Author Archive

A stab in the dark, part 1

One of the few benefits that I have gained from my own personal Don Quixote crusade against HS2 is that it has got me back into the learning process in a big way. Virtually every day, it seems, I have delved into some new facet of one of the disciplines touched by the project, and have boldly – or perhaps foolishly – sallied into intellectual territory new to me. Of course, it is so easy to do this today, with the internet holding a library of information of truly global proportions, and with that miracle of cyber technology, the search engine, affording instant access to even the most esoteric recesses of human intellectual endeavour.

But I’m afraid that, as I am prone to, I am digressing: the point I am meandering towards is that a new snippet of information that came my way recently in the course of my researches is that Staffordshire was once a centre of salt production. Whilst the salt extraction industry in Staffordshire never approached anything like the scale of its neighbour Cheshire’s level of production, it made, nevertheless, an important contribution to the County’s economy from its beginnings in the 17th century up to as recently as August 1970, when all industrial production of salt ceased.

The industry has left its mark in some of the place names of the County: there is even a village called Salt, and other names including the word can be found, such as Salt Brook, Saltwell, Salterford and Salter’s Bridge. As is the case in Cheshire, the termination “wich” can also indicate places associated with the salt industry.

In Staffordshire salt was obtained by the open-pan evaporation of brine taken from below ground, a process that is facilitated by naturally-occurring underground brine streams. These streams serve to erode the deposits of salt, leading to geological instability, and also break through to the surface in places as salt springs, leading to the formation of the rare inland salt marsh habitat. Unsurprisingly, this habitat supports salt-tolerant, or halophyte, plants, which form an exceptionally specialised group containing, perhaps, around 2 per cent of all plant species. In the United Kingdom the conditions that lead to the formation of inland salt marsh are confined to the salt-producing counties of Cheshire, Staffordshire and Worcestershire. Salt extraction and land reclamation have degraded and reduced the amount of this habitat over recent centuries, although the activities of the salt industry have also resulted in the creation of similar conditions around old brine pits and workings. The rarity of natural inland salt marsh has resulted in it being listed as a priority habitat in Annex 1 to Directive 92/43/EEC of the EU Council (see footnote 1).

According to the Joint Nature Conservation Council “Pasturefields Salt Marsh in the West Midlands is the only known remaining example in the UK of a natural salt spring with inland saltmarsh vegetation” (see footnote 2). For this reason this site, which lies about 5 miles north east of Stafford, has been granted Special Area of Conservation (SAC) status (see footnote 3).

Inconveniently for HS2 Ltd, Pasturefields occupies an area that is sandwiched between the River Trent and the Trent and Mersey Canal: it is inconvenient because, what HS2 Ltd clearly regards as the optimum route for its link up to Crewe, broadly following the valley of the River Trent as it passes to the east of Stafford, whilst not actually impinging directly upon the above-ground extent of the nature reserve, does pass close enough to ring alarm bells about possible, or even likely, impacts upon the hydrogeology. Any such changes in hydrogeology caused by HS2 may consequently directly impact upon the nature reserve by affecting the flow of brine.

Unlike other areas of important habitat along the route of HS2, the protection offered to Pasturefields by Directive 92/43/EEC and the UK’s commitments to the Natura 2000 network means that HS2 Ltd cannot blithely ignore any damage that its project may cause to the SAC. Indeed, the organisation’s response has been at the highest level of the mitigation hierarchy, opting to “avoid” the damage by realigning the route approximately one and three-quarter kilometres southwards, at considerable additional cost (see footnote 4).

You probably think that I should be overjoyed at this apparent victory for environmental protection legislation. Well I would be, but I’m not sure that the HS2 Ltd has demonstrated to any reasonable degree of doubt that this realignment really will avoid any impacts on the SAC, and am suspicious that project expediency has been the driver of the solution that has been proposed, rather than sound science.

In the remaining parts of this blog series I will explain why I think this.

(To be continued …)

Footnotes:

  1. In Annex 1 the habitat type is identified as “Continental salt meadows”, with the Corine code 15.14, on page L 206/16 of Council Directive 92/43/EEC of 21 May 1992 on the conservation of natural habitats and of wild fauna and flora, Official Journal of the European Communities.
  2. See the webpage for this site on the Joint Nature Conservation Council website. There is, in fact, another remnant of spring-fed salt marsh just south of Pasturefields, but this has only been afforded Local Wildlife Site (LWS) status.
  3. A Special Area of Conservation (SAC) is an area of habitat of a type listed in Annex 1 to Directive 92/43/EEC that is proposed by an EU Member State as a component site of the European ecological network known as Natura 2000, as required by the provisions of Article 4 of that Directive. A SAC that is an area of priority habitat is afforded protection from damage from development, except in the very exceptional circumstances permitted by Article 6(4), which requires that:
    “Where the site concerned hosts a priority natural habitat type and/or a priority species, the only considerations which may be raised are those relating to human health or public safety, to beneficial consequences of primary importance for the environment or, further to an opinion from the Commission, to other imperative reasons of overriding public interest.”
  4. The additional cost of the more southerly route is quoted by Jeremy Lefroy, the local MP, at £154million on page 9 of the document High Speed Rail 2 (Phase Two) Response to the Phase Two Route Consultation, Jeremy Lefroy MP, January 2014. However, Appendix A to that document, which is a paper presented on behalf of Ingestre with Tixall Parish Council, describes this figure, on page 22, as “almost certainly an underestimate”.

 

Private fears in public places, part 3

(… continued from Private fears in public places, part 2, posted on 16 Jun 2017).

In his Modern Railways article HS2’s Conventional Compatible Conundrum the magazine’s Industry and Technology Editor, Roger Ford, quotes in full a response provided by Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon, Parliamentary Under-Secretary at the Department for Transport (DfT), to a written answer tabled by the “indefatigable” Lord Berkeley (see footnote 1). Although the response is rather long, I shall follow Mr Ford’s example in quoting it in full, and also include the original question for good measure.

Lord Berkeley (Labour): To ask Her Majesty’s Government, further to the Written Answer by Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon on 9 March (HL5562), what assessment they have made of advice from SNCF quoted in the March edition of Railway Gazette International that operating above 320 km/h incurs significantly higher track maintenance costs.

Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon: HS2 Ltd has collaborated with several high speed rail Infrastructure Managers, including SNCF, to ascertain the implications of running trains at 360km/h.

Using recommendations based on experiences of managing High Speed Lines in Europe, HS2 Ltd intends to incorporate specific components in the track design which will improve the system performance whilst utilising an Infrastructure Management System that determines asset performance and condition at all times.

The combination of these factors and the use of innovative maintenance activities, that go beyond current best practice, should reduce the maintenance implications of running at these speeds.

Mr Ford’s reactions to this apparent show of characteristic DfT hubris is to remark, with obvious irony, that “HS2 is going to show SNCF how high-speed infrastructure should be built and maintained”. He also picks up on the reference to “good old innovation”, which he describes as “the last refuge of a bullshitter”.

He also points out that the “the pre-qualification technical summary for the new fleet … notes that the anticipated maximum speed (360km/h) exceeds the technical scope of the relevant locomotives and passenger rolling stock (LOC&PAS) Technical Specification for Interoperability, which is 350km/h” (see footnote 2). This means, Mr Ford tells us that “TSI-compliant equipment will not meet the HS2 specification” and he foresees potential difficult contract negotiations resulting.

The reference to higher energy costs in the SNCF comment about the disadvantages of operating at the higher speed of 360km/h that I quoted in part 2 is also picked up by Mr Ford. He points out that “running at 360km/h rather than 300km/h increases power consumption of a 200m-long train by around 3 Mega-Watts, or 70%”. A fairer comparison, since the journey time is less at the higher speed, is provided by a table that compares the energy required to travel 100 km at different speeds (see footnote 3), but even this shows that 38 per cent more energy is required at 360km/h than at 300km/h.

Mr Ford accuses the DfT of avoiding this issue of increased energy costs in the written answer that I quoted at the head of this posting: that’s a bit unfair since Lord Berkeley asked about track maintenance, not energy, costs, but I would agree with Mr Ford that energy consumption is an issue that the DfT/HS2 Ltd has signally failed to address, in general.

Mr Ford describes the rigid adherence to 360km/h by DfT/HS2 ltd as “a shibboleth rather than a rational technical and commercial choice” (see footnote 4) and I feel that there is an element of that, particularly amongst senior technical personnel, who appear to want to hold on to the accolade of building the fastest railway in Europe. I also feel, however, that another written answer that he quotes in his article reveals perhaps the strongest motiving factor which is that any savings to be made from lowering the maximum linespeed “are more than offset by the significant loss in revenue and user benefits” (see footnote 5). It seems that even a modest loss in user benefits will be significant, since the business case is so highly geared to the value of passenger time savings.

One other issue that Mr Ford crams into his article is the requirement that HS2 conventional compatible very high speed trains (“CCVHSTs”) should fit within the classic UK loading gauge, rather than the larger GC gauge. He opines that “putting the traction power needed for 360km/h into the national network loading gauge is going to be a mite difficult” (see footnote 6).

I must say that after reading Mr Ford’s article it is clear to me that two simple steps could allow a whole cart-load of cash to be saved. Firstly, drop the linespeed to 320km/h, as he suggests, and secondly make the decision only to buy CCVHSTs for HS2 an all-time one. Since we are leaving the European Union anyway, why be shackled by European standards for our national infrastructure? Just think how much money could be saved by dropping the requirement for HS2 to be engineered to GC gauge.

Good eh? But then those clever chaps behind HSUK have already thought of both of those wheezes (see footnote 7).

All in all, I think that Mr Ford has produced a terrific article, and we are promised more of the same next month. I can’t wait – it might even be worth splashing out on a copy of the magazine.

Footnotes:

  1. See House of Lords Department for Transport written question HL6073, answered on 23rdMarch 2017.
  2. See Section 6.2 in document reference HS2-HS2-RR-SPE-00000006, Pre-Qualification Technical Summary, HS2 Ltd, 21stApril 2017.
  3. See Table 2 on page 10 of the report Carbon Impacts of HS2: Factors affecting carbon impacts of HSR, Systra for Greengauge21, 28thNovember 2011.
  4. A shibboleth is defined in the Oxford English Dictionary as “a custom, principle, or belief distinguishing a particular class or group of people, especially a long-standing one regarded as outmoded or no longer important”.
  5. See House of Lords Department for Transport written question HL5185, answered on 14thFebruary 2017.
  6. I reported another problem associated with CCVHST design, low-noise pantograph realisation, in my blog Checking the shopping list (posted 23 May 2017).
  7. At least I think that a reduced linespeed is proposed, but I haven’t been able to find confirmation of this in the HSUK promotional material.

 

Private fears in public places, part 2

(… continued from Private fears in public places, part 1, posted on 8 Jun 2017).

When, in 2002, Virgin Trains introduced the Class 390 “Pendolino” trains into service on the West Coast Main Line (WCML), the tilting technology allowed the general speed limit to be increased from 110mph to 125mph, thereby reducing journey times. In his Modern Railways article HS2’s Conventional Compatible Conundrum the magazine’s Industry and Technology Editor, Roger Ford, observes that at the completion of Phase 2a 70 per cent of HS2 services from Euston will still employ the legacy network “to reach Stafford, Liverpool, Manchester, Preston, Glasgow and other destinations”. If current thinking prevails, and HS2 conventional compatible very high speed trains (“CCVHSTs”) do not employ tilting technology, then sectors of HS2 journeys on the legacy network will be subject to the 110mph maximum and take longer than they do now, thereby offsetting some of the gains made from the sectors run on the new high-speed tracks. Mr Ford recalls that “back in 2012” it had been estimated by HS2 Ltd that “the absence of tilt would cost 11 minutes on London-Glasgow timings”.

However, as is true for many choices that we have to make in life, it is not quite that simple. The ability to tilt when negotiating curves adds weight and complexity to rolling stock, and HS2 Ltd has assumed that a CCVHST incorporating tilt technology would be limited to a maximum speed on the high-speed track of 300km/h rather than 360km/h expected if the capacity to tilt is not accommodated. So journeys on the high-speed sector would, in fact, take longer for tilting trains, offsetting gains to be made on the legacy network. To add to this there is a problem foreseen when, and if, captive high-speed trains are introduced onto HS2, in that running trains with different maximum speed capabilities on the same track can reduce capacity. This is because a faster train following a slower one will need to maintain the safe operating distance throughout its time on the high-speed track, necessitating either increasing the spacing between train paths, or leaving unused train paths to act as buffers; either way capacity is reduced.

HS2 Ltd has also advised that it is envisaged that a number of (unidentified) minor linespeed improvements will be made to the northern WCML, allowing non-tilting train journey times to be reduced; these improvements are not regarded by HS2 Ltd as bringing any journey time improvements for tilting trains. It also appears that no account has been taken of the possibility, through implementing in-cab signalling, of increasing the maximum linespeed for tilting trains to 140mph; an improvement that Virgin Trains has been lobbying for.

These appear to show that, on journeys north from Euston, there would be no overall journey time gains from employing tilting technology. It is clear that Mr Ford is sceptical about this evidence (see footnote 1), although he is not very expansive in explaining his reasons why.

With the travel time information that the Government has provided for a tilting train running at 300km/h on the HS2 track in mind, Mr Ford extends his analysis into a consideration of the advantages that might be gained by reducing the maximum operating speed for HS2 from 360km/h to 320km/h. He notes that when Phase 2a is operational the journey time estimate from Euston to Crewe is six minutes less at 360km/h (non-tilt) than 300km/h (tilt), and estimates that this difference would be about five minutes on that one-hour journey with a maximum operating speed of 320km/h.

Mr Ford gives the following examples from around the world where, despite having the capability to operate at 350km/h, railway administrations have chosen to run at 320km/h or lower speeds:

  • French Railways’ LGV Sud Europe Atlantique has a design speed of 350km/h, but trains will run at a maximum 320km/h
  • Despite trials demonstrating that it is technically feasible to operate the Hitachi ETR400 trains supplied for the Italian high-speed railway at up to 350km/h the services will be limited to a ceiling of 320km/h in service
  • Whilst trains on the Wuhan-Guangzhou route in China ran up to 350km/h when the service began, the maximum speed has subsequently been reduced to around 310km/h

Mr Ford quotes that France’s SNCF made their decision because operating at the higher speed “would raise fares sharply for a marginal gain in time, everything from maintenance to energy costs would have risen exponentially, which simply wasn’t worth it”.

(To be concluded …)

Footnote: He precedes this section of his article with the digression on Professor Frankfurt’s paper On Bullshit that I refer to in part 1, in order “to put what follows in context”.

Whoops!

One trait that I have developed as the result of my bitter experience of the HS2 project is distrust, contempt and, yes, even hatred of politicians and the system that they employ to screw us, so I can’t begin to express my joy at the total omnishambles that we have all witnessed following the 2017 General Election polling day. The outcome of a process that I had previous characterised as an “unwanted and unwarranted distraction” (see footnote 1) has left bodies strew all over the battlefield and has resulted, in my view, in every political party, save for two in Northern Ireland and the Scottish branches of the two main national parties, finding themselves with little to celebrate.

I feel that our Prime Minister, for now, fully deserves the copious layer of egg that is adhering to her visage for perverting the clear intention of the Fixed-term Parliaments Act 2011 (see footnote 2) and for taking us mugs so much for granted. Her punishment is severe: her credibility is shot, her future is uncertain, to say the least, she is stuck with Philip Hammond and she finds herself in thrall to the Democratic Unionist Party. For the Conservative Party it is the last of these that is likely to be most significant – although the Tories have retained “and Unionist” in their full party title, I doubt that the regressive, homophobic and misogynistic tendencies of the party that was the creation of Protestant fundamentalist leader Ian Paisley will chime very well with more forward-looking politicians in the Conservative Party (particularly the gay ones), and I don’t foresee a very happy marriage. I expect, however, that, for as long the two parties can tolerate each other, Northern Ireland issues will gain prominence in government thinking and that there will be an early announcement that HS2 is to be extended to Belfast.

For MPs packing their satchels for the new term at Hogwarts Westminster the distribution of seats between the parties is likely to result in unwelcome restraints being placed upon their freedom to roam, as the Whips are likely to require their charges to be ever-present in the precincts of the Palace of Westminster and available to take part in divisions, unless pairing arrangements are reintroduced. Also leave of absence for those much-coveted overseas “fact-finding missions” is likely to be hard to obtain. We should expect to see ambulances parked in New Palace Yard, bringing hardly-breathing Members to make up the numbers and vote, perhaps, for a final time, with death being the only possible excuse for missing a division.

The Labour Party must, of course, share in the blame for the election being held as, without their votes, the Prime Minister could not have obtained the consent of two-thirds of the whole House necessary to carry the motion that a general election be held. I have never understood why Labour MPs went along with this; surely there couldn’t have been a man jack of them at the time who thought that they could win a general election. I guess that it might have been seen as “running scared” if they hadn’t have picked up the gauntlet that Theresa May had thrown down, but it was as sure an example of turkeys voting for Christmas as I have ever seen.

As it turned out, a fortunate Labour Party was blessed with the gift of a totally-incompetent Tory election campaign, the ability to write a very seductive manifesto safe in the knowledge that they were never going to have to deliver on its promises, and having a leader from the old school of socialist politics who, in contrast to the underwhelming campaign performance of Mrs May (see footnote 3), can more than hold his own on the stump. The result was that they did much better than most expected, and the relief in party circles was so great that they appear to be treating the outcome as something of a victory.

However, this “victory” has to be put into perspective. After the 2017 election Labour holds 262 seats, four more than they managed to win at the 2010 general election – a result in 2010 that was seen as a failure then and led, ultimately, to the Leader of the Party standing down. Sadly for the Labour Party, the 2017 result will actually serve to strengthen the position of the current parliamentary party leadership, boost the strength of the left-wing faction in the grassroots and prolong the current situation of the Labour Party being widely viewed as unelectable (see footnote 4). Paradoxically, a really bad performance by Labour might have been the better outcome for the long term, allowing a much-needed cleansing of the Augean Stables to take place.

Whilst the Liberal Democrats improved their occupation of the Commons benches by two, surely many fewer than they were hoping for, their share of the vote actually dropped slightly, they lost a former leader and the present one only just held on with his majority slashed from 8,000 plus to 777. The Party remains, at 12 seats, a long way from the heady heights of the 57 seats secured at the 2010 general election.

As all three of the above parties have been enthusiastic supporters of HS2, I revel in their misfortune and rejoice at the collective good sense of my fellow electors in bringing all of this hardship down on their heads.

Another party that notionally supports HS2, on the probably mistaken assumption that high-speed tracks will reach Scotland one day, is the Scottish National Party (SNP). Although, the party won 35 Westminster seats, the second-highest number in its 80-year history, this was well down on the 56 seats that it held in the last Parliament, resulting in a few tears being shed on election night. Perhaps of more concern for supporters was that the SNP share of the vote fell from 50 per cent in 2015 to 37 per cent and they lost two of their big hitters in Alex Salmond and Angus Robertson – I shall miss Mr Robertson’s ability to rattle Theresa May at PMQs.

The two parties that oppose HS2, UKIP and The Green Party, did not have a good night at all. UKIP’s downward spiral into extinction continued: its share of the vote fell off a cliff from 12.6 per cent in 2015 to 1.8 per cent and its leader has resigned in the wake of this debacle. The Green’s share of the vote more than halved from 2015 (3.7 per cent down to 1.6 per cent), but a very impressive, trend-bucking performance by co-leader Caroline Lucas saw them hold onto their one Commons seat (see footnote 5).

Whilst the continued opposition of these two parties to HS2 is appreciated, I don’t think that the combined Commons forces that they can muster, at one MP, is going to hinder the future progress of HS2 through Parliament, even when that single Member is the formidable Ms Lucas.

Whilst I am on the topic of Commons opponents of HS2, I must record my regret that the representative in the 2015-17 Parliament for the constituency that borders on mine, Warwick and Leamington, lost his seat. Chris White consistently used his vote to oppose the passage of HS2 Phase 1 through the Commons and I am very grateful to him for that. My own MP, Jeremy Wright, who equally consistently failed to take part in HS2 divisions, increased his share of the vote by a couple of percentage points but suffered a reduction of 40 per cent in his majority.

I am also pleased to note that Members who have spoken out against HS2 in the Commons have been returned, notably Cheryl Gillan, Sir William Cash, Michael Fabricant, Jeremy Lefroy and Chris Pincher.

Footnotes:

  1. See my blog Fess up failure fuss, part 2 (posted 31 May 2017).
  2. In moving the Second Reading of the Bill in the House of Commons, the deputy Prime Minister claimed that “The Bill has a single, clear purpose: to introduce fixed-term Parliaments to the United Kingdom to remove the right of a Prime Minister to seek the Dissolution of Parliament for pure political gain” – see Column 621 in House of Commons Hansard for Monday 13thSeptember 2010.
  3. Although she has regularly trounced an apparently hapless Leader of the Opposition at PMQs.
  4. Whether this is a true reflection of the abilities of the Labour front bench is immaterial, as it appears to be the widely-held view of the electorate, fuelled by media that is mostly hostile.
  5. Ms Lucas won 30,139 votes – almost twice as many as second-place Labour – and almost doubled her majority from 7,967 to 14,689. Her share of the vote increased by 10.4 per cent.

 

 

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 …)

Footnotes:

  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.

 

Second class post

In my blog He came forth and saw a great multitude, part 1 (posted 20 Mar 2017) I report that a letter from the Chairman of the House of Commons Treasury Select Committee had, apparently, not been answered by the Secretary of State of State for Transport. In my blog He came forth and saw a great multitude, part 2 (posted 24 Mar 2017) I present my take on observations made in the Chairman’s letter about a recalculation of the business case for HS2 that was published towards the end of last year, and express the hope that the Department for Transport (DfT) would provide some much needed clarification of what I describe as an “apparently confused situation”.

Thanks to a comment on part 2 that was subsequently posted by “john” – thanks john – I have now been able to access to the letter that the Transport Secretary sent in reply. This letter is dated “23 Jan” and, as is normal for Whitehall correspondence, this date has been added in manuscript by the Secretary of State when he signed the letter. Despite this date of signing, it was not put before the public eye until 24th April 2017, when it was posted on the Treasury Committee’s website. As far as I am aware, no explanation has been provided for this two-month intervening period. I think it is unlikely that we can blame postal delays, so either the DfT held back the letter after it had been signed by the Minister, or the Transport Select Committee were tardy in publishing it – we will probably never know.

Whilst it may have been long-awaited – at least by me – I have to confess a feeling of anticlimax now that I have read the Transport Secretary’s letter. In all honesty, I don’t think that the contents of the letter, and the annex that provides more detail, have added much to my sum of knowledge regarding this matter. Far more helpful has been that I have, at last, been able to access an e-published copy of the document Summary of Key Changes to the Economic Case Since 2015. As I explained in He came forth and saw a great multitude, part 2, I was unable to locate a copy when I authored that blog in March this year (see footnote 1). When, at the end of May, I repeated the Google search for this document in preparation for this current blog, it comes up at the very top of the list, and the published date, according to the portal website was 15th November 2016! Notwithstanding this little mystery, I am grateful to have been able to read it now, although it would have been helpful to have done so when I was preparing He came forth and saw a great multitude.

In his January 2017 letter to the Transport Secretary, the Treasury Committee Chairman observes that without the latest update in passenger demand predictions the benefit-cost ratio (BCR) would have fallen dramatically as a result of the November 2016 revision of the business case for HS2, making the project “scarcely worth the candle”. In his reply, the Transport Secretary cries foul on this comment, pointing out that “removing the demand update would significantly dampen the impact of the other changes that were made when updating the analysis, so the impact would be significantly smaller” than the 1.6 reduction suggested by bar chart that had been provided by HS2 Ltd (see footnote 2). In fairness to the Transport Secretary, this interdependence is remarked upon in Summary of Key Changes to the Economic Case Since 2015, which cautions that “care needs to be taken when interpreting the results” of the analysis (see footnote 3), but the document is also fairly unequivocal in stating (see footnote 4):

“Overall the increase in demand drives a 30% increase in benefits and 21% increase in revenues. This results in the BCR including wider economic impacts increasing by 1.6.”

The preponderance of the assumed passenger demand increase in the factors that influence the economic case is, perhaps, even more evident from examining the raw data that is presented in a couple of tables in Summary of Key Changes to the Economic Case Since 2015 (see footnote 5). These show that, in 2011 prices, the predicted total transport user benefits have increased from £61.4bn in November 2015 to £65.5bn in October 2016, with the increase in predicted passenger demand alone contributing an additional £17.7bn to the October 2016 figure.

Whilst I am prepared to accept that there may be other factors linked to the effects of changes in the level of predicted passenger demand, the impact that the revised demand prediction has had is so great that I can’t see any such linkage exerting an appreciable influence on the BCR hike of 1.6 that has been reported by the DfT.

So I feel that the Treasury Committee Chairman’s comments about the dependence of the business case on the level of passenger demand assumed – assumptions that are at best an educated guess – remain valid.

In He came forth and saw a great multitude, part 2 I report that the DfT has changed the assumption about how demand would increase with time by removing the demand cap (see footnote 6). I speculated that this change might be “significant” in the BCR calculation: this speculation would appear to receive some support in Summary of Key Changes to the Economic Case Since 2015. The document admits that, with the demand cap applied, “the impact of this increase in forecast of demand would have been relatively modest, as the effect would have been just to bring forward the cap year … by around 7 years to 2030/31”. The approach now being taken, which leads to aggregated passenger demand over the coming years being much greater, is to “fix the forecast at 20 years in the future, rather than on a particular level of demand”, meaning that demand has been “assumed to grow until 2036/7” (see footnote 7).

Finally. one other gripe that I express in He came forth and saw a great multitude, part 2, that both the Transport Secretary’s letter and Summary of Key Changes to the Economic Case Since 2015 serve to reinforce, is the predilection that the DfT has slipped into of quoting point BCR figures that include wider economic impacts when assessing value for money (VfM), presumably for no better reason than this usually enhances the VfM rating.

Footnotes:

  1. See footnote 5 to He came forth and saw a great multitude, part 2 (posted 24 Mar 2017). The document is not listed on the portal webpage which is linked from footnote 5 on page 10 of High Speed Two Phase 2b, Strategic Outline Business Case: Economic Case and a Google search for the document failed to return any relevant results.
  2. The bar chart is Figure 1.2 in the publication High Speed Two Phase 2b, Strategic Outline Business Case: Economic Case, Department for Transport, November 2016.
  3. See paragraph 1.1.8 in the publication High Speed Two Summary of key changes to the Economic Case 2015 to 2016, Department for Transport, November 2016.
  4. See paragraph 4.2.7 in High Speed Two Summary of key changes to the Economic Case 2015 to 2016.
  5. See Table 1 on page 5 and Table 6 on page 13 in High Speed Two Summary of key changes to the Economic Case 2015 to 2016.
  6. The demand cap is a maximum level of passenger demand that it is assumed will be reached at some time in the future, specified as a maximum demand level. Once the cap is reached, demand is assumed to be level in all subsequent years.
  7. See paragraph 4.1.6 in High Speed Two Summary of key changes to the Economic Case 2015 to 2016.

 

Fess up failure fuss, part 2

(… continued from Fess up failure fuss, part 1, posted on 27 May 2017).

Another gladiator who has entered the arena, armed with a freedom of information request, seeking a correction to Sir David Higgin’s “misspeaking” when giving evidence to the House of Commons Transport Select Committee and the House of Lords Economic Affairs Committee, is FoI specialist Dr Paul Thornton (see footnote 1). Dr Thornton’s request to HS2 Ltd for information (see footnote 2), made on 28th February 2017, seeks to establish what action has been taken by the Company as a result of being notified by Mr Marriott that Sir David Higgins had misinformed Parliament, or of becoming otherwise aware of this.

The response that Dr Thornton has received provides a number of confirmations:

  • HS2 Ltd has not corresponded with either parliamentary committee by way of apology, clarification or correction in respect of Sir David’s evidence.
  • HS2 Ltd were first made aware that there was a challenge to the accuracy of Sir David’s evidence by Mr Marriott’s FoI request submitted on 11thFebruary 2015.
  • HS2 Ltd and the Department for Transport (DfT) have not exchanged any correspondence about the matter.
  • There appears to have been no HS2 Ltd internal correspondence generated by Mr Marriott’s FoI request.

The response also attempts to “spin” the context of Sir David’s comments, by raising some very loosely associated observations on the possible relationship between passenger demand and speed, and the incorrect assumption that this putative relationship could affect the “capacity” of a new railway. The explanation is also advanced that Sir David’s comments were made “in the context of wider discussions about how HS2 will increase capacity”. What is totally missing from the response is any acknowledgement that Sir David’s comment was factually incorrect.

What this response tell us, I think, is that FoI requests are handled at a relatively low level within the HS2 Ltd organisation, and that any matters arising are unlikely to reach the attention of the Company’s executives, let alone end up on the desk of the Chairman and Chief Executive. So the FoI request is probably not the appropriate vehicle for tackling an issue like putative factual inaccuracies in evidence given to Parliament.

Nevertheless, this apparent limitation has not stopped Dr Thornton from following up his information request to HS2 Ltd by a similar request to the DfT, made on 7th April 2017 (see footnote 3). The response that he has received confirms that the DfT has also not corresponded with Parliament about the accuracy of Sir David’s evidence, nor has there been any internal correspondence within the DfT relating to the matter.

The request has, however, revealed one further item of evidence relating to the issue, which is a set of brief notes of Sir David’s Transport Select Committee appearance made by the Head of Public Affairs for HS2 Ltd, which were circulated to various members of DfT and HS2 Ltd staff by email. These notes report the comment about twice the speed meaning twice the capacity but, unsurprisingly, do not make any observation on the veracity of the statement.

So the evidence from FoI requests is that the appeals for an admission and correction have not only fallen on deaf ears, but have probably failed even to reach the ears of those in a position to authorise such a move.

There does appear to have been one intervention, however, that has succeeded in getting the matter in front of the Chief Executive of HS2 Ltd. In a blog posted towards the end of last year, Beleben reports on a “complaint” made to HS2 Ltd by an unidentified individual in August 2016 that “asked HS2 Ltd to withdraw [Sir David Higgins’ and Mr Kirby’s] statements, and provide accurate information” (see footnote 4). After the customary delay – nearly three months this time – and lame excuse, a response was sent that explains that the communication, not being related to the “service that HS2 Ltd provides”, cannot be treated as a complaint – a view that I have some sympathy with – but has been regarded as a “general enquiry”. The response gives no indication whatsoever that HS2 Ltd intends to make amends for promulgating misinformation, but merely trots out what Beleben describes as “off-topic waffle”.

The individual – could that be the blogger him/herself I wonder – appears to have progressed the matter by referring it to the Chief Executive of HS2 Ltd, and Beleben reproduces the resulting letter from Simon Kirby in another blog: whilst this letter is dated 14th November 2016 it was, according to Beleben, not “sent out” until February 2017 – perhaps this is a new ruse by HS2 Ltd to cover up the delays that often seem to be associated with them responding to enquiries and complaints (see footnote 5). Like the initial response received by the complainant, Mr Kirby’s letter contains no hint of remorse, nor any indication that a retraction will be issued, but is long on HS2 Ltd trademark “off-topic waffle”. What the letter does prove, however, is that the accusation that the  HS2 Ltd Chairman misspoke to two parliamentary committees has been aired at Board level, so there can be no excuse for the Company failing to inform the committees concerned of what has occurred.

Clearly, further action, of some sort, is required if HS2 Ltd is to be “persuaded” to change its stance on this matter. I suggest that, once the unwanted and unwarranted distraction of the current general election is out of the way, the help of a sympathetic MP is sought to write to the Chairman of both committees and Sir David to request that the public record is corrected.

Footnotes:

  1. I reported on some of Dr Thornton’s exploits in this field in my blog Peering into the laundry basket (posted 19 May 2017).
  2. The request has been given the identity FOI17-1713 by HS2 Ltd.
  3. The request has been given the identity FOI14743 by the DfT.
  4. See the blog Misinformation is not a service, Beleben website, 9thNovember 2016.
  5. See the blog Too much capacity and not enough capacity (at the same time), Beleben website, 29thMarch 2017.