Sunday, September 15, 2013

Logistics of HS2 Unravel as Rail Freight Boss Expresses Doubts over Viability for Cargo Carriage

Vision of the Future or Expensive White Elephant?
Shipping News Feature

UK – Some analysts believe we may well be witnessing the end of the line, quite literally, for HS2, the high speed rail link that was originally intended to join the UK from the very north to the deep south and which is now floundering to reach between England’s first and second cities without the increases in cost sending it off the rails. The overall logistics package envisaged by enthusiasts is beginning to unravel in the light of some hearty scepticism and the latest blow to the project is delivered by an expert voice coming from the heart of British politics itself via Lord Tony Berkeley, chair of the Rail Freight Group (RFG).

To enthusiasts, HS2 promises to be an ad man’s dream, a slick, modern link for business, faster and more comfortable than air or road options. To cynics, an overblown, overpriced choice for the very rich business community, doubters who comment that the spiralling costs will surely lead to similarly spiralling fares at a time when the public transport sector of the railways lacks credibility and stands accused of privatising itself to death, meanwhile hiking fares to the public that are becoming more unacceptable with every scheduled increase.

Berkeley pronounced amazement this week that the scheme was proceeding without any attempt by any of its proponents to publish a timetable showing how any benefits would arise from it. Whilst Transport Secretary Patrick McLoughlin was declaring HS2 a ‘heart bypass’ to unclog the transport system by allowing extra capacity for freight and other trains, Berkeley, certainly no novice when it comes to assessing the impact of rail schemes, spoke with something of the air of a man talking to a child. Ironically the HS2 website actually uses information gathered from the RFG to justify their cause by quoting from that organisation’s submission to the All Party Parliamentary Group for High Speed Rail in March 2012.

The RFG boss however thinks the scheme badly designed and something which is being pushed through by ministers seemingly determined not to announce another U-turn or even listen to alternatives. Instead, whilst the costs rise, the scope of the project has been watered down, in Berkeley’s view seemingly to where it has simply become a badly considered, face saving white elephant. The minister himself commented this week that tickets on the line will carry a 20% surcharge from day one with last minute bookings ‘costing a lot of money’.

Berkeley meanwhile points out that any extra capacity provided by the scheme will only affect freight in the south of England. HS2 will schedule 18 trains per hour each way between London and Birmingham after opening in 2026 but trains headed north of the Midlands will, initially at least and possibly until 2033, have to travel on the already overcrowded West Coast line. It will matter little if the passenger services are successful or not to the freight community as the commuter trains will still run – empty or not.

All the estimates for the performance of the line seem to emanate from vested interests in seeing the scheme completed, but Berkeley doubts that the problems of freight shipping further north, to Scotland and even northern England, will ever be resolved easily, with on carriage meaning the trains joining the existing lines from Wigan northward, something which could only be resolved by another huge tranche of investment continuing for any foreseeable future. He continued:

“The problem isn’t the middle of the line, it’s the ends; it just doesn’t link up properly with the existing transport network. The trouble is, ministers have got themselves into this position they do with every big project, where they say nothing’s going to change and we’re going to bulldoze everything through.”

That last seems to be the public mood of late, whether it is the failure to convince the public (and subsequently parliament) on military action against Syria, or ignoring over 300,000 people, who in the last six months followed prevailing scientific opinion to vote in the biggest ever e petition to stop the controversial badger cull. As in these cases the government risks losing credibility if it continues to ignore the now popular view of vociferous objectors who say that if the estimated cost of the project (from 45 to 60 billion pounds depending whose figures you believe) was spent elsewhere, dozens of smaller projects, many currently shelved for lack of funds, would benefit and be a more sensible option.

Members of the Rail Freight Group are the very last people who would wish to see less money invested in Britain’s railway network, when their spokesman voices major doubts so publicly it may well be time for a recalculation of benefits as well as costs, preferably undertaken by someone with a knowledge of the industry but who is strictly neutral, if such a creature exists. Tony Berkeley and others in the freight industry will not want to necessarily see HS2 die, they will simply want to know that it is worth whatever it costs.