Sorry we can’t do that because we’re incompetent

“What is more, upgrades would consign rail passengers and the vitally important rail freight industry to years, if not decades, of future engineering disruption, delay and unreliability—something that users of the west coast main line will remember only too well.”

That is the text for today’s sermon. It comes from the statement made by Justine Greening MP, Secretary of State for Transport, to the House of Commons on Tuesday 10th January 2012 (transcript).

So at this point in her speech she resorted to scare tactics; you’d jolly well better support these rubbish proposals of mine, otherwise we promise to repeat the West Coast Main Line (WCML) upgrade fiasco. She probably thought that this was a pretty scary threat. After all the WCML experience was surely one that no passenger who had become involved in it would want to repeat.

Ms Greening was probably emboldened to make her claim by the findings of the Network Rail report that I referred to in my blog Economical with the truth? (posted 28 Jan). On page 3 of that report (here), in the Executive Summary, the comment is made that the disruptive impact of an upgrade strategy “would be very significant, involving a sustained period of regular disruption on the WCML (and MML and ECML) similar to that required for the West Coast Route Modernisation (WCRM)”.

The entrails of the doomed attempt by Railtrack – now no longer with us, but by no means mourned – to bring the project in on time and within budget have been examined in great detail. The Strategic Rail Authority was called upon to sort things out and its work together with a report by the House of Commons Public Accounts Committee (here) allow the conclusions to be drawn that the shortcomings of the project included a failure to assess technical risk properly, a lack of direction and leadership by management and weak project management.

Unfortunately shortcomings of this nature are not uncommon in government projects and it is not too difficult to draw up an all too long list of heroic failures; did anyone mention aircraft carriers? However for the Government to cite the incompetence of its agencies in such matters as good reason why the alternatives to HS2 based upon upgrading the existing infrastructure are not viable is rather like saying “the Titanic hit an iceberg, therefore we should stop building ships”.

The simple truth of the matter is that any infrastructure upgrading of the existing network that may be required to match capacity to demand if HS2 is not built will involve nothing like the extensive disruption caused by WCRM and it is totally disingenuous to claim that it will.

In paragraph 10.19 on page 10-5 of his Appendix 10 to the response to the public consultation on HS2 submitted by the 51m alliance (here) Chris Stokes, who has extensive experience in the rail industry including a period at executive director level in the Strategic Rail Authority, says that the upgrades proposed for the existing network “do not involve wholesale modernisation and upgrade of the existing route (as was the case with the recently completed WCML route modernisation) but investment to increase capacity at a small number of specific ‘pinchpoints’.”

He identifies these pinchpoints as being grade separating at Ledburn Junction (which he says is broadly similar to the work required to accommodate HS2 at Lichfield), construction of a fourth line between Attleborough and Brinklow (which he concedes will cause some disruption, probably with weekend diversions) and a bypass at Stafford (which he says will be needed for HS2 anyway).

So why on earth is the Transport Secretary making such a fuss? Could it be because she is trying to see off the very real threat that the 51m upgrade proposals pose to the raison d’être for the Government’s pet project HS2? Surely not!

Then there is the situation at Euston. The Government line is that three extra platforms will be required on the west side of Euston station to cater for additional passenger demand if  HS2 does not go ahead. If  HS2 is built, the station will be subject to a major redevelopment programme. The extent of this redevelopment is described by Chris Stokes in paragraph 10.3 on page 10-1 of his Appendix 10 cited above, as follows:

“All the existing platforms will be realigned and rebuilt, with the level of the approach tracks dropped by approximately 1.5 metres north of Hampstead Road, increasing to 3 metres down the length of the station.”

So which will cause the most disruption, adding three platforms or rebuilding virtually the whole station and changing all the track alignments? Well, the Transport Minister, Theresa Villiers MP, appears to be in no doubt. She said in a debate in Westminster Hall held on 31st March 2011 (Hansard, column 194WH):

“… the work required at Euston for RP2 would be considerably more disruptive than those required there for HS2, because they would have to be carried out within Euston’s current footprint, making it much more difficult to keep current services going. Disruption would be much worse this time, because the west coast line is twice as busy as it was seven years ago.”

Well she might think that – although I doubt that she really thinks that – but it sounds to me that we are back in la-la land again. It’s not really credible, is it?

David Millward, Transport Editor of The Daily Telegraph, doesn’t seem to agree with the Minister’s evaluation. Writing in his newspaper in January 2012 (here) he said in his leading paragraph:

“Tens of thousands of passengers face years of disruption as a result of the decision to press ahead with a high speed rail network, it has emerged.”

Also, whilst HS2 will have minimal effect on the WCML over much of the route of the existing trackway other than at the aforementioned Lichfield junction with WCML, due to the use of virgin countryside for HS2, it will cause disruption to existing services, including commuter and InterCity services into Paddington. As Chris Stokes says (in paragraph 10.13 on page 10-4 of his Appendix 10):

“The work at Old Oak Common involves major construction on an intensively used main line route, and there will inevitably be serious disruption to train services during the construction period.”

But the really severe disruption that the construction of HS2 will cause doesn’t merit even a mention in the Transport Secretary’s statement. All along the proposed route, roads will be closed and diversions put in place to allow the construction work to proceed. Crossings over and under existing roads, including motorways, will have to be constructed, resulting in delays to road users, and the countless lorries that will be required to cart away the tonnes of spoil generated will increase levels of traffic congestion.

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