Monday, February 1, 2021

In the New Normal it May be Time for a Re-think on HS2

Authoritative Criticism of the Future of Rail Scheme
Shipping News Feature

UK – One of the foremost critics of the government policy of proceeding with HS2 has once again asked some searching questions as to why the project is to go ahead without any amendments.

HS2 has of course very long term implications both for the passenger, freight and intermodal sectors. Lord Tony Berkeley is an acknowledged expert on railway infrastructure and indeed served as Deputy Chair on the Oakervee enquiry into the viability of HS2, a supposedly independent body, until summarily dismissed, along with the rest of the panel leaving only ex HS2 Chairman Douglas Oakervee to complete the report on the project alone.

Berkeley’s views received support from the Public Accounts Committee last May when it judged that there had been a failure to provide accurate information to Parliament, potentially breaching both the parliamentary code and privilege.

The HS2 Phase 2B has been approved by both Houses of Parliament and is now waiting for Royal Assent. Some Lords amendments were approved by the Commons, requiring Government to provide annual reports on the impact of the construction of HS2 2A on ancient woodland, and requiring Government to report on consultation with counties on the impact of HS2 construction road traffic. Other amendments, including party wall issues and non-disclosure agreements, were not accepted, but will no doubt reappear in the future.

Whilst the burgeoning costs have always been a target of Berkeley’s ire, his principal point being that the money would be better spent on a major overall rail structure refurbishment, he now points out another weakness in the scheme, the future demand for rail travel.

Scratch one analyst and you’ll get a different answer on this from the next. The simple truth is we do not even know when the virus will be controlled, if it ever is. Certainly the rising cost of rail travel, and HS2 never planned to be a cheap option, coupled with the fact many people have grown used to, if not always fond of, video meetings and working from home generally, makes predicting future traffic levels all but impossible.

The recently released National Infrastructure Commission (NIC) report did indeed largely support Berkeley’s views on HS2 as he claims. He says Network Rail (NR) could deliver shorter term regional improvements for customers, passenger and freight, as suggested by the NIC Report, but ministers continue to support the ballooning budget of HS2 (now £142 billion) which he says will not deliver any improvements for well over ten years.

Investigations by the ex-head of the Rail Freight Group (RFG) revealed nobody who thinks that the growth in demand for intercity rail travel will increase to the extent that HS2 is still needed, prompting him to ask, why is it still going ahead? He questions why HS2 is still in charge of its London development after the Prime Minister said in the Commons on 11 February 2020:

”HS2 Ltd will lose responsibility for redeveloping Euston station, which will be undertaken as a separate project, meaning high-speed trains are likely to terminate at Old Oak Common in London for some years.”

Despite this plans are being discussed between HS2 and the DfT for a solution at Euston ‘based around 10 HS2 platforms, a single stage build and increased oversite development.’ Berkeley asks what has prompted a reduction in HS2 platforms from 11 to 10, when it is very unlikely that trains from the former Phase 2B East will need to use it at all, they will go to Kings Cross (now being upgraded) and St Pancras, questioning:

”Does Euston really need ‘increased oversite development’? Is demand for flashy new offices in London not going to plummet with more remote, working, particularly among office workers? Now that Crossrail 2 has effectively been abandoned, and HS2’s business case insisted that Crossrail 2 was essential to distributing the HS2 passengers at Euston, why send HS2 to Euston at all?

”With a reduced number of HS2 trains at Euston, do they really need the complex and technically risky cat’s cradle of tunnels and structures for the approaches either under the West Coast Main Line tracks or threatening the high brick retaining wall and adjacent houses on the west side?

”Perhaps the DfT is moving towards the various schemes that Sam Price, Jonathan Roberts, Michael Byng and others put to the House of Lords Select Committee as Petition HoL-00691,heard 11th October 2016 which would have sorted all these issues out, and still could, at a much-reduced cost, less risk and avoiding a 20-year construction period around Euston!”

With regard to the Northern part of HS2, the NIC report is praised by Berkeley for pointing out that the most important of the three options it proposed was to focus on upgrades in the regions. Baseline option at £86 billion did not include HS2 Phase 2B West or East as dedicated high-speed lines but did include many upgrades in and between the regions, linking to HS2 Phases 1 and 2a.

The options of Baseline plus 25% or 50% did include many more regional upgrades or the dedicated HS2 2B West or East, but was covered by a warning about cost overruns:

”Government should commit to an affordable, deliverable, fully costed pipeline of core investments to improve rail in the Midlands and the North. If further funding is available there could then be options to either enhance these schemes or add further schemes later if it is clear the pipeline of core schemes is delivering on time and within the budget.

”The packages prioritising regional links are more likely to bring higher benefits, overall, to cities in the Midlands and the North and to support the strategic objective of levelling up. Our analysis suggests that prioritising regional links, for example from Manchester to Liverpool and Leeds or Birmingham to Nottingham and Derby, has the potential to deliver the highest benefits for cities in the Midlands and the North.”

NIC Chair Sir John Armitt spoke at a meeting of the All-Party Parliamentary Rail Group on 26 January 2021 and was challenged about the failure of the NIC Report to prioritise HS2 2B East. His robust response was:

”You will have to make a choice; you can have regional upgrades, or you can have the rest of HS2 2B, but I cannot see Government agreeing to both.”

Berkeley concludes that the NIC Report should provide encouragement to regional leaders to get together, put aside politics, and agree one solution, phased and affordable, to bring the earliest improvements, by starting with shovel ready projects and developing others to provide a balanced improvement to the quality and flexibility for customers of rail across the regions at the earliest opportunity.

There are of course many objectors to HS2 on various grounds including environmental. While the tunnelers in London have been getting the bulk of the publicity in the main stream media, there are many areas along the line which are environmentally sensitive and the petition drawn up by Chris Packham: ‘Stop work on HS2 immediately and hold a new vote to repeal the legislation’ is rapidly approaching 150,000 signatures.