… and down the drain …

The “commentary” against item 14a) in the Proposed Route Framework table in Volume 2 of the document HS2 London to the West Midlands: Appraisal of Sustainability (here) says:

“Total business user benefits were estimated as being equivalent to be around £17.6 Bn, (NPV, 60 years, 2009 prices and values). This represents very large benefits, reflecting the large journey time savings that HS2 affords and the high levels of underlying demand on the WCML.” (see page 28)

Taken with the “+ +” score that this item has been given, this appears to be a very enthusiastic evaluation. It is also one that I can’t reconcile with the data that is presented in the document Economic Case for HS2: The Y Network and London – West Midlands  (here). Table 4 on page 31 of that document gives a breakdown of the benefits that have been identified for HS2, for both business passengers and other passengers. Adding the figures in the “business” column of this table yields a total of £11.1 billion, not £17.6 billion as cited in the table in the Appraisal of Sustainability (AoS). However, this slight discrepancy aside, recent information that has come to light indicates that even £11.1 billion may be a considerable overestimate. This has a double significance because it not only affects the estimation of benefits, but it also feeds back into the BCR calculation and suggests that it should be reduced even further.

The information that has been revealed emphasizes two important lessons. Firstly that the use of freedom of information legislation is a valuable tool in the struggle to ensure that the Civil Service is working in the interests of citizens, rather than ministers, and secondly that the Department for Transport (DfT) will resort to subterfuge in order to maintain the charade of the claimed benefits of HS2.

The story is told in an article that appeared in the Sunday Telegraph on 10th June 2012 and is given fuller scope on the 51m website. It concerns the belated publishing, in April this year, of a report that has been with the DfT since 2009 and has given a previously unknown (at least by me) foot soldier of the campaign against HS2 his “fifteen minutes” in the limelight. This hero of the campaign is a certain Colin Allen from Turweston in Buckinghamshire and it is his persistence, patience and bloody-mindedness, together with the powers given to the People by the Freedom of Information Act, that have allowed us to find out what “They” didn’t want us to know.

What we, in the end, benefited from in April was the publishing on the DfT website of three reports, all on the general topic of the value of travel time.

The June 2009 dated Productive Use of Rail Travel Time and the Valuation of Travel Time Savings for Rail Business Travellers – Final Report (here) was commissioned by the DfT from consultants Mott MacDonald, in collaboration with others.

This consultancy collaboration was also commissioned to write the second report Value of Working Time and Travel Time Savings: Long Run Implications Report (here), which was delivered to the DfT in December 2009.

The third document is an undated paper by the DfT’s own Strategy Unit titled Review of the value of time assumptions for business travellers on HS2 (here), which looks at the implications that the two Mott MacDonald reports, and other published research, may have on the methodology employed by the DfT to estimate the value of travel time saved by business passengers on trains. The DfT also published, alongside this paper, a peer review of it carried out by the Institute of Transport Studies at the University of Leeds.

I will examine the implications that the Mott MacDonald research has on the valuation assigned to HS2 travel time savings in the business case and, consequently, on the BCR calculation in my next blog. It is, however, sufficient to say at this juncture that it indicates that the DfT has overvalued these by a considerable margin. In the meantime, I would ask you to consider the following questions:

  • Do you think that the DfT would have published the Mott MacDonald reports without the persistence shown by Colin Allen?
  • Do you think that it is right for DfT to spend taxpayers’ (i.e. our) money on work and then not share the results of this work with us?
  • Do you think that the DfT has any conceivable justification for concealing relevant information from participants in the HS2 public consultation and, as far as we know, from at least two select committees of the House of Commons?
  • Although we don’t know, because the work was done behind closed doors, do you think that it is likely that the DfT also kept the Mott MacDonald work hidden from the Major Projects Authority of the Cabinet Office?
  • What does all this say about the relationship between the Civil Service and ministers and the public that they are supposed to serve?

The item on the 51m website quotes a justification by the Transport Minister, Theresa Villiers:

“Productive use of travel time is a complex issue and we have reservations about this (DfT) study because it only provides partial analysis. We have taken the best approach to calculating HS2’s benefits and our analysis is robust.”

Come off it, Minister. What I and, I am sure, a number of you are thinking about this is best summed up by the comment in the Sunday Telegraph article that a senior official at the DfT explicitly told colleagues that the research “could not be used” because it would spoil the case for HS2.

Note: Although the date of publication of the reports predates the April oral evidence session of the Public Accounts Committee by a week, the business of that oral session (transcript) indicates that the members of the PAC were not aware of the existence of the reports.


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