I could have done without the announcement, part 4

(… continued from I could have done without the announcement, part 3, posted on 11 Jan 2013).

The second speaker in the House of Lords debate on the Second Reading of the High Speed Rail (Preparation) Bill held on Tuesday 19th November 2013 was Lord Adonis, leading for the Labour frontbench. The depilated Rasputin to the Labour leadership could rightly claim the title of the “father of HS2”, and so it was interesting to hear his contribution to the debate. Indeed, his speech merits a more detailed review than I have space for in this current blog, and I intend to devote a whole posting to it in the very near future.

You may be relieved to learn that I don’t intend to review in detail each of the speeches made by the fifteen noble Lords – yes they were all men – who followed Lord Adonis, but I do intend to allocate some blog space to pick up on one or two themes.

Lord Bradshaw reminded us of his British Rail experience – he was General Manager of the Western Region in the 1980s – and made the familiar assertion that the existing lines are full. You would have thought that as a railwayman he would understand the subtleties of the capacity case, as I have set out in my blog Setting out my stall (part 1 posted 26 Dec 2013 and part 2 posted 30 Dec 2013), and appreciate that HS2 may not be the best way of injecting new capacity into the existing network. That he may not understand how HS2 “relieves” the existing routes was evident from his assertion that it was unlikely that places not served by HS2 “will suddenly lapse back into having poor quality services”. He also is badly in need of a good chat with an environmentalist, since he asserted that “once the work [of constructing HS2] is done, the countryside can get back almost to where it was”. I’m afraid that his contribution to the debate was typical of the insubstantial and unsupported HS2 claptrap that we hear far too frequently from parliamentarians.

Lord Freeman referred to his “modest experience” as a Transport Minister, but this experience did not appear to temper his enthusiasm for HS2 with any degree of realism. Amongst his predictions was that HS2 would result in “half a million lorry journeys coming off the motorways per annum” and that we could look forward to travelling “from Birmingham to Paris directly through Old Oak Common”, something that I had given reason to doubt in Setting out my stall, part 2. He also repeated the deceit of quoting overcrowding figures for Euston suburban commuter services as representing the situation on the West Coast Main Line (WCML) generally.

Another former minister with experience of the Transport portfolio, Baron Rodgers of Quarry Bank, took the more original line of questioning the appropriateness of the “governance and managing structure” of HS2 Ltd. He also expressed a thought that has, I must confess, passed across my own brain once or twice:

“As speed rather than capacity is no longer the principal case for HS2, it must follow that HS2 Ltd is now free to take rather longer to reach its destination.”

Lord Berkeley, Chairman of the Rail Freight Group, raised his concerns that there will still be capacity issues on sections of the WCML even with HS2. Strangely these concerns don’t apparently spur him to question whether HS2 is the right solution to the problem, though.

Lord Howard of Rising does not appear to have been convinced by the HS2 hype; he expressed the view that, “Looked at in any normal way, HS2 is, frankly, insane”.

Lord Rooker provided a stark illustration of just how weird the some of the alliances that have formed around the HS2 proposal have become by praising Lord Heseltine and enthusing that, “It is electrifying to hear the noble Lord set out the case for HS2”. Assuming that he is right, one of Lord Rooker’s messages will be bad news for anyone who might think that Labour was about to abandon HS2. He warned that the “dog whistle blown by some colleagues in Labour’s high command” had been “heard in the town hall corridors of the northern cities of this country, and the message came back loud and clear”. He expressed the wish that “we hear no more of the dog whistle”.

Both Lord Teverson and Lord Snape appeared to make the mistake of seeing HS2 as a way of avoiding the need for continued “upgrade” of the WCML. Since HS2 requires the WCML to continue to serve passengers using all of the WCML stations that HS2 by-passes, it is unlikely that the continued need to maintain and upgrade the WCML will be diminished. We learned very little new from the speech made by Lord Snape, except perhaps that “one cannot get a decent lunch in Watford”.

Lord Dubs made a very revealing assertion; he expressed the view that there had been “enormous benefit” from the financial estimates for the cost of the Channel Tunnel being wrong, because if they had been right they would have been “far too costly” and the project would not have been approved. That’s an interesting proposition, but I feel rather troubled that one of our lawmakers should think this way. Earlier, Lord Smith of Leigh had expressed a similar view by praising the Victorians – yes them again – for the “phenomenal period of building railways” in the early part of the 19th century. He told us, “No Victorian asked ‘What will be the benefit?’. They just had the confidence that this thing would work”. It took the subsequent speech by Lord Davies of Oldham to remind us of the consequences of this disregard by our Victorian forebears for the financial soundness of their schemes:

“I hate to say it but in the absence of cost-benefit analysis, a high percentage of Victorian railway lines went bankrupt. Railway mania was one of the shocking problems of the 19th century so although we glory in the architecture that was left us to us, in terms of both our great railway stations and the significant lines that we still use extensively today, particularly the north-south lines, we ought not to deride the fact that we need to be clear about costs.”

(To be concluded …)

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.


2 responses to this post.

  1. Interesting comment from Geoff Rooker about dog whistles. Perhaps we should refer to people who recite the wonderful benefits that HS2 is claimed to offer, as “Pavlovs”.


  2. Posted by chriseaglen on January 16, 2014 at 9:43 pm

    So the Lords were of no real help to enter a rational value debate because the complexities of the proposition are understood by those people with the realities of damage and despair and it is not the ride on HS2 but the lack of more important investments and help. We should know the Supreme Court judgment soon and if the option to take the ES/EIA/SEA issues to Europe arises this should be grasped.


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