Wednesday, November 4, 2020

High Speed Rail Link Faces More Criticism from a Familiar Source

Will the Virus and Changing Work Habits Make HS2 a White Elephant?
Shipping News Feature

UK – When it comes to the HS2 high speed rail project, for the British government Lord Tony Berkeley must be like a particularly annoying and persistent toothache, he keeps coming back at random intervals much no doubt to its distress, with his catalogue of facts of what he feels is being done incorrectly.

Berkeley has lodged his comprehensive objections to the scheme and its rapidly rising budget on many occasions and with the publication of the House of Lords Select Committee report on Phase 2A - West Midlands to Crewe, and the Lords Committee Stage planned to start on 9 November, he has again risen to speak out.

Berkeley of course is eminently well qualified to discuss the matter and his latest comments point out that the lockdown, together with uncertainty as to the future, may well have produced a paradigm shift in attitudes to work and travel which may be now so ingrained into the British psyche that things will never be as they were previously. He therefore makes the following points:

Demand for rail services has shrunk (before the lockdown) to around 40% of normal, with little likelihood of improving anytime soon. HS2 Phase 1 costs are now estimated to be £74 billion and Phase 2A £14 billion. So, you will be able to get from London to Crewe and Birmingham a little quicker at a cost of £88 billion.

According to the NAO, the Government has spent £210 billion on Covid 19 support measures during the first six months of the pandemic. Could this be replicated for the next six months and beyond? If so, that would total over £400 billion this financial year, and how much would it cost for succeeding years until the virus is contained and the economy recovers?

So how can shelving all or part of HS2 aid the Chancellor in saving money? Berkeley explores some options, particularly having in mind the announcement of further consultation on HS2 Phase 2B on the west side between Crewe and Manchester which said nothing about Phase 2B East, the side of the ‘Y’ serving Sheffield and Leeds, leading many to conclude that this section had been paused indefinitely.

Berkeley surmises that such a policy would suit the government for several reasons:

  • It would reduce the likely total cost of HS2 from perhaps £170 billion to roughly half that amount.
  • The benefits from the 2B East can more easily and more cost effectively be achieved by upgrading the ECML, the MML and the Cross-Country lines, serving Birmingham, Derby and Nottingham, in separate smaller work packages, without the need for the ‘world beating’ HS2 high speed specification.
  • It would enable the Northern Powerhouse authorities to take total control of the necessary rail enhancements and their funding in their area, using if they choose some of the plans started by HS2 to provide an integrated regional rail network aiming to be as good as that around London.
  • The number of trains on HS2 Phase 1 going to London would be reduced to the 10 per hour planned for Phases 1 and 2A West.
  • The reduction in trains per hour would mean that the approaches to Euston and the station itself could be built and operated without the expensive, and potentially very risking, construction involving underground fly-unders on the approaches, which could put at risk all the Network Rail lines into Euston as well as adjacent properties.
  • An alternative terminal at Old Oak Common would become quite possible without such underpasses, saving the £8 billion cost of extending the tunnels from OOC to Euston and for the HS2 station itself and the massive damage already started to an inner London area.

In the meantime HS2 costs continue to rise. According to the latest Ministerial update, committed costs to the end of September 2020 for Phase 1 are now nearly £10 billion, representing about 25% of the Government’s estimated total cost of Phase 1. On most major projects, a rule of thumb is that costs incurred before permanent works are started rarely exceeding 10% of the total cost.

For the whole project, DfT evidence to the PAC 15 October 2020 (Q95) quoted a top budget for the whole scheme of £98 billion at 2019 prices. In July 2018, Rail Minister Nus Ghani MP confirmed on the record that the budget approved by Parliament was £55.7 billion at 4th quarter 2015 prices. In 2011, the total cost was estimated by Government as £32 billion at 2009 prices. Even allowing for inflation, that is a 5x cost escalation in ten years.

One of the most cutting remarks Berkeley makes in his latest missive is with regard to need for Euston in the HS2 project. He asks how HS2, according to the Architects Journal, has managed to spend £100 million on consultants for its new Euston station, especially as there is no design approved and signed off for safety reasons for the approaches. However then Ministers announced that HS2’s Euston station work is to be separated from the rest of HS2 and incorporated into a new design for the Network Rail station led by Sir Peter Hendy, Chair of Network Rail.

Hendy will have a much easier task with fitting in 10 HS2 trains per hour rather than 18, both in the approaches and the reduced number of passengers, as demonstrated in Sam Price’s Petition to the HS2 Phase 1 Select Committee. Ministers and TfL have said that Crossrail 2 was essential to disperse passengers from HS2. However, as part of the TfL/DfT funding settlement, DfT told TfL on 2 November 2020 to ‘shelve’ the £33 billion Crossrail 2, and bring an orderly end to consultancy work as soon as possible.

The question then is will the HS2 Euston section be next for the chop? £453 million had been spent on HS2 consultants up to the end of 2018. In the meantime, why is HS2 continuing with enabling works around Euston, which could well be changed or rendered unnecessary depending on the final design and train frequency approved?

Berkeley postulates there may be cheaper alternatives through the Transport and Works Order Process (TWAO), two petitioners proposed alternatives to the Lords Select Committees using this process to avoid the need for an additional provision to the Bills. They were:

  • Phase 1 – Wendover Tunnelling alternative saving £322 to 325m and between 1- and 3-years construction time.
  • Phase 2A – Stone railhead - saving £98m and 3 years construction time.

Even though the possibility of using TWAO to make minor changes to the Bill Scheme is included in the HS2 Phase 2A Bill in Clause 49, Berkeley says it was surprising that the DfT’s Counsel felt it reasonable to persuade the Phase 2A Select Committee in the Lords that this could not be accepted, when there is a precedent for using a TWAO on Phase 1 for the Bromford Tunnel that involves a change from a viaduct to a tunnel and a minor amendment to the Act.

This, he concludes, indicates the DfT has not changed its stance and still believe wholeheartedly in HS2 or, as he says, they are told to. At the PAC meeting on 15th October (Q 101) DfT Permanent Secretary Bernadette Kelly suggested that HS2 is a good thing as it will last 100 to 150 years, so fluctuations in demand must be ignored for such a long-term project. However, she admitted that no work has been done to identify any changes of travel demand such as working from home due to Corona Virus. Berkeley concludes:

”The HS2 gravy train goes on, whereas DfT ministers try to cut back or delay expenditure on other new rail projects, including those most needed in the Midlands and North, nobody seems to care about the still escalating costs of HS2, the ongoing environmental destruction and whether the demand is still there, and of course whether the country can afford such a vanity project.”

Photo: The future of Crewe Station as seen by HS2.