What the Transport Select Committee learnt this week

3 December, 2010

The Transport Select Committee’s 30th November session on transport and the economy turned into a discussion on the case for high-speed rail.

Priorities for investment

One of the emerging themes was a repeated suggestion that a stronger priority for investment lay within cities rather than between them. Northern Way Transport Director John Jarvis tabled evidence on the question on which of these did most for the economy and most to address city-regional imbalances – and the answer was: investment on links between cities.

While no other witness had any evidence to offer the committee on the subject (apart from some research ‘from Barcelona’), the membership of the Transport Planning Society seemed to conclude the opposite in their recent members’ survey. Their witness, Keith Buchan, started by explaining that investment should be prioritised on where the problems are, and on congestion, which is at its worst in cities. But then most transport planners work on urban problems, few on the challenges of the interurban networks. And few seem to realise that nearly half of the person miles travelled in Britain are making journeys over 25 miles long. Neglect policy in this area, and there is little chance of getting carbon reduction in the transport sector. Nor is congestion an exclusively urban problem. In fact the greatest congestion problems arise on the motorway network, especially where longer distance commuting trips overlay longer haul person and freight movements.

Ultimately, Committee Chair Louise Ellman suggested that the choice between the two areas was a false one: clearly there had to be a balance between investment in and between cities as both John Jarvis and Stephen Joseph of CBT pointed out.

For and against HSR

The strongest objections to high-speed rail unsurprisingly came from Joe Rukin, spokesman for the Stop HS2 campaign, who seemed to believe that the project had come about by ‘industry lobbying that started in the 1990s’. His core message was: ‘there is no business case, no environmental case, and there’s no money to pay for it’. He suggested that, in representing 60 action groups along the line of route, he was part of the ‘Big Society’. While he claimed national support, he acknowledged that this came mainly from the ‘southern part’ of the proposed route between London and the West Midlands.

When asked what Stop HS2 would suggest instead, he acknowledged that there was a capacity problem to be addressed on the West Coast Main Line (WCML), but said there were other measures that could address that. When pressed what these would be, he explained that they were train lengthening, getting mothballed trains out of storage sidings and overcoming the situation where an Open Access operator (WS&MR) was precluded from making station calls at the main stations in the West Midlands. But as Louise Ellman pointed out, this might address problems for the next few years but then what?

Stephen Joseph for CBT concluded that there probably was a perfectly good case for high speed rail as part of a means to tackle peak oil/climate change and the need to move away from the car. He saw a future in which there might be less travel overall, but more rail use – both passenger and freight. Investment, he said should include some major schemes as well as the many small projects which he consistently advocates.

Strong support for HS2 was voiced by Matthew Farrow speaking for the CBI. He said that HS2 scored well in CBI surveys, and that CBI were supportive but with two caveats: that high-speed rail shouldn’t suck up all the available transport investment cash, and that rail freight is able to expand. He pointed out there was a risk that where the HS2 services joined the WCML north of Birmingham, freight could get squeezed out.

On his first caveat, Ministers would be able to point to the recent Spending Review settlement in which £0.75bn has been budgeted for HSR planning work while a whole programme of other investments – especially across the existing rail network – have been protected. On the second, the CBI makes a good point, and clearly further work is needed to ensure that any changes needed to the WCML north of Lichfield to get the best value from HS2 are now developed.

In general terms, Matthew Farrow said that HS2 would tackle the problem of capacity on the WCML which affected both passenger and freight in a key corridor.  He was also clear that the CBI agreed with the argument that high-speed rail would help economic regeneration and address the north-south divide. His reasons were that there was support for high-speed rail across the north and he cited –as did other witnesses – the evidence from the Eddington Report of 2006.

He was also asked whether HS2 would help address a reputational issue. His answer was that yes it would: the World Economic Forum evidence always scores the UK down on infrastructure provision and this would help address that perception. David  Bishop, witness for Visit Britain, added that there was very good case for HS2 to be extended further north to Scotland to help spread the pattern of visits to Britain outside the South East.

Demand for HS2

Alison Munro, CEO of HS2 Ltd, was asked about the validity of their demand forecasts and the question of whether lessons had been learned from the HS1 case where demand had not reached the levels forecast. Alison’s reply was that the two cases were not comparable: unlike with HS1, there was a large existing travel market on which the HS2 forecast could be based. She also pointed out that the top quintile earners travelled twice as much as the average earner, suggesting that as the economy grows there will be demand for more travel. Social justice matters were, she agreed, outside her remit. Neither would she be drawn on whether investment on high-speed rail was better than on any alternatives.

As to whether HS2 was vital to the economies of the north, John Jarvis was in no doubt. He pointed to the capacity constraints on the WCML, the Midland Main Line  and the East Coast Main Line. He said that the Northern Way wanted to see a national plan, with priorities set out for the short, medium and longer terms. Yes, some other projects have equally good business cases, and he pointed to the northern hub project in Manchester which has a 4:1 benefit:cost ratio. His point was that there was a need to do further work on through running of HSR services on to the existing network – and this should include examination of connecting HS2 to the MML as well as the WCML – and that planning for regional passenger and more rail freight needed to be an integral part of the high-speed rail case.