Thursday, March 29, 2018

West Coast Rail Freight and HS2 Under the Spotlight as Government Prevaricates Over Costs

Answers Demanded But So Far Came There None
Shipping News Feature
UK – Lord Tony Berkeley may be due to retire from his position as Chairman of the Rail Freight Group (RFG) in November, but there is no sign that either he or the organisation he has helped guide so well for the past twenty years or so are intending to take it easy on the government with regard to matters so essential to track borne cargo as HS2 and the new West Coast Partnership, which the government put out to tender this week.

Where the latter is concerned the RFG has issued a position paper regarding what is a vital arterial route for track borne freight between the South and South East and the Midlands and North of England and Scotland. The West Coast Main Line (WCML) sees around 90,000 freight trains running each year between the major conurbations, ports, quarries and production facilities. Although freight will not run on HS2, the future West Coast timetable will need to accommodate freight services, alongside HS2 trains and residual passenger services.

This commercial demand will require a fair allocation of released capacity south of Crewe, and infrastructure and operational solutions north of Crewe, to meet the needs of all users and Maggie Simpson, RFG Executive Director, reinforced the importance of the route, saying:

“The West Coast Partnership will have an influential role on the future of this important route, and we need to ensure that freight is part of these developments. Our position paper will help to provide key information for bidders and stakeholders to enable the right collaboration and cooperation between freight and passenger in the new partnership.”

This same document also makes mention of HS2 and doubts about the veracity of the published costs led Tony Berkeley to write to Secretary of State for Transport, Chris Grayling MP earlier this month challenging him to justify his department’s insistence that the capital cost remained at £24 billion at 2013 prices (excluding rolling stock) in spite of significant additions of scope and this new 4,500 page detailed cost estimate prepared by Quantity Surveyor Michael Byng in which expenditure comes out at £51 billion. A copy of the letter can be seen here.

Using Mr Bing’s calculations the overall cost of the HS2 project would easily total over £100 billion. In his letter to the Secretary of State, he requested that Mr Grayling provide an update of the Department for Transport’s (DfT) cost estimates resulting from the new August 2016 drawings compared to the Bill drawings and new scope of the works. If the minister did not accept Michael Byng’s cost estimate of £51.250 billion at 4th Quarter 2015 prices for Phase 1, could he provide a detailed critique of where his Department’s estimates differ and why?

In November 2017 Lord Berkeley lodged a Freedom of Information request for a copy of a study by PwC of comparative international construction costs of building high speed lines. This request was refused using an excuse which seems to elevate the schoolboy response of ‘the dog ate my homework’ a perfectly reasonable argument. The answer which came back was, ‘there is clearly a public interest in the findings of this report, but it serves the interests of the public to a greater extent if published alongside up-to-date analysis’. Tony Berkeley’s comment on this reply echoes the views of the majority of both stakeholders and the public on a matter which manages the trick of being an elephant both white and simultaneously ‘in the room’. He said:

”Ministers are clearly trying to hide every detail of costs of HS2 and comparators, be they international or done in detail by Michael Byng. Few if any in the industry believe the DfT figures so, before spending tens of billions of taxpayer money, Government must come clean and, if necessary, pause the project so that the real costs can be investigated in detail by parliament.”