Monday, 25 July 2011

HS2 consultation response

HS2 is the Government's proposal to invest £32 billion pounds to construct a new national High Speed rail line. The first phase, which the consultation is based on, is for £17 billion.

As a supporter of UK rail investment, it would be natural to assume that I would be in favour of this scheme. My initial reaction on hearing of the proposal was extremely positive. However, as the months passed and I investigated more, I came to the conclusion that the proposed scheme is deeply flawed on transport grounds. This is something I find deeply regrettable as it threatens other vital rail investment.

At this point I am required to state that I do not live along the proposed route (I live in South West London). However, I also have no great affection for the Chilterns. Were a Chiltern route the best option for the UK I would support it. However, as a general principle I believe that new transport corridors should only be created when routing via existing corridors proves to be impossible. And in this case a better proposal does exist using the M1 corridor..

In my HS2 response I cover in considerable detail the flawed methodology that led to the current route choice and provide a more sensible and viable alternative - HC-Midland - that can be delivered in much smaller phases as the need arises.

The four largest flaws with the HS2 methodology are:

1) An obsession with the lowest possible point-to-point journey times. In reading the various HS2 documents, it is clear that the methodology places an extremely high value on every minute saved. However, the approach does not consider the total door-to-door journey times of actual users. A point-to-point approach makes sense when considering a daily commute from a local station to a city centre. In this scenario, saving 10 minutes on the daily commute each way results in a considerably improved work-life balance. However, a longer inter-city journey should not be taken every day, and is frequently undertaken with luggage. Saving 20 minutes between London city centre and Birmingham city centre is irrelevant if it takes over an hour to get to the city centre station with poor station connections to the local public transport network. Given a choice, I therefore favour city-based rail investment over inter-city rail investment, except where they conflict (ie. where investment favours both inter-city and city-based).

2) An obsession with ultra high speed. The 400kph design speed is higher than other comparable railways are using and unnecessary for UK geography. Most high speed lines are run at 300kph. Speeds above that are only used where the two target cities are significantly far apart that the higher speed makes a real difference. France and Spain have an urban geography of large cities far apart with very low population density between. The UK however has large cities close together with significant mid-size cities and other dense population areas in-between. Unfortunately, HS2 is a scheme based on the French/Spanish model rather than the more similar German/Swiss model. The 400kph design speed also reduces line capacity, resulting in the crazy situation of a proposed new line intended to relieve capacity that will be at full capacity in trains-per-hour on day one of the new service.

3) An obsession with Heathrow. Government in the UK has not yet recognised that Heathrow is no longer in the top tier of world hub airports, nor developed a policy to either accept this or correct it. Part of this is a confused belief that huge numbers of passengers want or need to travel to Heathrow. This isn't the case (each plane carries relatively few people), and traffic over a high speed rail network to Heathrow would always be very limited in nature. Unfortunately, the HS2 route design used a constraint of travelling near Heathrow, which severely limited the available route choices.

4) An obsession with Birmingham. The HS2 proposal is supposed to be considering a proposal for a new line to Manchester and Leeds with an initial section to serve the West Midlands. unfortunately, this remit got corrupted to become a laser like focus on Birmingham city centre to the detriment of cities further north, especially in the East Midlands and Yorkshire. For example, the most cost effective way to reach Sheffield and Leeds is a major upgrade of the Midland Main Line from Leicester north, which can be achieved at a much lower cost than a dedicated line from Birmingham to Leeds. However, such an option requires the first phase to focus on reaching Leicester (a route which would also be suitable for the North West). However, because such a route, which is best for the North in general is worse for Birmingham, it was discounted due to the phase one limit of Birmingham. The consultation document contains a route selection diagram (B2) which emphasises this flaw by omitting Leicester, Nottingham and Derby entirely when considering phase 1 routes.

These four flaws, and four more covered in the response caused the selection of the HS2 Chiltern route and a heavy Birmingham city centre focus. This includes the Fazely Street station which is not linked to the local rail network at all, meaning that HS2 failed to meet its remit of a line to the "West Midlands", since only Birmingham city centre is served.

Having come to this conclusion I then became concerned that rejection of the HS2 scheme would threaten future investment in UK rail entirely. My interpretation of the available data is that some new line capacity will probably be needed on the London to the North corridor. The focus, for the benefit of the UK, should be on providing that new line capacity at the minimum cost and with the maximum benefit using far more phasing, ensuring that each stage is no more than £6bn and preferably much less. This led me to develop the HC-Midland proposal. However, such an investment must be balanced against the need for further investment on other over-capacity lines and stations, such as East Croydon, the Windsor line level crossings and the West Anglia Main Line. Dedicating all investment funding to one project is not acceptable, nor is it sensible for the UK economy.

HC-Midland, where HC stands for "High Capacity", not "High Speed", is a plan to provide a new route in stages as demand grows following the M1 corridor. The M1 route stands out head and shoulders above other choices on a sustainability view and its ability to be phased. Since capacity is the primary pressing issue, not journey times, running at a lower 250kph is far more appropriate. The route is designed, in the best German and Swiss traditions to provide incremental enhancements over time rather than a big bang. It is specifically intended to leave more money available for investment into the other city-based schemes, which have much clearer investment cases and benefit many more people's daily lives.

If you're reading this, there is a fair chance that you oppose the HS2 Chiltern route. My goal is to encourage readers to agree with me that the UK does need to invest in Rail, but with appropriate smaller projects, mostly less than £1 bn, that have a faster rate of return. In other words I want to draw opponents of HS2 away from solely opposition activities and towards a more positive alternative for UK rail investment.

I plan to cover the HC-Midland proposal in more detail in another blog entry soon. For more details now, see the HS2 response, but bear in mind that HC-Midland is intended to be built as part of a broader framework of investment focussed primarily on city-based schemes which would include some elements of the scheme known as "Rail package 2". Update: the HC-Midland proposal blog is now published.

I intend to support open commenting on this blog, however I ask commenters to stay on topic and to remain respectful at all times.


  1. "Part of this is a confused belief that huge numbers of passengers want or need to travel to Heathrow. This isn't the case (each plane carries relatively few people), and traffic over a high speed rail network to Heathrow would always be very limited in nature."

    Erm, 180,000 people use Heathrow every day, that's a pretty huge number in my eyes?

  2. Yes, but where do these 180,000 people come from. Most airport workers live local to LHR, Slough, Hounslow etc. And does that 180,000 include those brave folk who have chosen to transit via LHR and thus arrive and depart by plane?

  3. Thanks for the comments. As geriatrix points out, there is a huge amount of local commuting travel to Heathrow (76,500 employees), and that is something I would invest in (eg. Airtrack type solutions). But linking Heathrow to the HS network with a claim that it will remove domestic flights is marginal (7% of Heathrow traffic is domestic, and that will include Northern Ireland). Another source shows transfers rose from 9% to 35% of all traffic from 1992 to 2004.

    The lack of need to access Heathrow claim more generally comes from HS2 Ltd itself (page 9 of HS2 section):
    "HS2 forecast to take 10,000 air passengers per day...But HS2 not so strong for Heathrow access - Wrong market (main market is South East)...Only 1-2,000 passengers per day forecast to go to Heathrow on HS2"

    That means about 100 people per train (assuming an hourly service from Birmingham and Manchester). With a 700 capacity train and a new line that is FULL on day one in trains-per-hour, a Heathrow link is patent nonsense in the HS2 approach (and HS2 Ltd know it, hence Old Oak Common, not Heathrow Hub as the 2nd London station).

  4. I got the 180,000 per day from the Heathrow website (passengers arriving and departing in 2010 - though 35% are transfers who obviously never leave the airport by ground) - now, I'm not exactly sure what that bit of the HS2 doc is really trying to say, but there has to be huge opportunities for growth on a NW/Midlands to Heathrow route, given how tricky it is to get from Euston to Heathrow (and horribly served by public transport in general as far as I'm concerned), and a drastically improved link would definitely attract traffic, IMHO. Of course, if OOC was done perfectly, with HS2 linking Crossrail, then maybe the links could be improved sufficiently to avoid the need for a direct link, but I don't think the idea of the direct link should be completely ruled out.

  5. btw - for the record, my primary problem with the idea of building HS2 is that I think it really needs to start off in the SE of London (eg, London Bridge), tunnel to the NW of London (eg, somewhere like Paddington) before heading to the Midlands/North - I get that this would be horribly expensive, but hey - I just don't see why we should restrict ourselves to having all the stations on the outskirts of the centre rather than improving access from all of London to HS2.

  6. About 10-20 years ago, a new through underground station right under T5 as a new 10 mile diversion of the GWML would have made sense. But now the wisdom seems to be that the space under the airport has been used up, so proposed new stations aren't at Heathrow anyway (thus OOC isn't that bad). And separately, the world has changed such that with 2 runways, Heathrow can no longer be a first tier world hub airport (you need 4 runways for that). But that is a separate issue. If this goes ahead, then I think OOC and a fast shuttle will be good enough for Heathrow.

    On south of the river, I actually agree. If the country goes ahead with this, it really should be done properly. Paddington replaces OOC, and Waterloo replaces Euston. But this requires at least one Crossrail from the Waterloo lines to provide platforms, which confuses the HS2 cost case. Thus in my response I just proposed Paddington (one station replacing OOC and Euston for cost reasons).

  7. Ecellent concept and very readable, I now understand the limitations much more.

    However, if your purpose is to make change happen then you must use root cause analysis.

    The 'routes' are nothing more than lines on a map political constructs as part of the EU Regionisation policy.

    You have zero chance of success, unless you can frame the debate in these terms. That is why Leicester, etc., do not get a look in and Coventry is 'abandoned'.

    The 'decisions' only make 'sense' in conforming to the 'Grand Plan', and I can ensure you that the Billions spent and real lack of useability, connectiveness and usefulness are of no concern whatsoever.

    Hence the insane focus on reduced journey times that will benefit perhaps a handful of 'lucky' people a few times per year each. The politicos really really don't care about practicality.

    Once you understand this then at least you will remain sane but there is a world of difference between writing a blog on how I would develop the Great Britain rail infrastructure than wishful thinking on why we can't make HS2 better.

    Also living in SW London and by way of example, why can't there be a simple rail link from Staines to Heathrow without full Airtrack. This would be cheap and effective and whilst for most people this would involve two changes (one being CLJ).

    What is the practical difference between a second change on this route benefitting eight million people as opposed to 'changing' at Birmingham Int'l for the people mover to the terminal, or at Gatwick for the North terminal.

    To me, a Staines - Heathrow link is just a longer people mover journey. You see that the real needs of the travelling public are ignored.

    I was on the very first tube to Heathrow back in 1978 and progress has been painfully slow since then. My current mode of choice is the X26 bus, however, still support the now downgraded Feltham link when travelling alone. This latter facility was never well advertised when first established and if any reader knows the reason behind this it will solve one of my little life's mysteries.