I wish I could have got here earlier

One of the most memorable images of the damage caused by the storms that battered our coasts in early February was both tracks of the Great Western Main Line (GWML) at Dawlish devoid of all support, twisting and swaying in the wind. With no alternative rail route available, this effectively cut off train services from London and other points east of Exeter to Plymouth, England’s fifteenth largest city, and to the whole of Cornwall. This incident, and its aftermath, have given rise to much public reflection on the vulnerability of train services in the South West of England, and the debate has been extended by some to one of considering the generally poor standard of the rail infrastructure that serves this part of our country.

The perceived failings of the railway network serving the South West were very much on the minds of a panel of chief executives and leaders of the affected local authorities of the region when they were invited to give oral evidence to the House of Commons Transport Committee on Tuesday 25th February (transcript).

The Chief Executive of Plymouth City Council, Tracey Lee, for example told the Committee that she had travelled to the evidence session on the rail replacement bus from Plymouth to Tiverton Parkway (a station, mid-way between Exeter and Taunton, on the section of the GWML still connected to the rest of the UK) and “it is actually quicker than the train, but that is because the train line speeds are so slow that it is quicker, which is a ridiculous thing to say but it is” (Q9).

Slow line speeds were also commented on by the Leader of Plymouth City Council, Councillor Tudor Evans (Q11). He said that he did not want a “heritage railway restoration project” but called for “a new railway—a better railway than we had before—which delivers resilience, yes, but fast speeds too”. He told the Committee that “the distance between Plymouth and London is the same as Plymouth to Lancaster, but it takes you an hour more to get to Plymouth”. He added:

“The average speed of the railway to Plymouth is about 68 mph. The further north you go the faster it gets. Speeds to Glasgow and Edinburgh are nearer 95 mph.”

Later in the session (Q32), Cllr Evans gave another illustration of the impact of slow line speeds on the GWML:

“The first train [from London] gets in [to Plymouth] at 11.15 am. In fact, you can be in Edinburgh five minutes after that, and that is another 100 miles further along.”

A further example of the poor investment in rail services for the South West of England was given by the Chief Executive of Devon County Council, Phil Norrey (Q30):

“Our rolling stock for our premier service trains—the high speed train—was introduced on to the West of England line, to the far south-west, in 1979; that fleet was introduced in 1976. That gives you an idea of where we are in terms of the pecking order. There is no other main line which is running with 35-year-old rolling stock.”

It clearly rankles with Cllr Evans that the Government is planning to spend £billions on an alternative to the West Coast Main Line between London and Birmingham, a track that already supports line speeds up to 125mph (Q22):

“Meanwhile, people in other parts of the country are having their appetite whetted by journey times as little as 49 minutes between Birmingham and London. At the moment it is three hours 47 minutes, the first train to Plymouth from London in the morning, going via Bristol. How can this be when we are the 15th largest city in the country? I can’t think of another country in Europe that would tolerate that, and that is the standard that we have set for the railway in the south-west of England, not just this Government but successive Governments back to the formation of the railway.”

Cllr Evans would have found considerable sympathy with his views about HS2 should he have read the editorial in the Sunday Telegraph on 9th February, which concludes:

“Moreover, while HS2 is perhaps not an immediate necessity, passengers stranded by the floods could reasonably argue that constructing a more secure line across the South West is. We must think of priorities. Combine the HS2 debate with the Environment Agency’s ineffectual response to the floods, and the public might justifiably conclude that parts of Westminster have lost sight of the essential role of government in making sure that Britain’s infrastructure is safe and secure.”

The pro-HS2 lobby has not been slow to cry “foul” at this association of the “forgotten railway” in the South West and the planned new north-south railway. Alan Marshall, Editorial Director of Railnews magazine, responded in one of his regular blogs on that periodical’s website:

“There is, of course, no relationship between what might be done now to repair and improve the railway’s resilience in Devon and Cornwall and construction over the next 20 years of a new high speed rail system serving substantial populations in the Midlands and North of England.”

Whilst on one level Mr Marshall is correct, he is (conveniently) failing to recognise that an inevitable comparison is being made between what many see at the profligate spending on HS2 and the apparently penny-pinching attitude towards spending on one of the less-fashionable regions of our railway network. In this respect he is whistling in the wind; the genie is already out of the bottle, the association has been made.

I say this in the light of an article in the Western Morning News that claims there is a mini rebellion amongst South West MPS against the HS2 project. The article names five MPs (see footnote) who have pledged to vote against HS2 if no commitment to improve rail services in the South West is forthcoming from the Government.

I welcome any development that might encourage more MPs to enter the No Lobby when the division on the Second Reading of the hybrid Bill takes place in the Commons, but we would have to see this particular storm in a teacup develop considerably before it can become a conflagration sufficient to blow HS2 off course, I fear.

However, someone who knows the political scene much better than I has been bold enough to forecast that HS2 might indeed be under threat. That person is Norman Smith, Chief Political Correspondent for the BBC News. In a piece to camera from outside Number 10 Downing Street, broadcast on BBC TV News on 11th February, he mused:

“I’m wondering if one of the main casualties of this whole floods crisis – not just obviously people’s livelihoods and homes – might actually turn out to be HS2, because just talking to MPs on both sides of the House there does seem to be a growing view that maybe money that is going to be spent on this line, running to billions and billions, could be better diverted into our existing rail infrastructure.”

Footnote: The article names the following MPs as threatening to vote against HS2 as: Gary Streeter (Con, Devon South West), Adrian Sanders (Lib Dem, Torbay), Ben Bradshaw (Lab, Exeter), Andrew George (Lib Dem, St Ives), and Sheryll Murray (Con, South East Cornwall). The article also names three MPs who are “sympathetic” to the rebellion, but have not gone as far as to say they will vote against: Sir Nick Harvey (Lib Dem, North Devon), Geoffrey Cox (Con, Torridge and West Devon), and Stephen Gilbert (Lib Dem, St Austell and Newquay).

PS: A video of the Transport Committee evidence session is also available.

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One response to this post.

  1. We can have it both ways. Resources need to be diverted into restoration of the Cornwall link. Meanwhile, the government should pause to reconsider the alternatives to HS2. 2 well-researched alternatives have been published recently.
    Inter City Connect is a high speed route following M40, proposed by a consortium of rail companies. While it repeats some of the mistakes of HS2, it serves two useful functions: it highlights some of the fatal weaknesses of HS2 and it shows that substantial rail organisations are putting their efforts into finding a better plan than because they recognise that it’s a complete lemon. The IC Connect website does not appear to be accessible at the moment.
    High Speed UK is the other contender. It follows M1 (and eventually M6 into Birmingham) and connects approximately ten times as many places as HS2 with less cost. This is my preferred solution. See http://www.highspeedUK.com. I don’t like the name, almost as mundane as Intercity Connect. I suggested The Campaign for Real Rail. What do you think?

    Reply

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