Paxo stuffing, part 1

Another well-known voice joined the HS2 chorus of disapproval recently. The new recruit to the choir of critics is no other than Jeremy Paxman, scourge of hapless undergraduate and dissembling politician alike, and the organ that he chose to publish his heresy is the esteemed Financial Times (see footnote). In his trademark entertainingly deprecating style, “Paxo” misses no opportunity to force the sage and onion up the rear end of the HS2 chicken. He brands HS2 as “a grotesque waste of money”.

Much, if not all, of what Mr Paxman has to say repeats objections that have already been raised, many times in some cases: disbelief that the project will be achieved within the current projected cost; scepticism that it will make our country much more efficient; questioning of the burning need to decrease travel times in an IT age; the inconvenience resulting from the dislocation of HS2 and current stations; conviction that improving east-west, rather than north-south, rail links should have priority; the incompetence of UK transport planners; and, State tyranny to its citizens. Nevertheless, it is an excellent example of the wordsmith’s craft and an entertaining read, provided that you are not a fervent supporter of HS2 that is. One such fervent supporter – and who wouldn’t be for around £600k a year – is Sir David Higgins, Chairman of HS2 Ltd and it appears, to judge from his reaction, that he did not find Mr Paxman’s efforts at all amusing.

Mr Paxman is not the first high-profile public figure to make a public repudiation of the HS2 faith, nor will he be, I suspect, the last, so it is by no means clear why he should have been the trigger that prompted Sir David into responding. However, respond he did by rattling off a letter to the FT, and almost at the speed that his trains may one day achieve. His letter certainly has the look of something dictated in a hurry; it is by no means an attempt to match the elegance of Mr Paxman’s essay. As I sit here with a print of the letter in front of me, I can’t but be reminded of the trauma of submitting my English homework when I was at school, so many years ago. In my mind’s eye I can see a single word scrawled by my teacher in red ink at the foot of Sir David’s missive – “paragraphs?”. Indeed, Sir David’s letter resembles a stream of consciousness, rather than a structured thesis, with one unsupported assertion after another.

I really can’t let this letter go by unchallenged. So here goes.

Sir David says:

“Rail travel in this country has doubled in the past twenty years and is forecast to keep growing at five per cent minimum per year.”

I say:

I suggest that Sir David reads the excellent summary in Chapter 3, Demand and fares modelling, of the Lords Economic Affairs Committee (EAC) report The Economics of High Speed 2. He will find, in paragraph 84, the average annual predicted increase used for HS2 modelling, determined by HS2 Ltd from an individual analysis of demand for travel between pairings of 235 geographical zones, quoted as 2.2%. This is described by the EAC as “the forecast increase in long-term demand for rail travel without HS2 [which] supports the argument that extra railway capacity is needed”.

Since Sir David has failed to provide a source for his 5 per cent forecast, it is difficult to comment on its veracity. However, I suspect that he may have confused historic and predicted growth rates; the EAC report advises that “the average year-on-year growth rate from 1994 to 2012 for journeys on long-distance rail services was 4.9 per cent” (paragraph 91). The EAC report reproduces a graph, as Figure 3, which shows the year-on-year growth rate dropping from this historic level since 2011/12 to a low of around 1 per cent in 2013/14. However, paragraph 95 advises that the year-on-year annual growth rate had risen again to around 5 per cent by the third quarter of 2014/15, compared with the same quarter of 2013/14. This increase, according to the report, is attributed by the Office of Rail Regulation “primarily to higher sales of advance and off-peak ticket[s]”, which signifies, we are told, an “increase in the leisure travel segment, with people making the most of the travel incentives offered by the operators”.

However, the EAC also quotes, in paragraph 100, reasons given in an article in Modern Railways by Chris Stokes, former executive director at the Strategic Rail Authority and former deputy director for British Rail Network Southeast, why he does not expect these historically-high growth rates to be maintained. The report also discusses, in paragraphs 101 to 108, the impacts that “developments in technology and working practices” may have upon future demand growth. The EAC concludes, in paragraph 109, that:

“Partial information on current railway usage, as well as uncertainty about future technological developments in automotive transport and working habits, makes it difficult to assess the plausibility of the Department’s forecasts of future demand for long-distance rail travel.”

(To be continued …)

Footnote: The original Financial Times article is behind a paywall, but a free-access copy is available here. The Daily Telegraph obviously regards Mr Paxman’s comments as significant, as it reported them in a news article.

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