Fess up failure fuss, part 1

On 17th November 2014 Sir David Higgins appeared before the House of Commons Transport Committee to give oral evidence at a session that was billed as an “HS2 update”. During that session he was asked by Committee Chair Mrs Louise Ellman whether he “still” thought that HS2 Ltd hasn’t “always been as clear as [it] ought to have been in setting out the strategic case for HS2”. His reply included the following (see footnote 1):

“I am not sure we were clear enough in the role that the new network provides capacity (sic). It is a bit of a circular discussion because a railway line where trains travel at 220 miles an hour as opposed to 120 miles an hour clearly has nearly twice the capacity because you can have twice as many trains on it.”

You might have thought that this was, indeed, “clearly” the case: it surely makes sense that if you can shift passengers down the same piece of track in half the time, then you can get twice as many of them down that track section in any given time period. Well, if you did think that, then you will have to go to the back of the class with Sir David. According to railways blogger Beleben, Sir David’s claim is “utter nonsense” (see footnote 2).

If capacity is determined as the maximum number of train paths that can be supported each hour, then it is governed solely by the minimum spacing between trains, in seconds, that safety considerations will permit. Since it takes longer to stop a train the faster it is travelling, the minimum safe spacing is, other things being equal, greater for high speed than conventional intercity trains and, accordingly, the capacity for train paths is reduced.

It is ironic, you might think, that in a reply addressing the clarity of HS2 Ltd’s case its Chairman should muddy the waters by advancing a technically flawed argument. Unfortunately, as Beleben comments in his/her blog, “no-one on the transport committee challenged him about it” and “the ‘technical’ railway press has never challenged or debunked the claim”.

Beleben first accused the HS2 Ltd Chairman of “talking nonsense” in a blog that was posted just a few days after Sir David’s appearance in front of the Transport Committee (see footnote 3), so why was the blogger rattling the same cage in a second blog posted some twenty-six months later? The reason, hinted at in a third blog in the sequence (see footnote 4) would appear to be Beleben’s frustration that HS2 Ltd appears to have no intention of putting the record straight. So this misinformation will remain in the public domain – and it was also trotted out by Sir David to the House of Lords Economic Affairs Committee (see footnote 5) and by the, then, Chief Executive of the Company, Simon Kirby, in a trade-press article (see footnote 6) – where it will have the potential to misinform decision makers and be quoted as “evidence” of the need for HS2 by politicians and those who have lobbied for it.

Beleben has not been alone in taking umbrage at this affront to the truth.

On 11th February 2015, Mr John Marriott submitted a freedom of information request for “any documentation or analyis (sic) which supports the statements made by Sir David Higgins” (see footnote 7). On 11th January 2016 – yes it really did take eleven months for HS2 Ltd to reply – Mr Marriott received a response that contains the interesting revelation that Sir David had been provided with a briefing note for his Transport Committee appearance that contains the statement “speed provides capacity” and the explanation “a 200mph train moves double the number of passengers a day than a 100mph train does”. Whilst, as Beleben has demonstrated, the former statement is untrue, there is, possibly, an element of truth in the second statement in that a high speed train will be able to complete more trips per day and, therefore, move more passengers that way, but Sir David’s interpretation of his brief, as he put it to the Committee, is clearly wrong in that a high speed railway will not support “twice as many trains” on the line at the same time.

Mr Marriott followed up with another request (FOI16-1473) seeking the names of the person who had written and authorised the issue of the briefing notes, but this request was turned down: the former was stated to be “not sufficiently senior or public facing in their roles” for their name to be disclosed, and the latter was information not held.

Mr Marriott has had one more try to seek satisfaction (FOI16-1487), but the response that he has received clearly indicates that he has entered a zone of rapidly diminishing returns.

(To be concluded …)


  1. See Q14 in the transcript Oral Evidence: HS2 update HC 793, House of Commons Transport Committee, Monday 17thNovember 2014.
  2. See the blog HS2 speed and capacity loss, Beleben website, 28thFebruary 2017.
  3. See the blog HS2 chairman: gain public confidence, by talking nonsense, Beleben website, 18thNovember 2014.
  4. See the blog Too much capacity and not enough capacity (at the same time), Beleben website, 29thMarch 2017.
  5. See entry Sir David Higgins under Q251 on page 532 of the volume The Economic Case for HS2 Oral and Written Evidence, House of Lords Economic Affairs Committee, 25thMarch 2015.
  6. See the section Why high? in the article Taking HS2 to completion, Rail Engineer, 29thApril 2016. Simon Kirby is quoted as claiming that at conventional speeds “we’d need a four track railway from Euston to Birmingham, not a two track one, because the speeds are slower and the capacity is less”.
  7. The request has been given the identity FOI15-1459 by HS2 Ltd.


2 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by John on May 27, 2017 at 10:30 am

    Surely TSC members should have the competence to challenge such statements.
    They obviously don’t.


    • That’s a reasonable expectation John, but sadly is also a justifiable conclusion.
      In the first place, the number of MPs in the last parliament who were qualified to at least first degree level in a science or technology subject appears to have been around 4 per cent; one listing that I have found (https://duncan.hull.name/2015/05/08/scientist-mps/amp) identifies 26 Members meeting this criterion.
      In the second place there are, it appears, no “entry requirements” to be satisfied to become a member of a select committee. A published parliamentary guide on select committees (http://www.parliament.uk/documents/commons-information-office/brief-guides/select-committees.pdf) describes the selection process for select committee members: basically, these are party nominees with the proviso that the parties “should arrange for their members of select committees to be elected within each party in a transparent and democratic way”.


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