Friday, November 19, 2021

HS2 Cancellation May Reap Rewards for Freight Traffic

Changes Are a Boost for Multimodal Container Cargo
Shipping News Feature

UK – The latest decision taken with regards to HS2 has produced great chasms of different opinions the like of which can only be matched by Brexit, or possibly Covid vaccinations. The scrapping of the Leeds leg of the high speed line has incensed northern politicians and brought sighs of relief from others.

As with so many such projects, costs for the upgrading had run away of late as detailed by one of the scheme’s most vociferous opponents, Lord Tony Berkeley. In August we published details of Berkeley’s latest arguments and detailed how he had accused Transport Minister at the time, Nus Ghani of withholding her knowledge of budget increases, and Civil Servant Bernadette Kelley of hiding her knowledge of a three year delay and a £7 billion budget overrun from the Public Accounts Committee.

In September Lord Berkeley used a debate on standards in public life in the House of Lords to detail evidence from whistle blowers that Phase 1 was unlikely to open until 2041, not 2026 as promised, and there had also been a deliberate gross misrepresentation of costs when figures were put before parliament. The original cost estimate in 2010 for HS2 was £12 billion. By 2021 that estimate had risen to £160 billion according to Berkeley.

Backing these arguments Lord Berkeley had documents showing that, when structured estimates were requested from HS2, the answer came that there were no such estimates. In fact an estimate for double one portion of the proposed cost was allegedly suppressed stating ‘HS2 Ltd were told to keep their higher figure very quiet, and not to get estimates from their contractors as it was politically untenable to do so’.

Parliament thus gave approval to this particular part of the project, the largest one on the Government books, on the basis of a cost only half the estimate that HS2 had actually calculated but which he claims was suppressed by DfT officials. Berkeley also accused several senior civil servants and what he called a ‘depressingly long list of present and former ministers who appear to have misled parliament’ and had requested an inquiry be set up to examine breaches of the ministerial code back in July by the Cabinet Secretary.

Now of course the miseries of the world, or at least HS2, have escaped from the box. We shall never know if Berkeley’s latest letter to the Prime Minister outlining all his accusations was what lit the blue touch paper. It certainly must have had some effect, the facts are simply too startling to ignore, particularly as the same source has for years been laying out alternative plans for the money to electrify local lines and reopen railway stations, reinvigorating the entire network and at a claimed potential lower cost than that of HS2.

On the 18th October Andrew Stephenson, Minister of State for Transport wrote to Lord Berkeley, who was dismissed from the Oakervee panel assembled to approve HS2, to disavow his claims and stating:

”The costs on the programme have been scrutinised by both Houses of Parliament at both legislative stages of the Phase One and Phase 2a hybrid Bills process. The HS2 project has also been subject to a number of Public Accounts Committee and NAO reviews, which hold Government officials to account for the economy, efficiency and effectiveness of public spending in relation to this project.

"The Government remains committed to proceed with the delivery of essential North-South connectivity, increased capacity, shorter journey times and to deliver against our levelling up agenda. As part of this commitment, we have put in place new governance arrangements which significantly increased Ministerial oversight, transparency, and accountability of the HS2 project.”

No mention of any change of agenda there then. Now a complete reversal of policy seems to be happening, freeing up funds from HS2 will certainly allow improvements to be made in line with that other government promise, taking freight off the roads and putting it on the tracks. Lord Berkeley was previously the boss at the Rail Freight Group (RFG) which was delighted at the news that multimodal adjustments were now on the cards.

The North Transpennine route is to be upgraded to allow containers to be moved by rail. The plans were confirmed in the Integrated Rail Plan, published this week by the Department for Transport. It states that ‘gauge clearance’, allowing shipping containers to move on rail wagons, will be undertaken as part of the first phase of the Northern Powerhouse Rail project.

Government’s plans will also allow for additional capacity for freight trains, which could be completed in the first phase if a third track between Huddersfield and Marsden is delivered. We wait to see on that one. So of course the new Freeports, promoted as yet another government success before they even started trading will need a boost as apparently nobody thought to do so when the permissions were granted.

The RFG says that currently those on the East Coast and West Coast of England, including Humber, Tees and Liverpool are not able to move containers by rail to the cities across the north of England. This crucial scheme will therefore allow new services to start, potentially removing thousands of HGVs from the region’s road network, and significantly reducing carbon emissions.

The RFG also welcomed news that the Transpennine route and Midland Main Line are to be electrified, allowing electrically hauled freight services to be introduced. However, there are concerns over some aspects of the Plan, which could reduce capacity for freight or create bottlenecks where new Northern Powerhouse Rail (NPR) and HS2 trains are planned to share the existing infrastructure. Mike Hogg, RFG’s Northern Representative, said:

”The upgrade of this route has been one of RFG’s main campaign priorities in the last five years, and an absolute priority for our members in the region. We are delighted that Government has confirmed gauge clearance for freight and set out plans to develop much needed new capacity on Transpennine.”

The Prime Minister has faced angry opposition on the changes to HS2, responding in his normal blustering manner. When opposition leader Sir Keir Starmer said Mr Johnson had ripped up his promises to ensure HS2 ran to Leeds and a new Northern Powerhouse line would join that city to Manchester, the PM said objectors would like to ‘carve huge new railways through virgin territory, smashing through unspoilt countryside and villages and do it all at once’, which sounds a pretty fair precis of what HS2 has been regularly accused of, indeed some residents are talking of legal action after quitting their devalued properties to avoid a route that now will seemingly never be constructed.

Under the new Integrated Rail Plan proposed works in addition to upgrading or electrification of the existing Midland Main Line, East Coast Main Line and Transpennine Main Line, there is to be a new high-speed line between Birmingham and East Midlands Parkway, a new high-speed line between Warrington, Manchester and Marsden in Yorkshire and a study to examine the best way to move HS2 trains to Leeds.

For commuters there will be a review of fares and ticket reforms including contactless pay-as-you-go ticketing in the North and Midlands and some sort of mass transit system for West Yorkshire, including Leeds. Last word goes to Maggie Simpson OBE, RFG Director General, who said on hearing the plans:

”The North of England needs transformational infrastructure to allow more rail freight to operate, taking lorries off roads and helping businesses work towards decarbonisation. Although many questions are yet to be resolved, the priority works on the Transpennine are a key enabler of that growth, and we strongly welcome Government’s commitment.”

Photo: Image courtesy HS2.