So now it’s official

Sustainable Development Commission, part 1

Until very recently I had not heard of the Sustainable Development Commission (SDC). This organisation brands itself as “the Government’s independent watchdog on sustainable development”. It sounds like a good idea; the Government badly needs monitoring on sustainable development if the HS2 proposals are anything to go by.

Unfortunately the SDC is one of the quangos that the Coalition Government has decided it can no longer afford to support. The funding for the SDC has now been withdrawn and it is therefore no more.

One of the final acts of the SDC was to publish Fairness in a Car Dependent Society (here). Despite the title of the report its subject matter appears to cover transport policy as a whole; the title merely reflects that the huge growth in travel by the British in the past half century or so has almost all been due to increases in road transport and, in particular, car journeys. However, rail travel does not escape examination by the SDC and the report contains several comments about the HS2 proposal, in particular.

The main recommendation of the report is for a new approach to transport policy in line with the Coalition Government’s stated commitment to fairness as one of its three guiding principles; in case you don’t remember, the other two are freedom and responsibility. The approach that the SDC is proposing calls on policy-makers to prioritise reducing the demand for transport; encourage more sustainable modes of transport and improve the efficiency of existing modes of transport over increasing the capacity of the transport system.

This is music to the ears of the opponents of HS2 and many of the criticisms of HS2 that they have been making sit comfortably with the SDC’s view of transport policy. One such criticism is that HS2 aims to stimulate demand rather than reduce it and it will be a financial disaster if it doesn’t do this; the demand predictions by HS2 Ltd are that 22% of journeys on HS2 will be “new trips”. In other words more than a fifth of travellers on HS2 would not have travelled if the HS2 service was not available.

HS2 does have aspirations to lure some travellers away from road and air travel which are, on the face of it, less sustainable modes of travel. However HS2 Ltd predicts that only 13% of travellers will be “mode shifters” from air and road and the opponents do not see this as making any meaningful impact. They think that HS2 is likely to have little or no consequence on levels of air travel and that reliance on “parkway” stations may actually serve to increase road miles travelled.

However what little good HS2 may achieve in shifting passengers from less sustainable travel modes will be outweighed by modal shift from conventional rail using the existing routes such as the West Coast Main Line (WCML). The prediction by HS2 Ltd is that 65% of passengers on HS2 will have switched from the “classic rail” services. However you do the calculations and whichever definition of “sustainable” that you use, the existing classic rail services must be significantly more sustainable than a new railway designed to operate at ultra high speed (providing that those existing services are, like WCML, powered by electricity).

Finally the SDC wants policy-makers to improve the efficiency of existing modes of transport. In the context of HS2 this requires the existing classic rail services to be improved as much as possible and a number of ways have been proposed in which services and passenger capacity may be enhanced. These plans include a series of “packages” that were proposed to Department for Transport (DfT) by the consultants Atkins. These proposals, taken separately or together, appear to achieve solutions to all of the foreseen service requirements, without the need to build a totally new high speed railway. They represent the sustainable solution and have the advantage that implementation may be phased to keep pace with service requirements, without the risk of inefficient over-provisioning.

The opponents of HS2 say that these improvements are all that is needed, are much cheaper than building a new high speed railway and allow better value for money.

The SDC’s advice to transport policy-makers seems eminently sensible; it is a pity that the policy-makers in the DfT responsible for HS2 do not appear to be heeding it.

In my next blog I will look at what Fairness in a Car Dependent Society has to say about fairness in transport policy in general.

Acknowledgements: I am grateful to Andrew Yeomans for his very succinct précis of Fairness in a Car Dependent Society in an e-mail to anti-HS2 groups; the summary of the SDC recommendation in the fourth paragraph of my blog uses his words in part.

The percentages of travellers quoted in my blog are taken from Table 3 on page 19 of the DfT/HS2 Ltd document Economic Case for HS2: the Y Network and London-West Midlands, which may be downloaded here. These figures have been revised in the January 2012 document Economic Case for HS2: Updated appraisal of transport user benefits and wider economic benefits (here,  see Table 2 on page 23). In this new document the “new trips” element has been increased to 24% and the “mode shifters” has been reduced to 11%. The element “switching from classic rail” remains unchanged at 65%.

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