includes a 2008 letter from Shadow Transport Secretary, Stephen Hammond MP, in which he sets out the intention of an incoming Conservative government to “open a competition to select the optimum system ‘immediately on taking office, to enable construction to start by 2015’” and that this process will be open to proposals employing “all relevant technologies, including maglev” (see footnote 5).

What actually happened, of course, is that the incoming Coalition Government adopted the plans of the outgoing Labour administration without formal review and, apparently, without question. This Labour administration had, during the span of its government, undoubtedly cooled towards maglev, following a fatal accident on a test system and an unfavourable report commissioned from two professors from Imperial College and Lancaster University, which challenges a number of the claimed advantages of maglev (see footnote 6). A white paper published in 2007 condemned maglevs as “too expensive to provide value for money” and concluded that “the Government does not favour further development of maglev options” (see footnote 7).

It should be emphasised that the academics’ report only considered one version of maglev technology, the one used in Shanghai, and that the Japanese are using a different system for which the same conclusions do not necessarily apply.

Although Taxpayer’s Alliance Policy Analyst, Harry Fairhead, does not demand a review of the maglev option in his briefing paper Rich man’s toy: The case for scrapping HS2, I feel strongly that an independent assessment of this alternative technology is called for; after all things have moved on from 2007 and the conclusions reached then may no longer be valid. In particular, I would like to see the benefit cost ratio of a maglev HS2 compared with the high speed rail version, as the higher speeds achievable by maglev would surely benefit the BCR using the Department for Transport’s calculation methodology.

After all, maglev does have its enthusiasts. A Wikipedia article that I have found in my researches reports that the Shadow Transport Secretary was a member of a “Commons All-Party Rail Group junket to China and Japan to visit the maglev systems there” in 2007. The article reports that he “returned ‘positively bouncing with enthusiasm’, noting that even at full speed the train was quieter than a Virgin Voyager”.

Who was this shadow minister? Why, it was none other than the present holder of the Transport portfolio in the Conservative government, the Rt Hon Chris Grayling MP. I wonder if he remembers that now.

(To be concluded …)

Footnotes:

  1. The claimed benefits of maglev have been extracted from sections 7.2 and 8 of Chapter 6 (Maglev) of Infrastructure Design, Signalling and Security in Railway, Dr Xavier Perpinya (Ed.), April 2012. The chapter’s authors are Yaghoubi H, Barazi N and Reza M.
  2. I posed the question of whether this line in Japan was an indication that HS2 would “be yesterday’s technology in 2026” in my blog Setting out my stall, part 2 (posted 30 Dec 2013).
  3. See the blog Professor Eric Laithwaite & the RTV31 Linear Motor Hover Train project in 1973, 1stNovember 2012.
  4. See pages 2 and 3 of the document Response to High Speed 2 Consultation, UK Ultraspeed, 28thJuly 2011.
  5. See page 4 of Response to High Speed 2 Consultation.
  6. The report is Kemp R and Smith R, Technical issues raised by the proposal to introduce a 500 km/h magnetically-levitated transport system in the UK, for the Department for Transport, June 2007.
  7. See the Executive Summary, on page 12, and paragraph 6.27 of the publication, Delivering a Sustainable Railway, Cm 7176, Department for Transport, July 2007.

 

Let’s be courageous, part 20

(… continued from Let’s be courageous, part 19, posted on 12 Nov 2016).

When extolling the virtues of HS2, ministers have been known to characterise the UK’s railway network as “Victorian” and to promote high speed rail as a “21st century” technology. So, for example, in his recent statement to the House of Commons announcing the Government’s preferred route for Phase 2b of HS2, the Secretary of State for Transport, the Rt Hon Chris Grayling MP, associated delivering HS2 with building “the transport infrastructure essential to the economy of 21st century Britain” (see footnote 1).

But is high speed rail really a technology of the 21st century or is the Government backing a horse that has already seen its best days and is stumbling along inevitably towards the knacker’s yard?

In truth, high speed rail technology dates from the middle of the 20th century – the first Shinkansen service opened in Japan in 1964 – and fifty years is a very long time in a world where technological development is very rapid indeed. My own experience working for a supplier of equipment for use on the UK’s railways taught me that the railway industry is ultra-conservative and slow to adopt change – a philosophy driven by the best of motives, which is to put safety first – and one only has to look at the time that it has taken for in-cab signalling technology to be accepted to appreciate this point. However, there are revolutionary transport systems waiting in the wings, and there must be a very strong prospect that HS2 will begin to look very much yesterday’s transport solution not long after the full system is in service, if not even before that.

Also far from being a revolutionary transport system, HS2 has much more in common with its Victorian ancestors than ministers would have us think. Railway development has, up to now, been largely evolutionary, not revolutionary. It has been rather like Trigger’s broom (see footnote 2), but every time a new handle or head has been fitted, metaphorically speaking, the railway has been improved. Fundamentally, however, it remains recognisably a broom, and there is not that much that separates The Rocket from HS2, essentially speaking.

The feature that associates high speed rail and its Victorian roots so fundamentally is inherent in the inclusion of the word “rail” – since very early on railways have employed metal wheels running on metal rails, and so does HS2. However, many of the other technological features of HS2 that make it possible are hardly new:

  • Electric traction was first used as long ago as 1883 (see footnote 3), and the overhead high-voltage system was adopted as the standard by British Railways in 1956
  • Streamlining of trains was introduced into passenger service in the 1930s, firstly in Germany but with the UK following closely behind, and the streamlined LNER class A4 pacific Mallard took the world speed record for a steam-powered locomotive in 1938 and still holds that record today
  • In-cab signalling was first trialled in the UK in the 1910s and, although systems for high speed trains have required specific design over the last few decades they are still fundamentally the same operationally in that they assist the train to be manually driven

I freely admit, of course, that developing a high speed railway is not just a question of painting go-faster stripes on the train sets. The higher speeds require the track and track bed to meet much more stringent design criteria and higher speeds can only be achieved on track that is capable of supporting them. However, the basic similarity of the track design means that HS2 trains will be able to run on the heritage rail network, albeit not at their full speed capability, and this is a considerable advantage of being wedded to the Victorian metal wheels on metal rails concept. This feature is exploited by the designers of HS2 to allow the HS2 service to include “classic compatible” trains, which allow the new HS2 links to be employed to by-pass the congested parts of the heritage network and yet still serve stations on that network.

But do we need to be bolder if we are to build a railway that serves the 21st century? After all there is an option that breaks away from the Victorian metal wheels on metal rails concept, providing that we are willing to cast off the shackles that the classic compatible concept binds us with. I refer to the magnetic levitation, or maglev, technology, where there is no contact between the train and the track, or at least not at operational speeds, as the train rides on a “cushion” created by a levitating magnetic field and propulsion is normally provided by electric linear motors.

I will give more consideration to the maglev option in part 21.

(To be continued …)

Footnotes:

  1. See column 133 of the House of Commons Official Report for 15thNovember 2016.
  2. In an episode of the classic BBC TV situation comedy Only Fools and Horses first broadcast in 1996, road sweeper Colin “Trigger” Ball claims that he has “had the same broom for 20 years”, but also admits to having fitted “17 new heads and 14 new handles” in that time.
  3. The Volk’s Electric Railway in Brighton is the oldest operating electric railway in the world, and was built four years after the first demonstration line was in operation in Germany.

Oh yeah?

In his recent statement to the House of Commons announcing the Government’s preferred route for Phase 2b of HS2, the Secretary of State for Transport, the Rt Hon Chris Grayling MP, said that he was “mindful of the impacts that HS2 has on communities”. He went on to provide an assurance to the House that his “Department and HS2 Ltd will continue to work with affected communities and local authorities up and down the line of route, and in that process [he expected] people to be treated with fairness, compassion and respect” (see footnote 1). Now I doubt that these were his words – I feel fairly sure that a faceless civil servant would have penned them for him – and the judgement of whether acceptable standards of fairness, compassion and respect have been achieved will always be subjective. Notwithstanding, I doubt that any fair-minded person would rate the treatment that has been dealt out to hapless residents living near the route designated for Phase 1 over the past six-and-a-half years as meeting anywhere near acceptable standards.

We know for sure that, in at least one respect, the Department for Transport (DfT) and HS2 Ltd have indisputably acted unfairly in dealings with the public, because the High Court ruled way back in 2013 that a consultation on the compensation proposals run by the DfT had been “so unfair as to be unlawful” and this ruling was accepted by the Government (see footnote 2).

I have also seen it necessary to use the word “unfair”, or similar judgements, in a whole raft of my blogs discussing the features of the compensation schemes conceived by the Government (see footnote 3) and the way that residents applying to those schemes have been treated (see footnote 4). An apparent lack of respect being shown to residents when they have been dealing with HS2 Ltd is also a matter that I have blogged about (see footnote 5) as well as instances that have been reported that clearly demonstrate a woeful lack of compassion being shown by employees of HS2 Ltd (see footnote 6).

No doubt lack of transparency and arbitrary decision-making lie at the root of many of the problems that have been encountered by applicants for compensation. In her recent evidence to the House of Lords Phase 1 HS2 Select Committee Hilary Wharf, of the HS2 Action Alliance (HS2AA), summed it up nicely (see footnote 7):

“There is a great feeling that cost has trumped fairness in the operation of this scheme, because discretion seems to be being seen from the promoter’s point of view, as better than rule changes. Precisely because they’re not cast iron and can be rolled back from. So, therefore, it risks arbitrary decisions. And without transparency, we can’t get precedents. Yet, the panel are given precedents, DfT know them and so we think it unfair that the applicants can’t get precedents.”

So, to return to the Transport Secretary’s statement to the House of Commons, what he was effectively declaring to the House, whether he recognised it or not, was that he expected the DfT and HS2 Ltd to do better in their dealings with residents close to the route of Phase 2b than they have managed to do up with residents living near the earlier phases. He may say that he expects this, and perhaps he even truly wants it to be the case, but it is unlikely to come about, I feel, without his positive influence being applied to make it happen. There are two factors, however, that make me doubt that the Transport Secretary will prove up to the task.

In the first case, the DfT is regarded as something of a staging post ministry, with Transport Secretaries moving on (up, down, out or sideways) fairly regularly – we have seen four changes since the original HS2 announcement was made, although one was forced by the result of a general election. So history suggests that the new occupier of the post may not actually stick around long enough to make a difference.

In the second place, I am not sure that the new incumbent will be up to the task. In recent weeks we have seen claims that HM Prison Service is “in meltdown” and, if this is an accurate assessment, then most of the blame must surely be placed at Mr Grayling’s door, as he was Justice Secretary between 2012 and 2015.

If the unfairness, etc, currently associated with the HS2 compensation regime is to be put right, then Ms Wharf’s evidence to the Lords Select Committee should give the Transport Secretary some useful tips on how to go about it, at least as far as the Need to Sell (NTS) scheme is concerned. She told the Committee that HS2AA had “a very clear and focused goal” to make “the need-to-sell scheme demonstrably fairer in operation” and to “put it on a basis that basically, the promoter can’t resile from” (see footnote 8). She went on to set out, in what the Chairman referred to as “a very clear presentation” (see footnote 9), a number of ways in which the scheme could be improved.

Just a week after Ms Wharf’s appearance, counsel for the Promoter, James Strachan QC, announced to the Lords Select Committee that the Secretary of State had accepted one of her proposed improvements to the NTS scheme, and that DfT officials were prepared to meet with HS2AA to discuss their wider proposals further (see footnote 10).

So, who knows, perhaps I have been too downbeat in my assessment of the prospects for fairness, compassion and respect to become words that we can associate with the HS2 project.

Oh yeah?

Footnotes:

  1. See column 134 of the House of Commons Official Report for 15thNovember 2016.
  2. This is reported in my blog Sorry seems to be the hardest word (posted 21 Mar 2013).
  3. For example, see my blog Fair is foul, and foul is fair (posted 8 Nov 2013).
  4. For example, see my blog The exceptionally hard to get scheme, part 2 (posted 9 Dec 2014).
  5. For example, see my blogs A matter of respect, part 1 (posted 11 Feb 2015), A matter of respect, part 2 (posted 15 Feb 2015) and A matter of respect, part 3 (posted 19 Feb 2015).
  6. For example, see my blog The exceptionally hard to get scheme, part 3 (posted 13 Dec 2014).
  7. See paragraph 484 of the transcript of the morning session of the Lords HS2 Select Committee held on Tuesday 8thNovember 2016.
  8. See paragraphs 445 and 446 of the transcript of the morning session of the Lords HS2 Select Committee held on Tuesday 8thNovember 2016.
  9. See paragraph 537 of the transcript of the morning session of the Lords HS2 Select Committee held on Tuesday 8thNovember 2016.
  10. See paragraphs 2 and 3 of the transcript of the morning session of the Lords HS2 Select Committee held on Tuesday 15thNovember 2016.

Important Note: The record of the proceedings of the Lords HS2 Select Committee from which the quotes reproduced in this blog have been taken is an uncorrected transcript of evidence, which is not yet an approved formal record. Neither witnesses nor Members have had the opportunity to correct the record in such instances, and it may therefore be subject to changes being made in the light of any such corrections being requested.

One myth busted

One of the particularly controversial aspects of the HS2 project has been the stated aim of the Government to achieve a zero net loss of biodiversity as the result of its construction. A number of environmentalists, speaking on behalf of petitioners to the House of Commons Phase 1 Select Committee, have complained about the way that HS2 Ltd has set out to demonstrate “no net loss” (NNL) and the measures that have been proposed to compensate for biodiversity loss. Indeed, the Committee had to wait until its final couple of months of sitting for HS2 Ltd to publish details of its methodology and calculation for determining the biodiversity loss balance for Phase 1 of HS2, and even then the whole process remained veiled in a degree of secrecy and confusion, as HS2 Ltd had simply failed to provide the necessary level of transparency.

So, although HS2 Ltd was claiming that the proposals in the Phase 1 Environmental Statement would result in the reduction of approximately 3 per cent in “the number of biodiversity units”, and that this represented “good progress … towards the goal of no-net loss” (see footnote 1), the subject remained, and still remains, surrounded in controversy.

In an attempt to cast some very necessary light upon this issue, the Commons HS2 Select Committee used its valedictory report to “direct the Promoter to identify an independent third party to review the different net loss metrics and publish its findings so that HS2 Ltd can be challenged on its figures if appropriate”. The Committee suggested Natural England as “one possibility” (see footnote 2).

Natural England was duly tasked with carrying out this review and, as the Government’s statutory advisor on the natural environment, there could not have been a better choice. This body’s own verdict is that its report, recently published, “will be challenging to HS2 Ltd” (see footnote 3). My reading of it is that it is almost a total vindication of all the criticisms that we had heard rehearsed before the Commons Select Committee.

Amongst a whole raft of comments and suggestions for improvement made in the Natural England report, two of the most significant recommendations concern the treatment of ancient woodland. Despite all the criticism that it has attracted, HS2 Ltd has maintained the totally inconsistent, and frankly ridiculous, standpoint of recognising ancient woodland as an “irreplaceable” habitat, whilst at the same time treating it in the no-net loss metric as if its loss is something that can be offset.

The two Natural England recommendations are:

  • “that irreplaceable habitats and protected areas, notably ancient woodland and Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSIs), are taken out of the HS2 NNL metric as their inclusion gives the impression of tradability for non-tradable biodiversity resources” and that a “separate recognition of these losses, that considers and makes explicit compensation, would be more appropriate” (see footnote 4)
  • “HS2 Ltd should aim to create 30 hectares of new woodland for every hectare lost, where ancient woodland is to be replaced by new woods” (see footnote 5)

As someone who has petitioned the House of Lords HS2 Select Committee suggesting changes to the treatment of ancient woodland along these lines (see footnote 6), you might think that I would be overjoyed with these findings of the Natural England report. Well I am, to a point, but my enthusiasm for the report is dampened somewhat by two additional factors.

In the first place the Natural England report appears to accept that it is probably too late to improve the situation for Phase 1. For example, the recommendation to create 30 hectares of new woodland for every hectare of ancient woodland lost is qualified by the sentence (see footnote 5):

“If that ambition proves legally impracticable to implement for Phase 1, it certainly should be implemented for Phase 2.”

The second dampener is the Government’s response to the report. It merely acknowledges that it has “noted the report and its recommendations”. On the recommendations regarding the treatment of ancient woodland, the Government appears to dismiss them as merely “a stimulus for debate” since “the evidential basis is lacking”.

The Woodland Trust and the Wildlife Trusts appear to share my disappointment at the Government’s reaction. The former notes the Department for Transport’s “refusal to accept the findings of the Government’s own statutory body NE on this” and identifies a number of associated questions that the Trust is “waiting for answers from HS2 Ltd on”. The latter is “disappointed with the Government’s immediate rejection of key findings from their own advisors” and finds it “unacceptable that HS2 Ltd has ignored” the advice from Natural England.

With both organisations scheduled to appear before the Lords Select Committee on Wednesday 23rd November, it will be very interesting to hear what they have to say on this matter.

And if you need any reminder just how much ancient woodland carnage Phase 1 will cause, you might like to refer to my Lords exhibit A155(13) on which I have named all of the ancient woodlands that will be directly affected.

Footnotes:

  1. See paragraph 4.1.2 in the report HS2 London-West Midlands No net loss biodiversity calculation, HS2 Ltd/Department for Transport, December 2015.
  2. See paragraph 303 in the publication Second Special Report of Session 2015-16, House of Commons Select Committee on the High Speed Rail (London-West Midlands) Bill, 22nd February 2016.
  3. See the third paragraph of the Chairman’s Foreword in the report Review of the High Speed 2 No Net Loss in Biodiversity Metric, Natural England, November 2016.
  4. See paragraph 6 in the Executive Summary of Review of the High Speed 2 No Net Loss in Biodiversity Metric.
  5. See paragraph 23 in the Executive Summary of Review of the High Speed 2 No Net Loss in Biodiversity Metric.
  6. See paragraphs 368 and 369 of the transcript of the afternoon session of the House of Lords HS2 Select Committee held on Monday 18th July 2016. See also exhibit A1559(19), which I used to illustrate this part of my oral submission.

Exhibits A155(13) and A1559(19) have been extracted from the bundle of evidence submitted to the Lords HS2 Select Committee by me on behalf of Cubbington Parish Council and published on the website of the Lords HS2 Select Committee.

Let’s be courageous, part 19

(… continued from Let’s be courageous, part 18, posted on 8 Nov 2016).

One potential feature of modern life that has been cited as a factor that could dent the passenger demand for HS2 is the facility for teleworking and holding remote meetings made possible by modern telecommunications and information technology (ICT). It seems blindingly obvious, doesn’t it: if you can work from home, why travel to a central office, and if you can look someone in the eye on a video screen, why travel miles to conduct business face-to-face? The problem is though that there appears to be a paucity of hard evidence to substantiate the anecdotal in this case.

This may account for Taxpayer’s Alliance Policy Analyst, Harry Fairhead, not using this particular cudgel to bludgeon HS2 in his briefing paper Rich man’s toy: The case for scrapping HS2. The House of Lords Economic Affairs Committee (EAC), on the other hand, does broach the subject in the report The Economics of High Speed 2, but fails to draw any conclusions in this area (see footnote 1).

The EAC reports opposing views on whether, or not, we can expect the HS2 business case to suffer from the impact of the ubiquity of increasingly sophisticated and powerful information and communications technology. One of the action groups against HS2 is quoted as claiming in written evidence submitted to the EAC that “the concept of physical travel in order to conduct a business, or leisure, interaction will be[come] outdated” (see footnote 2) and Dr Richard Wellings, of the anti-HS2 economic think-tank the Institute of Economic Affairs, told the EAC during his oral evidence that what he termed “disruptive technology”, in which he included “improved teleworking and remote meetings”, presented “an enormous risk” to HS2 (see footnote 3).

On the other hand, Richard Scott, Director of Corporate Affairs at Virgin Trains, told the Committee that he was “not aware of any evidence” regarding the impact of videoconferencing on the demand for rail travel, but “it may be dented if we have a superfast broadband network everywhere, but people will still need to get to work, will still need to do business deals face to face and will still need to go to football matches” (see footnote 4). Speaking as a supporter of a football team that has just suffered a humiliating 6-0 away defeat in the FA Cup, I’m not too sure about that last travel reason, but his point is taken.

But these voices hardly qualify as independent sources, so perhaps we should look to academia for a potentially more disinterested view, and the EAC report quotes from two transport researchers who gave oral and/or written evidence to the Committee. Professor Chris Nash of the Institute for Transport Studies at the University of Leeds told the Committee in oral evidence that currently “there is no evidence of improved communications reducing demand for travel”, but that this view could change as there “are many uncertainties” (see footnote 5). Professor Roger Vickerman, Professor of European Economics at the University of Kent, claims in a written submission that the “evidence … is that generally travel and other communications are complements rather than substitutes” (see footnote 6).

This question of whether ICT and physical travel are substitutes or whether the former complements the latter is reviewed in one of the few academic papers that I have found to be readily accessible (see footnote 7). This paper, originating from the Davis campus of the University of California (UC), is almost fifteen years old, an elapsed time that has seen the video call becoming a no-cost, or very low cost, ubiquitous feature of modern life, but the views of the two academics reported above would indicate, perhaps, that the availability of empirical evidence has not improved much over the same period.

The UC paper furnishes comprehensive definitions of the two terms “substitution” and “complementarity”, but I will attempt a simple abridgement: substitution occurs when the use of ICT allows a journey to be avoided and complementarity results when ICT encourages, or directly involves, travel, or enhances the travel option. The paper argues that “although direct, short-term studies focusing on a single application … have often found substitution effects, such studies are likely to miss the more subtle, indirect, and longer-term complementary effects that are typically observed in more comprehensive analyses”. The paper’s author concludes that “the empirical evidence for net complementarity is substantial, although not definitive, and empirical evidence for net substitution appears to be virtually nonexistent”.

An example, perhaps, of the studies that focus on a single application that are alluded to by the author of the UC paper, is provided by a case study from one of the purveyors of videoconferencing kit – so hardly an independent source. It appears to be of a similar vintage to the UC paper, a time when holding a videoconference involved access to a dedicated “studio” and the use of expensive data circuits. Despite these discouragements, the document reports that use of this technology within the supplier company’s worldwide operation produced savings in travel costs amounting to US$90million over a two-year period following deployment (see footnote 8).

If I may add some anecdote to the evidence base, I was contracted to a UK company in the late 1990s working on the design of telecommunications systems for the Mass Transit Railway (MTR) metro system in Hong Kong. There was frequent use of the cumbersome and expensive videoconferencing equipment of that period to conduct meetings between the UK-based design staff and the field operatives charged with installing and commissioning the kit. However, there was also a constant stream of trips undertaken by staff from both locations. So you could view this as substitution, since the use of videoconferencing was meaning that fewer trips were probably necessary, but you can also see it is complementary in that videoconferencing was one of the tools that had enabled the company to offer a competitive bid to gain the contract in the first place, and that winning the contract had generated a demand for a large number of seats on flights between the UK and Hong Kong.

It would appear that the warnings given to the EAC by the action group and Dr Wellings about the possible disruptive effects of ICT on the demand for HS2 cannot really be substantiated at this time, and that Harry Fairhead was probably well advised to steer clear of this topic in his briefing paper.

(To be continued …)

Footnotes:

  1. See paragraphs 102 to 104 in the report The Economics of High Speed 2, House of Lords Economic Affairs Committee, 1stReport of Session 2014-15, March 2015.
  2. See paragraph 6 in Tonge & Breedon HS2 Action Group—Written evidence, on page 899 in Oral and Written Evidence, Select Committee on Economic Affairs, The Economic Case for HS2.
  3. See under Q92 in Evidence Session 8, Tuesday 4thNovember 2014 in Lords EAC Oral and Written Evidence.
  4. See under Q215 in Evidence Session 18, Tuesday 2ndDecember 2014 on page 656 of the Lords EAC Oral and Written Evidence.
  5. See under Q102 in Evidence Session 9, Tuesday 11th November 2014 on page 713 of the Lords EAC Oral and Written Evidence.
  6. See paragraph 5 in Professor Roger Vickerman—Written evidence, on page 936 of the Lords EAC Oral and Written Evidence.
  7. The paper is Telecommunications and Travel: The Case for Complementarity, Mokhtarian P L, Journal of Industrial Ecology, Volume 6 Number 2, April 2002.
  8. The case study is How Virtual Meetings Provide Substantial Business Value and User Benefits, Cisco Systems Inc.

Let’s be courageous, part 18

(… continued from Let’s be courageous, part 17, posted on 4 Nov 2016).

In its written evidence to the House of Lords Economic Affairs Committee (EAC) the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders (SMMT) – surely the horse’s mouth when it comes to predicting the future for autonomous vehicles – expressed the view that it was “too early to determine the impact of autonomous and connected vehicles on the road network or on wider transport” (see footnote 1).

However, the SMMT is able to paint a very positive picture of the development of these technologies, commenting that “although targets such as 2020 to 2030 are provided regarding the mainstream introduction of autonomous vehicles autonomous features are already a readily available aspect of many new vehicles on the UK’s roads today” and that “the move to greater autonomy is already happening” (see footnote 2). For example, an essential base technology for full autonomy is “connected vehicles” – the ability of vehicles to communicate with infrastructure and other vehicles – and the SMMT is able to report that “80% of all autos sold in 2016 will be connected” (see footnote 3). The organisation also declares that the UK “is already in a positive position in relation to the trailing of autonomous vehicles and the regulatory framework to allow autonomous vehicles to operate on public roads” (see footnote 4).

According to The Guardian newspaper, progress towards the mainstream use of driverless cars “moved up a gear” with the announcement recently that the Ford Motor Company “would produce a fleet of driverless cars for ride-sharing services, such as Uber and Lyft, by 2021” (see footnote 5). The newspaper quotes Ford’s President and Chief Executive, Mark Fields, as claiming that the next decade would be “defined by automation of the automobile” and predicting that “the switch to driverless travel would affect society as much as the introduction of the assembly line, allowing mass-produced cars, did a century ago”.

In his briefing paper Rich man’s toy: The case for scrapping HS2 Taxpayer’s Alliance Policy Analyst, Harry Fairhead, reports a benefit of driverless cars that is likely to make transport planners particularly happy: as the adoption of this technology takes over, so the capacity potential of our existing road system will grow. He cites an analysis prepared in the United States, which identifies the follow reasons why (see footnote 6):

  • Eliminating crashes resulting from human error will reduce non-recurrent congestion – 25 per cent of traffic congestion can be attributed to traffic incidents such as road traffic accidents and breakdowns
  • Autonomous vehicle technology allows closer vehicle spacing due to the ability to share information between vehicles and the much faster reaction times and smoother braking of the automatic systems
  • Vehicle “platooning” into electronically-linked convoys can also significantly reduce the required vehicle spacing
  • Autonomous vehicle technology allows the more efficient operation of highway intersections, significantly reducing intersection delay
  • Remote tracking of vehicles would permit potential congestion problems to be detected early and addressed in a timely manner

Mr Fairhead quotes the US analysts as claiming that typical motorways – actually the paper says “typical highway”, which may not necessarily be the equivalent of a motorway which would I assume have been referred to as a freeway by the Americans – “comprised of only human-driven vehicles have a maximum flow of around 2,200 per hour per lane”. The US paper says that “this reflects only 5 percent utilisation of the roadway space” (see footnote 6) and cites research by the researchers at Columbia University New York that indicates that even partial autonomy, comprising automatic braking, sensors and vehicle-to-vehicle communication, can dramatically increase the potential to make better utilisation of this space. The Columbia University paper claims that, even with only 50 per cent of vehicles equipped in this way, there is a potential increase of highway capacity of 80 per cent (see footnote 7).

So, it would appear that we are on the brink of a major revolution in car usage that will make much better use of our roads and offer a much-enhanced travel experience for those who currently drive. It can only be described as surprising then that “several witnesses” who appeared in front of the EAC were able to claim that “the effect that the development of driverless cars would have on rail demand had not been considered by the Government” (see footnote 8).

During an oral evidence session EAC Member, the Lord Skidelsky, asked a simple question: “have you taken into account the increase in capacity of other forms of transport?” and made specific reference, inter alia, to “the development of the automated car”. The responses that he was treated to from the then Transport Secretary, the Rt Hon Patrick McLoughlin MP, and Department for Transport mandarin, David Prout, occupy twenty-five lines of the transcript that could, I think, have been replaced by the simple two-letter word “no” (see footnote 9).

So we had Mr McLoughlin, who studied I think at the John Prescott School of Public Speaking, telling the Noble Lord that “what we have factored in is what we have seen happen … but exactly what the transport picture will be in 25 years’ time is anyone’s guess” (see footnote 10). For his part, Mr Prout was slightly more forthcoming, confirming that there was not a specific line in the economic case that identified a “reduction in rail demand resulting from improved road technology” but, nevertheless, that the predicted future demand for rail travel was “a conservative estimate”.

I genuinely despair that those who are responsible for deciding to spend such an enormous chunk of public money on HS2 can be so cavalier about the impact that such an important development as autonomous vehicles might have on the economic viability of the project.

(To be continued …)

Footnotes:

  1. See paragraph 3 in Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders (SMMT)—Written evidence, on page 867 in Oral and Written Evidence, Select Committee on Economic Affairs, The Economic Case for HS2.
  2. See paragraphs 7 and 11 in Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders (SMMT) —Written evidence on pages 868 to 870 in the Lords EAC Oral and Written Evidence.
  3. See paragraph 12 in Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders (SMMT) —Written evidence on page 870 in the Lords EAC Oral and Written Evidence.
  4. See paragraph 20 in Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders (SMMT) —Written evidence on page 871 in the Lords EAC Oral and Written Evidence.
  5. See the article Ford to build ‘high volume’ of driverless cars for ride-sharing services, The Guardian, 16 August 2016.
  6. See the section Implication to Traffic Operations and Highway Capacity in the paper Highway Capacity Impacts of Autonomous Vehicles: An Assessment, Center for Urban Transportation Research, University of South Florida, November 2013.
  7. For details of this citation refer to footnote 12 on page 4 of Highway Capacity Impacts of Autonomous Vehicles: An Assessment.
  8. See paragraph 105 in the report The Economics of High Speed 2, House of Lords Economic Affairs Committee, 1stReport of Session 2014-15, March 2015.
  9. See under Q222 in Evidence Session 19, Tuesday 9thDecember 2014 on page 259 in Lords EAC Oral and Written Evidence.
  10. The EAC appeared to be so impressed with this particular example of political doublespeak that they quoted it in The Economics of High Speed 2, in paragraph 108.