Economical with the truth?

Listening to Justine Greening MP, Secretary of State for Transport, making her statement on HS2 to the House of Commons on Tuesday 10th January 2012 and answering questions by MPs was not good for my blood pressure. Time and time again, as I listened, I found myself thinking “that’s not right” or “that’s not fair” or “yes but, what about …”.

I have already given two examples of hackle-raising points in her Commons statement; her failure to mention the results of the public consultation in Was it all worth it? (posted 16 Jan 2012) and her ignoring the recommendations of the Commons Transport Select Committee in I don’t want to comment on that (posted 24 Jan 2012). There are more; I think about a half-dozen blogs worth. So please bear with me while I get it all out of my system and even deal with some matters that drift out of my environmental remit.

The Transport Secretary said:

“My decision had to consider not only the full environmental impact of HS2 but its benefits to our economy, jobs and our competitiveness not just today but decades into the future.”

She must, or at least should, be fully aware that the “full environmental impact of HS2” has not been assessed up to now. Only when the Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) has been completed will she be able to make that claim and, as far as I understand, that task will not commence until some time later this year.

All that HS2 Ltd has produced to inform the critical decision making process is a vastly inferior EIA substitute, which is called the Appraisal of Sustainability (AoS). This latter document has been the subject of thousands of words of critical analysis by me in my blogs; I regard it as deeply flawed, not least by a marked tendency to underestimate the environmental impacts of HS2 and overestimate the few benefits and the effectiveness of mitigation.

I am not alone in my condemnation of the AoS. The analysis by Dialogue by Design of the responses to the public consultation (here) reveals that only 614 of the 36,918 respondents to the consultation question on the AoS expressed unqualified satisfaction with it. A further 158 expressed support, but with some caveats, but rather more (14,170) are of my opinion and “expressed concerns that the AoS is insufficient”.

She also said:

“I recognise, however, that further rounds of upgrades to our major north-south lines, even if they offer apparently good value for money, can only provide a short-term fix—one that is incapable of meeting the long-term challenge. In truth, they could add only limited further capacity; they could not offer the step change in performance that passengers wish and need to see.”

The certainty with which this is expressed is staggering; it is very much a hotly disputed point. In reaching her conclusion the Secretary of State appears to have relied heavily on the report produced by Network Rail that was leaked to the press ahead of the announcement and which I referred to in my blog The white elephant lumbers on (posted 12 Jan 2012). Well at least now we can all read it (here).

The HS2 Action Alliance has identified a number of key points of issue with the way that the Network Rail report has reviewed the alternative proposal to HS2 put forward by the 51m alliance of local authorities (here), including:

The lack of independence of the authors from the Government.

Misrepresentations and misunderstandings of the proposals made by the 51m alliance, due to a failure by Network Rail to clarify matters with 51m.

Misleading statements on the crucial capacity issue.

It has emerged however that there is a second report on the alternatives to HS2  (here), which was included in the bundle of documents released on the day of Ms Greening’s Commons statement. This report was prepared for the Department for Transport by consultants Atkins and so has some credibility as an independent review, although it does rely on the Network Rail report for some input.

The Atkins report has come to the attention of The Guardian and the response by journalist Jamie Doward is headlined HS2 not the best value rail option, says government report (here). In a nutshell, the conclusion that this article has drawn from the Atkins report is that “there may be more attractive rail projects than HS2”, meaning that the identified alternative proposals, such as 51m, do the job and will cost much less. Now where have I heard that before?

So what about Ms Greening’s assertion that the 51m proposal “is incapable of meeting the long-term challenge”? Well Ms Greening, just look at Table 3.5 on page 16 of the Atkins report. This predicts that, if the 51m proposal is implemented, the all day load factor on the most heavily congested part of the West Coast Main Line near London will be 64% in 2037. This is only a little up on present loadings and should be easily accommodated with better demand management. Further, there is a strong argument that higher load factors are desirable in order to improve the commercial viability of our railways.

The picture on the Midland Main Line (MML) and the East Coast Main Line (ECML) is one of even lower load factors. The 51m proposal does not apply to these services, but an equivalent proposal called “Scenario B” has been considered by Atkins. Here the predicted load factors are 35% for MML and 48% for ECML.

Contrary to what the Secretary of State would have us believe, the work done by Network Rail and Atkins has not demonstrated that the alternatives are “no hopers”. What they show clearly is that, with more work and development, there could very well be a solution to the “capacity problem” that will be quicker and cheaper to implement. Also given the timescales for HS2, the DfT may very well end up implementing both HS2 and one of the alternatives. Now wouldn’t that be daft!

However, since the Government is hell bent on lumbering us with HS2, it is extremely unlikely that the alternatives will get this further attention.

More next time; I’m beginning to enjoy myself now.

PS: The Hansard transcript of the announcement and subsequent questions by MPs may be found here.

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