Private fears in public places, part 1

I must confess that I am not a regular reader of Modern Railways magazine, a publication that styles itself as “essential reading for professionals in the railway industry as well as individuals with a general interest in the state and developments of the British railway network”: I am certainly not in the former category and, unless it serves my interest in debunking HS2, I’m not a keen member of the latter camp either. So I was grateful to be tipped off that there is an article in the June 2017 issue of this periodical that I might find of interest – and I did. This article is authored by the Industry and Technology Editor of the magazine, Roger Ford, and he uses it to disagree with some of the basic engineering choices that have been made by those responsible for defining how HS2 will be realised (see footnote 1).

Aside from a handful of notable exceptions (see footnote 2), members of the railway industry have been remarkably reticent about exposing deficiencies and defects in the HS2 proposition. I attribute this not to any lack in such shortcomings, but to a realisation that, despite HS2 being more of a political grand projet than a well-targeted and beneficial intervention in the UK railway network, it does represent £50bn plus, and probably plus plus, of railway investment that would be likely to evaporate should the project be cancelled. On top of this, it seems that the majority who earn their living from the railway industry are in thrall to HS2 Ltd in one way or another, either by direct employment or under direct or indirect contractual arrangements.

So I was quite surprised, albeit pleasantly so, by the extent of the criticisms levelled at the project in the article by someone who, as well as being an expert in the field, is also closely in touch with industry sympathies.

First off, the article made me painfully aware that I have not been keeping up with reading the unending reams of printed paper that HS2 Ltd and the Department for Transport (DfT) produce about the project – if railways were built on paper, then HS2 would have been operational years ago! I have learnt from Mr Ford that what I have been calling “classic-compatible” trains are now officially referred to as “conventional compatible very high speed trains”, which Mr Ford abbreviates to “CCVHST”. I have also learnt that the decision has been taken that all of the initial fleet of up to sixty train sets to be purchased for Phase 1 will be CCVHSTs” – I should have picked these points up when I looked at the Pre-Qualification Technical Summary in preparing Checking the shopping list (posted 23 May 2017), but I’m afraid that I skipped the relevant section in my haste to get to the nitty-gritty on noise.

In his article, Mr Ford takes some time out from his detailed technical analysis to undertake what he describes as a “slight digression” into philosophy. It is clear from this excursus that Mr Ford is as disappointed as I am with the quality and interpretation of the information that the promoters of HS2 have employed to justify the project and its engineering choices. He refers to a paper by philosopher Henry G Frankfurt, which debates the distinction between lying and “bullshitting” (see footnote 3). It is clear that Mr Ford does not want to go as far as accusing HS2 Ltd of lying, which Professor Frankfurt describes as stating something that one knows to be untrue in a conscious act of deception, but does regard some of the statements emanating from the Company as bullshitting, where the originator is unconcerned whether his statement is true, or not: a lie will always be a falsehood; bullshit may be true or false.

Whilst he recognises that it is generally regarded less of an affront to be accused of lying rather than of bullshitting, Professor Frankfurt appears to rate the latter as the greater sin. According to him, “it is impossible for someone to lie unless he thinks he knows the truth”, whereas the bullshitter “does not care whether the things he says describe reality correctly”.

My preference is to ignore, or more correctly circumvent, Professor Frankfurt’s philosophical distinction by describing output from HS2 Ltd and the DfT that appears to blur the distinction between truth and falsehood as “spin”, which the Oxford English Dictionary defines as “the presentation of information in a particular way; a slant, especially a favourable one”. My understanding of that simple definition is that it can encompass both lies and bullshit, and even a combination of the two.

In his article, Mr Ford debunks a particular example of DfT spin (or perhaps, he would say, bullshit), offered in response to suggestions that the planned HS2 maximum operating speed of 360km/h is unnecessarily high. He quotes the DfT’s response to this suggestion as:

“Reducing the maximum speed of trains from 360km/h to 320km/h would result in trains taking longer to complete their overall journey. This means that, unless we buy more train sets, we will not be able to run as many train services on HS2 and therefore capacity will be reduced.”

This unconventional use of the word “capacity” – a quality that most engineers would regard as determined by the infrastructure rather than the size of the fleet of trains – appears to be yet another bogus argument promulgated by the HS2 camp to associate higher speed with increased capacity, a matter that I recently addressed in my blogs Fess up failure fuss, part 1 (posted 27 May 2017) and Fess up failure fuss, part 2 (posted 31 May 2017).

In the second part of this blog series I will look at the technical arguments advanced by Mr Ford for requiring the CCVHST to employ tilting technology and for reducing the maximum operating speed.

(To be continued …)


  1. The article is HS2’s Conventional Compatible Conundrum, Modern Railways, pp 26-29 June 2017. Online access to this magazine is only available to subscribers, and articles are not freely available online. A summary of the contents of the article is available, however. Roger Ford trained as a mechanical engineer with a locomotive manufacturer and has been a writer, specialising in railways, for around forty years, whilst pursuing a parallel career as an independent railways consultant.
  2. Chris Stokes, Lord Berkeley and those promoting HSUK spring to mind.
  3. The paper is Frankfurt H G, On Bullshit, Raritan Quarterly Review, Volume 06 Number 2, autumn 1986. In his paper, Professor Frankfurt also offers the word “humbug” as a more gentile near-equivalent to bullshit.


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