Where Simon Jenkins goes astray

10 June, 2016

Writing at length in the June 6th edition of the Guardian, long-term HS2 opponent Simon Jenkins is entitled to his views even if he is struggling to recognise that the debate is now moving on from completing the Y shaped HS2 network to Leeds and Manchester to also delivering 3 hour London to Edinburgh and Glasgow rail journeys. Here, we need to correct some false impressions he has given on Greengauge 21.

These are:

  • Greengauge 21 made clear from the very start that high-speed rail is primarily needed for capacity reasons, not speed. Speed is an added benefit
  • Greengauge 21 is not a lobbying group; we undertake and publish research and analysis
  • Sir Rod Eddington was not opposed to high-speed rail using established technology
  • Commuter routes are the most crowded, true: and HS2 provides a huge uplift in capacity for them
  • Greengauge 21 has not proposed that commuter routes should be truncated at Old Oak Common instead of Euston
  • Greengauge 21 has played no role in developing the Northern Powerhouse proposition.

Capacity

Jenkins starts his narrative with a 1982 visit of a small group from BR to the newly opened TGV line between Paris and Lyon (which Jim Steer had been invited to join). As Europe’s first functioning high-speed line, this built on SNCF’s expertise in running trains at higher speed gained in the 1950s, running on existing lines south of Bordeaux. But the important point is this. The SNCF business case for the new TGV line rested on the need to provide more capacity. The existing line via Dijon was carrying a mix of local, long distance and freight trains, and significant investment would be needed to address growing market demand. A new high-speed line was the best option available.

Greengauge 21 saw parallels with the situation twenty years later in the UK. If new track needed to be added, high-speed would provide added benefits, as well as allowing growth across a similar range of markets. Indeed, this was the lesson from the study by Atkins for the SRA, but it was not Sir Alastair Morton who was sceptical – “never high on Morton’s priority list”, according to Jenkins. Sadly, by the time this work was complete and published, Sir Alastair had died; it was Secretary of State Alastair Darling who felt there were more pressing priorities. But the Atkins study of 2002/3 had provided the clear and available evidence that Britain’s north-south trunk routes, which carry a mix of intercity, freight and commuter demand, would run out of capacity in the mid-2020s. This has always driven the HS2 investment case. Jenkins misleads when he says: “As opposition mounted…the argument for HS2 now invoked the more mundane issue of capacity”. At least as far as Greengauge 21 is concerned – as our initial Manifesto published in January 2006  and onwards shows – capacity has always been the driving concern.

Greengauge 21

Greengauge 21 is a not-for-profit company, reliant on its funders (who have very mainly been public sector authorities) to commission research, analysis and planning studies which we make freely available. We do not engage in lobbying as Simon Jenkins’ article repeatedly suggests. Our influence, if any, has stemmed from the evidence we have presented.

Eddington

Jenkins makes the common assertion that Sir Rod Eddington was opposed to high-speed rail: he wasn’t. As he told the Transport Select Committee four months after his report supposedly hostile to grand projets was published, it was unproven technology (at the time – 2006 –  Maglev was being widely touted) that he believed was unsuitable. He had visited the Maglev operation at Shanghai airport to inform his view on this technology.

But on the subject of high-speed rail, he believed that Britain should progress a route from London to Manchester without delay. (See here)

Commuter Routes

Jenkins is of course right that commuter trains are the most crowded. What he doesn’t acknowledge is that the route into Euston is the South East’s fastest growing commuter line and that HS2 has the great virtue of freeing up capacity to accommodate commuter demand growth into Euston.

Euston and Old Oak Common

Jenkins is incorrect in saying that for Euston Steer “sees trouble ahead” and that “his alternative is to cut four platforms at Euston and bring [‘existing customers’] services to a stop at Old Oak Common”.

What Greengauge 21 has pointed out, ever since Euston was selected as the location for the London terminus of HS2 in 2010, is that the smart solution would entail linking commuter services from Milton Keynes/Leighton Buzzard/Tring into the Crossrail route at Old Oak Common. This is a solution for which Network Rail developed a positive business case in 2012 and which then attracted the support of TfL too. It is a relatively low cost solution that could minimise disruption at Euston, bring huge benefits to commuters on the route, make much better use of available Crossrail capacity across central London, and take much of the pressure out of Euston itself.

Northern Powerhouse

Jenkins says that Greengauge 21 seized on George Osborne’s Northern Powerhouse initiative to promote ‘One North’, described as “a plan for a £15bn network, dubbed HS3, between Lancashire and Yorkshire”. Greengauge 21 has played no role in the development of the One North plan, which, incidentally, is about much more than what Jenkins calls ‘HS3’.