Monday, 16 January 2012

What Shall We Do With HS2?

I've always been firmly on the fence about this HS2 business. I see the need for additional capacity in Britain's rail network but it's how we should provide it that perplexes me. Should we build new lines like HS2, or add tracks to existing routes?

There are two problems to consider - cost and results.  If you take HS1 as a guide, HS2 will cost around £50million a kilometre. If you look at the Trent Valley route widening, extra tracks there cost around £18million per kilometre. A no-brainer in favour of extra tracks surely? Well, not necessarily.

Extra tracks along an existing route will be difficult to install without long shutdowns and some areas, like Birmingham New Street, would involve a disproportionate level of expenditure and disruption to expand to cope with 60 years of increasing traffic.

Then there is maintenance. What the railways in Britain desperately need is alternative routes to allow diversions during maintenance works.  The lack of these, in today's excessively risk averse, "elf & safety" culture, leads to long shutdowns for relatively simple works. The commercial nature of such works adds to the disruption and to the costs. Extra tracks will not give us the diversions we need. Any maintenance work will cause even more disruption.

On the other hand, the Nimbys in the Chilterns have a point in their battle against HS2.  The area is well known as the suburbia of the rich and powerful - people who never, or rarely, use trains. How do they know what it's like to travel in a crowded train full of students, football fans and families with small, screaming children? How do they know what it's like to stand for 40 minutes every day to and from work? Why would they want to see their property values reduced without compensation? Of course they wouldn't. Would you? Be aware that their obstinance and power will push up the costs and extend the time taken to build HS2 - if it ever gets built.

Then there's the economic assessment.  If the whole HS2 business case is based on more than about 12 trains per hour, it must be questionable. No other HS route in the world does better than that at 300+ km/h.  If it is based on reduced journey time, the usual argument for new rail projects, it must be ranged against the resulting increase in energy consumption and the closeness of station stops planned for the HS2 route.  The minimum distance between HS stops should be at least 200km to make it truly cost effective.

But, what about HS1 as a comparison?  Despite 10 years of shilly-shallying and protests by locals, the line was built, on time and within budget and the countryside of Kent hardly noticed. Indeed now, it has blended into its surroundings and nature has healed the small wounds and cuts it suffered during construction. It works and it's helping to restore East Kent economically.

All in all, I'm still on the fence.  I'd like to see a much more rigorous assessment of the HS2 vs existing expansion case. None of the stuff I've read, especially from HS2, seems to be clear or realistic.  Memo to Government and HS2: Do again, otherwise you'll look silly at the public enquiries that are bound to follow.

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