So it’s not just me then, part 2

(… continued from So it’s not just me then, part 1, posted on 2 Oct 2014).

As one might expect from such a seasoned politician, the Member of Parliament for Birmingham Hodge Hill, the Rt Hon Liam Byrne, treated the Members of the HS2 Select Committee to an assured performance when he appeared before them on the morning of Wednesday 3rd September 2014. Mr Byrne was appearing as a witness for Friends Life Ltd and Axa Real Estate Investment Managers Ltd at the hearing of petition 0295 . This petition objects to the plans in the Phase 1 hybrid Bill to locate the rolling-stock maintenance depot for HS2 at Washwood Heath in Birmingham, which would entail the compulsory purchase of approximately 25ha of land intended for employment development that is currently owned by Friends Life and managed by Axa.

Mr Byrne is involved in this matter because Washwood Heath lies within his constituency, and, according to his evidence, “it’s in the middle of what is the worst unemployment black spot in the entire country” (paragraph 55 of the transcript). He explained to the Committee that since 2010, when the liquidation of LDV made the site occupied by the van builder available, he has been promoting the use of the Washwood Heath site for employment development, which he described as “the opportunity to create a fabulously connected site that could be home to 4,000 jobs” (paragraph 57). These plans had been stymied by the safeguarding of land for the HS2 depot. He credited this intervention by HS2 Ltd as one that would “destroy 1,300 jobs almost immediately”, because the HS2 plans require some businesses currently on the site to relocate out of Mr Byrne’s constituency. He characterised the HS2 project as offering, in return, “the promise of 650 jobs in a decade’s time, if we’re lucky” (paragraph 59).

To use a phrase that appears to be in vogue at the moment, Friends Life and Axa appear to have gotten all of their ducks in a row in promoting their petition. The case they were making was supported by detailed written evidence identifying two alternative sites where the maintenance depot could be located rather than Washwood Heath, and they put up three experts to give oral evidence to the Select Committee: one on rail operational issues, another on the economic and job consequences, and a third on the planning and the market for the site and the planning ability to assemble the site. This evidence included support for their claim that there were substantial capital savings, perhaps in excess of £100million, to be gained from moving away from Washwood Heath (paragraph 226).

It was clear that Mr Byrne felt that HS2 Ltd had not given the alternative proposals suggested by Friends Life and Axa sufficient consideration; he expressed his frustration with the Company’s “refusal to go into any kind of detail around alternatives” (paragraph 106). In fact, it appeared that Mr Byrne felt that HS2 Ltd was closing its corporate mind to the possibility that someone else could have come up with a better way of doing things. He accused the Company of having “locked itself into a position which, foolishly, it’s trying to defend, rather than thinking constructively about different options …” (paragraph 107).

Confirmation of the reluctance of the HS2 Ltd corporate juggernaut to change course was amply provided on the day that followed Mr Byrne’s appearance, when Timothy Smart, International Director for High Speed Rail at CH2M Hill, but seconded to HS2 Ltd as head of engineering and operations, gave evidence against the petition. During his examination-in-chief he gave examples of operational inefficiencies that would result if the location of the maintenance depot was changed. It was suggested to him in cross-examination that the inefficiency of having to run trains to and from northern destinations into Curzon Street before they could access the depot would be avoided if one of the alternative sites was used and HS2 Ltd were to “alter the timetable”. Mr Smart almost seemed incredulous at the very suggestion, saying that it was “not the basis of the timetable” (paragraph 308 of the transcript). He added, should further proof of the corporate intransigence be required (paragraph 310):

“… yes, if you were going to change the whole circulation and the whole way that High Speed 2 operates as a train service, then clearly you would be able to look at other depots, but we are looking at the circulation plan which achieves the requirements that we are trying to achieve.”

The reaction of Mr Smart’s inquisitor, David Elvin QC, to this was to put it to Mr Smart that his answer resulted from the adoption “for several years” by HS2 Ltd of Washwood Heath as “preferred depot” and that, consequently, HS2 Ltd had “designed [its] timetable around” this assumption (paragraph 311).

In my view, both Mr Byrne’s and Mr Elvin’s observations prompt the question of why HS2 Ltd should, apparently, be so unwilling to consider suggestions for improving HS2. In the past I felt that much of this could well be down to the need to get a design, no matter how suboptimal (to use the word coined by Sir David Higgins about the HS2-HS1 link), into the hybrid Bill within a very demanding timescale. However, that was achieved, and now surely there is time for more measured reflection on how things could be changed for the better whilst there is still time. I can only think that the apparent continuing reluctance to do this is due, in some part, to corporate arrogance and an entrenched “not invented here” syndrome.

(To be concluded …)

Important Note: The account of the proceedings of the HS2 Select Committee that is given in this blog is based upon uncorrected transcripts of evidence, which are not yet an approved formal record of the proceedings of the HS2 Select Committee. Neither witnesses nor Members have had the opportunity to correct the record, and it may therefore be subject to changes being made in the light of any such corrections being requested.


10 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by aboodoo on October 6, 2014 at 9:55 am

    This mirrors, in some way, the conversations I’ve had with Andrew McNaughton and various supporters of the project (including many within the industry and Professional Institutes) who are so enthralled by the additional capacity HS2 will generate that they’re blinded to:

    a. the fact this won’t relieve some major bottlenecks along the route (for example in Leeds, where the HS2 station has no northward connection, meaning Leeds-York gets no capacity enhancement, and Leeds-North East no additional trains. You can repeat this for other locations)

    b. the fact terminal stations are inefficient in terms of the service pattern, where we can see great expense being put into turning terminal stations into through ones elsewhere

    c. the fact out of town stations have economic consequences for cities which used to have direct city centre access, and there are wider transport disbenefits to moving to Parkway stations (including, according to research from Korea, somewhat lower ridership…)

    d. the fact railway capacity is a slippery beast at best – I demonstrated that the WCML could actually carry the additional forecast demand for which HS2 was apparently the only option

    e. that HS2 have been blind to, or actively discouraging other solutions (for example quadrupling Rugby-Birmingham-Stafford was priced at £300 million during WCRM, so how come it would cost £5 billion now?)

    etc. I’m becoming increasingly convinced that there is a future need for a high speed railway, but HS2 is not what we need, and it’s important for us to go back to the drawing board and first define what we need as a nation in order to guide design (I was trying to persuade Natalie Bennett of this last week, and I think we’re on the same page here)


  2. Posted by Les Fawcett on October 6, 2014 at 1:24 pm

    HS2 Ltd’s intransigence over their poor plan for Washwood Heath is typical of their siege mentality; they know they’ve got it horribly wrong but they can’t afford to admit it.
    Their recent change of route around Fradley from flyover to tunnel is encouraging; only another 200 miles or so needs realignment for HS2 to make sense.
    New tracks northwards from London will most likely be needed and it isn’t difficult to justify them being high speed. Following M1 to the north with a branch to the west midlands will put the train maintenance depot near a triangular junction near Rugby where the expertise is already there.
    Aboodoo contradicts himself. He’s “demonstrated that the WCML could actually carry the additional forecast demand for which HS2 was apparently the only option” while he’s “convinced there’s a future need for a high speed railway”. Perhaps he has, like others, forgotten the need for increased freight paths while imagining more and more passenger trains crammed onto the tracks. It’s just possible that the inexorable rise in passenger numbers will stop, but common sense dictates that we have to plan ahead for the more likely scenario where demand outstrips the capacity of a network half the size it was.
    4-tracking Coventry-Wolverhampton was priced at £1.2bn some years ago so the £300m figure must be for something else. 4-tracking can be carried out incrementally as demand increases. Centro propose doing B International to Stechford first as that’s the most congested part.
    The Green Party have a key role to play in bouncing the major parties out of their acquiesence to DfT’s manipulation.


    • Whilst you may not be totally in agreement about the “capacity crunch” scenario Les and Anzir, I think that we three would concur that HS2 is a thoroughly ill-conceived scheme. What we have been witnessing is four years and what most be close to £1bn by now totally wasted. I ask myself how this could possibly be happening. My pet theories are:
      One – that the railway fraternity realise that it is a poor plan, but dare not challenge it in the fear that if it is cancelled no new north-south railway will come forward to replace it. Basically they think that a bad scheme is better than no scheme.
      Two – the construction and train manufacturing industries just want the work prospects that HS2 will offer and don’t care whether the scheme is sound or not. They are a powerful lobby.
      Three – the front bench politicians just want to be seen to be doing something to improve our infrastructure and don’t particularly care about the merits of the project. David Cameron, despite all the evidence to the contrary, still seems to think that HS2 is a good idea and, I have been told, will brook no criticism of the project. On the Labour side, it would appear that Ed Balls has his doubts on cost grounds but that the powerful triumvirate of Lord Adonis, Sir Richard Leese and Sir Albert Bore holds sway with Ed Miliband on the matter.
      Four – the majority of backbench MPs are not that bothered about HS2 and don’t understand the issues. They blindly vote with the whip. If they do venture an opinion on HS2 they are happy to stick to the briefing notes provided by their party machines.
      Five – in general the British public is not too enthusiastic about HS2. However, apart from those directly affected, it is not too high up on the list of issues that will affect the way that people vote. So the only politicians that need to listen to the vox populi are those representing constituencies through which HS2 would pass.
      By the way Les, I like your comment that all that HS2 needs to make sense is the realignment of “200 miles or so”.


    • Posted by aboodoo on October 8, 2014 at 10:07 am

      Sorry, I didn’t really explain that very well. The HS2 Command Paper didn’t really say much on freight demand (which is really difficult to predict), but certainly all the envisaged passenger demand on the WCML can be accommodated by going to 14 coach trains and longer platforms (14 would be the limit for platform extensions at many stations, although Liverpool Lime Street can only take 11 at most)

      The reasons why I believe (and I say “believe” as it’s difficult to justify, and with a Research Masters thesis on passenger rail demand modelling and a post-doctoral post on rail capacity allocation I *hope* I know what I’m talking about, even though I’m not the best person in the world at explaining things) a new N-S high speed rail line may be required are partly to do with freight, but also to do with the development of local rail services in the major conurbations. However, we come to an issue of integration and the serving of central city stations, where I believe the German approach of quad tracking, junction improvements and the rerouting of local services into tunnels to free capacity at existing city stations is far superior to the thinking in the UK.

      On the industry’s general response, yes, I think enthusiasm for more capacity has blinded many people to the fact that capacity isn’t necessarily the right one. I could say more but have to dash off to a meeting


      • Posted by Les Fawcett on October 8, 2014 at 3:25 pm

        Thanks Peter and Abadoo for your explanations. I’d be delighted if we can solve all our capacity problems by extending trains to 14 cars though I remain unconvinced that it can be done. Coventry station, for example, is trapped between the Bedworth and Leamington junctions so there’s no room to extend the plats to 14 cars. I acknowledge Abadoo’s railway pedigree; I left the railway industry in 1963 so what do I know about it? Peter, can you put us in touch so we may discuss directly? You have my email address.

      • I have e-mailed Anzir your address Les.

  3. Posted by chriseaglen on October 6, 2014 at 6:49 pm

    The Calvert IMD is another example of a narrow optioneering process.
    There are three options one for each route option and no interest.

    Poor design planning is the hall mark of HS2 Phase 1 Route 3 ad curtailments.

    It is now a closed project with no external interests for reversals.

    The PM and Chancellor are locked into the international perception syndrome of the growing success of the united UK economy. They are in to corners and not coming out.

    You have to keep petitioning simply to obtain the time before Royal Assent for this poor plan.


  4. Posted by chriseaglen on October 8, 2014 at 8:27 pm

    In general the British public is not too enthusiastic about HS2. However, apart from those directly affected, it is not too high up on the list of issues that will affect the way that people vote. So the only politicians that need to listen to the vox populi are those representing constituencies through which HS2 would pass.

    This is poor presentation to the British public as it is opting for second best not the Best of British which is part of the lack of vigour in getting the wastefulness to the wider audience. Group think is part of the issue with the politicians. The rest is vested and sector interests. Better branch out to wider communicating ahead of 2015 election. Farage did this with the single issue of Europe you can do the same or others on your behalf can is you can frame the issue to attract the wider British public.


  5. Posted by chriseaglen on October 15, 2014 at 8:12 pm

    Suggest people listen to the House of Lords sceptic approaches. The Select Committee is dragging too many people into an inevitable funnel. Time to move back to the wider unconvinced situations. HS2 pulled several fast ones and time to extract the lessons from the House of Lords first day of evidence. Much more likely to change the headlong dive into implementation of the wrong project.


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