Paxo stuffing, part 3

(… continued from Paxo stuffing, part 2, posted on 15 Jun 2015).

As promised in part 2 of this blog series on the claims in Sir David Higgins’ recent letter to the Financial Times, I will concentrate in this part 3 on the second half of the third sentence of that letter that makes the assertion that incremental improvements in the rail network “will not deliver the step change in capacity that is needed”. This phrase contains the explicit claim that a single intervention that provides a step change in capacity is necessary, and the implicit contention that HS2 should be that intervention.

I say:

Like many other aspects of the case for HS2, the claim that only a step change will deliver the necessary capacity increase is not universally accepted. In paragraph 69 of its submission to the 2011 public consultation on HS2, the 51m consortium of local authorities outlines a method of incremental improvements to the existing network that 51m contends, in paragraph 68, “can deliver more than enough capacity to meet forecast demand” – in paragraph 70 the claim is made that “in the order of trebling capacity” could be achieved on the 2007/8 base demand. Also in paragraph 68, the submission identifies four reasons why an incremental approach is preferable to a step change intervention:

  • Implementing changes incrementally would allow an approach that could avoid “wasted investment if the massive demand increases forecast by HS2 do not materialise”.
  • The interventions proposed by 51m would, the submission claims, be “far cheaper than HS2”.
  • The 51m interventions “can be introduced much more quickly than HS2”, an important consideration if the capacity of the existing network is running out as fast as the Government claims.
  • The 51m interventions “are very low risk and are more likely to be commercially justified”.

I feel that the first of these is particularly important considering the view expressed in paragraph 109 of the Lords Economic Affairs Committee (EAC) report The Economics of High Speed 2 that it is “difficult to assess the plausibility of the [Transport] Department’s forecasts of future demand for long-distance rail travel”. More than a decade will have passed before any HS2 trains will have run commercially, and the predictions of passenger demand going forward from that date lie outside of the scope of reasonably accurate prognosis – nobody knows what the world may look like so far ahead.

In this scenario making a decision to go ahead with HS2 is rather like putting all your chips on one number on a single spin of the roulette wheel, and it’s one hell of a stake, the total bill predicted for HS2 being equivalent to a little more than the entire UK defence budget for one year.

And it’s not just a question of whether the Government should be gambling with taxpayers’ hard-earned in this way, but also whether the Department for Transport has chosen the right number on which to pile its chips, which leads me to the implicit contention in Sir David’s letter that HS2 is the right step change intervention.

I hope that you will agree with me that the analysis that I have presented in my blog series Degrading practices (part 1 was posted on 19 Mar 2015) demonstrates just how inefficiently HS2 Phase 1 addresses the capacity issue:

  • There is poor interconnectivity between HS2 and the existing network, a result mainly of the dearth of stations on the new railway and its use of a new route corridor that avoids population centres. This results in only 35% of current West Coast Main Line (WCML) passengers being offered the alternative of a captive or classic-compatible service by Phase 1 of HS2 (see part 4, posted 4 Apr 2015).
  • The poor interconnectivity also results in inefficient replacement of existing long-distance services by HS2 trains because there is still a need to serve intermediate stations on the WCML that are missed out by HS2. In Degrading Practices, part 8 (posted 16 Apr 2015) I cited the example of five peak-hour long-distance services (three on HS2 and two on WCML) being required to replace the current three serving the London-Birmingham route.
  • As it does not address the problem directly, HS2 is a very inefficient method of improving capacity on commuter services. As I point out in Degrading Practices, part 8 providing ten new peak-hour train paths by HS2 Phase 1 results, according to the indicative service plans that have been published, in only four additional commuter train paths.
  • Similarly, no additional freight paths are provided by HS2, since there are no plans, we have been told, for it to carry freight. The putative shortage in freight capacity can, therefore, only be addressed at the expense of passenger train paths.
  • The 51m consultation submission referred to above also makes one further claim relating to the inefficiency of the HS2 solution, this being that it “oversupplies capacity on one part of the network”. I make a similar claim in Degrading Practices, part 5 (posted 4 Apr 2015), identifying the London-Birmingham route as overprovisioned by HS2, and providing some rough calculations in support of this charge.

In Chapter 5 of its report, Alternatives to provide capacity, the EAC reviews the main alternatives to taking the HS2 course to increase capacity and the reasons that the Government has given for preferring HS2. The conclusion that the EAC reaches in the light of this review is damning:

“The Government has not made a convincing case that the number of seats provided by HS2 is required …” (paragraph 231).

(To be continued …)

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