I could have done without the announcement, part 3

(… continued from I could have done without the announcement, part 2, posted on 7 Jan 2013).

The Speaker of the House of Commons had ruled that the High Speed Rail (Preparation) Bill was a “money bill”. The effect of this was that the House of Lords had no power to amend, or delay the progress of, the Bill. Indeed, in principle the Bill could have received Royal Assent without the agreement of the Lords.

So it was that the Second Reading and “remaining stages” in the Lords Chamber were scheduled to be dealt with on the single day of Tuesday 19th November 2013. In reality, the proceedings amounted to a fairly expansive debate, of a little over three hours, on the motion “that the Bill be read a second time”, with the other stages of the Bill being procedural only.

I think that it is fair to characterise the debate as concerning the pros and cons of the HS2 proposal, and not, on the whole, the merits of the Bill. Altogether, seventeen peers spoke in the debate, with only four expressing views that were either against or sceptical about the HS2 project.

The debate was opened by Baroness Kramer, who replaced the Rt Hon Simon Burns MP as Transport Minister following his resignation in October. She was also the last speaker, giving the Government’s reply. Her opening speech of around ten minutes, delivered from a prepared text, covered ground that has become familiar since The Strategic Case for HS2 was published at the end of October 2013. She told their Lordships that there were “three key arguments for HS2”: capacity, connectivity and growth. On capacity, she adopted the usual trick of conflating the separate long-distance, commuter and freight issues, thus avoiding addressing the issues about the effectiveness of HS2 as a solution to overcrowding that I discussed in my blog Setting out my stall, part 2 (posted 30 Dec 2013).

She admitted that “many have proposed alternatives” to HS2 and that “many of the ideas are interesting [and] in fact, some of them will probably be implemented”. However, she claimed that “including every reasonable alternative” only a 24% increase in capacity was possible by upgrade compared with 105% that HS2 would offer. She also raised the spectre of “fourteen years of weekend closures” that would be required to upgrade existing lines.

These pronouncements are based upon claims made in Chapter 6 of The Strategic Case for HS2. In a blog, leading transport commentator Christian Wolmar accuses these claims of being “based on a very extreme version of the potential future capacity requirements of the railway”. He also characterises the threat of fourteen years of disruption as “quite simply a lie”. It is also a major weakness, unacknowledged by HS2’s proponents, that the 105% increase in capacity claimed for HS2 is concentrated in select locations, rather than being spread across all of the stations on the existing network.

Baroness Kramer also told us that HS2 “transforms connections across Britain”. In fact, HS2 improves travel times on comparatively few routes in the North and the Midlands – it does nothing for cross-Pennine routes, for example – and stations that find themselves marooned on the branch line that the southern part of the WCML seems destined to become, could well find services to London “transformed” in the wrong direction.

The noble Lady claimed that it was “this new connectivity that provides a spur to growth” and relied heavily on the disputed KPMG report and the report of the Labour-led Core Cities Group to substantiate this claim. On costs, she quoted, unsurprisingly, the most-flattering BCR figure of 2.3, representing the whole Y network including wider economic inputs, which she claimed was “frankly remarkable for a large project, especially given the limitations of a formula that caps passenger demand three years after Phase 2 is finished”. For those of us who fear that HS2 will divert resources from other projects, she reported that the £17bn budget for HS2 expenditure in the next Parliament should be viewed in the context of the overall budget for transport in the same period of £73bn, and she reeled off a list of other planned infrastructure projects.

She acknowledged the “negative impacts” on the environment and promised that the Government would be “fair but generous” on compensation “going beyond the requirements of the law”, but I think that we know what that means by now.

In the final rallying call of her opening speech she managed to refer to our “exhausted Victorian [railway] system” and claim that “doubters have always decried new infrastructure projects” – these appear to be essential references in any ministerial speech on HS2 these days.

We had another opportunity to hear Baroness Kramer speak when, as the final contribution, she replied to the debate on behalf of the Government. By its very nature, this speech was not pre-scripted, or even pre-prepared, and I have to grudgingly admit that the noble Lady stuck to her guns well. She covered points that had been made on costs, including monitoring and reducing them, timescales, mitigation in the Chilterns, claims that the project was London-centric, and doubts about whether there really was a capacity crisis.

The Baroness made one exceedingly dodgy claim, that “one alternative [to HS2] is likely to be an exceedingly intrusive motorway”. She added that this would mean “not just one six-lane motorway … but probably two”. I have not come across any reasoned argument to support this assertion, and am somewhat mystified by it bearing in mind the comparatively minor impact that changes in levels of train use, at less than 10% of total passenger carriage, can be expected to have on road utilisation.

Her final battle cry, although apparently not pre-scripted, was, I feel, pre-meditated and struck a familiar chord:

“Perhaps I may conclude by saying this: let us protect the Victorian spirit that built our railroads, but let us look for an infrastructure that is not Victorian but modern and 21st-century so that we can build the economy of the future.”

PS: The Hansard report of the Second Reading debate may be read in columns 906 to 952 of the House of Lords Official Report. There is also a video of the debate.


One response to this post.

  1. Posted by chriseaglen on January 11, 2014 at 3:19 pm

    The motorway/motorways are the obvious answer and needed to add capacity, connectivity to cope with the growth in road traffic. This person failed in the Mayor of London and fails to demonstrate a balanced understanding with the short comings. Liberals are through their head suggesting £2B for Yorshire road and rail. This does not square with the possible 2 motorways. Bank regulation would not have been avoided with a coalition perhaps. Out of their depth and not sure of the directions when cash is tight and debt is rising.


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