Let’s get a few points straight

29 January, 2013

Yesterday’s launch of the second phase of HS2 was a great step forward but it attracted the usual set of established anti high-speed rail campaigners and sceptics back to the airwaves. Some of their comments could leave unnecessary confusion, and need to be put right.

Connecting to HS1

Let’s start with Sir Simon Jenkins who expressed his view on BBC Radio 4 at midday that HS2 fails to deliver a connection to the European high-speed rail network (it only ‘goes to Euston’). Nobody was on hand to counter this error: the first phase of HS2 is of course to be built with a connection to HS1, i.e. the channel tunnel.

This isn’t a small point, since Simon – who also opposes other large-scale infrastructure projects such as Crossrail – acknowledged that his views on HS2 might be different if there were to be included connectivity with Europe and Heathrow (which is now ‘on hold’ pending the Davies Commission).

A lesson here for DfT: the continuing absence of a coherent service plan for international services on HS2 risks losing some intellectual support (as well as real value) from the project.

Loadings on current rail services

Next up, there was Chris Stokes who at 5pm (BBC R4 again) trotted out the familiar argument that the West Coast wasn’t really full, because the evidence is that evening peak trains from Euston have an average load factor of only 52%. He acknowledged helpfully that of course the ‘19h00’ train – the first after the peak period ticket ban – was full. Well, we’d all agree that the current fares system is crazy and should be changed.

What was not said was that these numbers were all about the intercity services run by Virgin Trains. West Coast also supports London Midlands trains, and these carry the majority of peak period passengers and their services are 94% full today, on average across the peak.

Chris also questioned the idea that services on the West Coast would improve for intermediate locations once HS2 opened, suggesting that in the project appraisal it has been assumed that there will be £5bn savings from ‘classic line services’.

But savings in cost do not necessarily mean service cut-backs. Local passenger services don’t have the same costs per train mile as express intercity trains and additional freight services are expected to make use of some part of the capacity released too – and their costs are ignored in the project appraisal.

Then there’s the argument Chris added that in other countries that have introduced HSR the existing rail service has been withdrawn. In general, he’s right, but here in Britain we don’t have that opportunity or intention. Across Europe, there aren’t established and growing longer distance commuting markets, nor major growth areas such as Milton Keynes/South Midlands. In the British case, we need the spare capacity on the West Coast that HS2 creates to support growth in these ‘intermediate’ places.

The specification of services on the classic lines for when HS2 is opened has been under study by Network Rail and the results of their work is awaited. What is clear is that there will be as much debate about this service specification as the HS2 alignment.

Regional economic benefits

Professor John Tomaney got a lot of coverage, appearing on R4’s Today programme and then on BBC’s TV news as well. His message was that he’d studied a lot of HSR systems around the world and they didn’t stimulate regional city development, but tended to strengthen the capital city instead.

It would have been better if he had concentrated on the real message which is that the evidence is not very clear either way. Taking a case like the development of the French regional city of Lyon, M Messalun’s evidence to the Transport Select Committee in 2011 revealed positive growth stimulus effects over time in both Paris and Lyon as a result of the transformed connectivity that TGV brought, with no clear ‘winner’. Against recent (and long-standing) trends of lower GVA growth at a regional level in the UK, achieving some kind of parity with London’s economic performance would have to be considered a success.

But each national HSR network has to be considered on its merits. As Greengauge 21 has shown in its evidence to the Independent Transport Commission’s inquiry into the spatial consequences of HS2, there are some basic effects that will benefit both ‘the north’ and the capital: faster journey times helping business productivity in both London and Manchester, for example. But some factors don’t operate in both directions and our work has identified two of these that are unique benefits from HS2 to ‘the north’ – they don’t apply to London.

These two unique ‘northern benefits’ are:

  1. Connectivity to international gateways (the Channel Tunnel and Heathrow in particular; London has this connectivity advantage already)
  2. Connectivity between the key regional cities.

Ever since the Eddington Transport Report of 2006 and the emergence of interest in agglomeration economics both of these factors are recognised as being of significance.

But the problem is that ultimately these factors will change where businesses choose to locate, and where individuals live and work, but we haven’t worked out how to take those effects into account. The only analysis that considers how the distribution of activity across Britain might change as a result of HS2 remains the work carried out by KPMG for Greengauge 21 in 2010. In the published HS2 project appraisal which follows standard DfT guidelines, land use, local population and employment levels are all assumed to be unmoved by the transformational accessibility that HS2 brings.

Of course, putting values on these effects is extremely difficult. But that doesn’t mean they shouldn’t be considered.