Calling time out

One major benefit that the World Wide Web affords is for individuals to post their views on anything under the sun in a public place that is accessible to many millions of people. Some, like me, go the whole hog and post blogs, having adequately inflated egos to think that one or more people will be sufficiently interested in what you have to say to actually read the thing. Others find that they can say all they need to in 140 characters and are happy to tweet; oh how I envy them their ability to be so concise – some talented people have even written “novels” in this format.

I have to admit, however, that my favourite of the ways that people express themselves on the Web is to comment on other people’s blogs or against newspaper articles. I find these can be a fascinating read, and what a wide assortment of such efforts can be found. Of course the quality of such comments varies considerably: spelling and grammar often fall far short of the mark, and comments can be badly expressed, or ill-informed, or even, at times, be total gibberish.

Some are just plain rude, crude or otherwise abusive. For certain, the anonymity that the use of a nom de plume provides encourages such rude behaviour; I much prefer it when people use their real names, particularly when commenting on this site. But then, of course, you can’t always be sure that what looks like a real name is not, in truth, a nom de plume.

However, there are some real gems. For example, you may have heard the Transport Secretary trying, with characteristic bluster, to gainsay on BBC TV News the damning verdict of the National Audit Office on the HS2 business case (video):

“Yes, it would be the easiest thing in the world for the Government to do, not to build this.”

If you want to see that particular example of disingenuous pomposity deflated, you need look no further than our own Stop HS2 website and a comment made by “kingsnewclothes”:

“McLoughlin said cancelling the scheme would be the easy thing to do. No it wouldn’t. It would be the hard thing to do because it would admit they had got it wrong. No politician likes to do that.”

By the way, I think that the tactics employed by the Department for Transport’s ministers to handle the NAO crisis were totally inept. Where some degree of acceptance and accommodation was clearly called for, the stance of totally rejecting the NAO position made McLoughlin and Burns look shifty, shallow, uncomfortable and clearly insincere. The NAO is authoritive and well-respected, for heaven’s sake. No one is going to believe a politician trying to rubbish the findings of such an eminent body. If you want a clear example of this, just look at the female presenter’s reaction at the end of her interview with Simon Burns on the ITV Daybreak programme (video); it is hard not to agree with her obvious verdict on a dismal performance by the Rail Minister.

A fellow campaigner recently put me on to another apposite comment on a website. The trigger for the comment in this case was an interview with Professor Andrew McNaughton – Technical Director of HS2 Ltd and no stranger to pomposity himself – that was reported in The Engineer last year. The article reports one of Professor McNaughton’s claims as being:

“We optimised between speed, energy use and impact – the faster you go, the straighter the track has to be – and we settled on 225mph for our business case, but it’s possible to engineer the line with very little extra impact for 250mph.”

Amongst a number of negative comments posted below the article is this little gem from “Anonymous”:

“Could Prof McNaughton explain how he ‘optimised between speed, energy use, and impact’? If going faster doesn’t do much for journey times, and energy goes up as the square of the speed, and the straightness of the track goes up with speed, surely the optimum solution is to remain stationary and do your business on the internet.”

Although this comment is meant to be amusing, it does expose a very pertinent point. The good professor may think that he has come up with the optimum solution, but who is he to be the sole arbiter of this? What consideration, for example, has his “optimisation” given to the severe environmental consequences of his choices?

Now I do realise the irony that both of the examples that I have quoted were posted under noms de plume, but I will have to live with that. The reason that I have brought them both together is because I think that, were the HS2 design to be commenced now, our current state of awareness could lead to a very different route design. I don’t think, for example, that anyone in their right mind would make the design choices that required so much tunnelling, including a virtually continuous run of 21 km of twin-bore tunnel under London.

So what is desperately needed now is for the Transport Secretary to do the really difficult thing and call “time out” on HS2 to enable a full and open review of the choices that have been made so far, and which have led to a design that many find unacceptable. Whilst they are at it, perhaps the Department for Transport can plug all those gaps in the thinking that the NAO has so ably identified.


4 responses to this post.

  1. Very well said Peter. I’ve often asked for an independent reassessment of HS2. It could reassure a sceptical public that the right decisions have been made, or more likely it would confirm that HS2 is a disastrous mistake that the government is so entrenched in it can’t admit the truth. Of course you have to find your independent experts first. The big engineering consultancies depend on DfT for much of their work, so while some engineers admit privately that they don’t think HS2 is right, they can’t say so in public. I believe HS2 could actually bring down the government, possibly when the LibDems (the first party to propose HS2) see the political capital to be made by pulling the rug from under HS2 by proposing such an independent reassessment.


  2. Posted by chriseaglen on May 27, 2013 at 7:26 am

    hs2 and its managers had not done this work before. There were not the constraints in place. Now the ministers say we need to build a new line. This is obsession. There was the east coast but desire to limit the numbers of people polarised locations. It is not the shorter distance by going west. They did not address the commuter capacity issue but the few intercity half way issue. Delusion may be growing in the government as the costs are half the defence budget with less support. Brief was not clear and for the nations of England and Scotland the budget would be higher than half the 350B mpa total. What went wrong was hs2 not able to be realistic. Starting again with the right question will help. Unfortunately the permanent secretaries have other agendas and are now not able to advise no prime minister especialy where they may lack previous experience in their departments specialisation and have been exposed to prior ps failings. Being brave to say we have not got a viable scheme currently requires hmt dft and others including the pm to change from we must do the wrong thing.


  3. I can’t resist saying more! What ministers know is what their officials tell them. We often see ministers giving complex answers to MP’s questions in the Commons and it’s obvious they are just reciting info fed to them by their officials. Politicians don’t take kindly to duff info fed to them by officials, as was proved by the WCML franchise fiasco. The government can blame their officials for HS2 and they can blame the previous government whose plan they took over. Best of all, they can substitute an alternative plan that follows M1 and M6, suffers much less opposition, causes less damage, comes into use earlier and connects more places. We will most likely need new tracks north from London and we can have them once the mad rush up a blind alley is stopped.


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