HS2 is the best solution despite claims of alternatives, argues Alan Marshall

The latest post is a piece from rail journalist Alan Marshall examining the claims from opponents that upgrading existing infrastructure is better than building HS2

HENRY Overman, professor of economic geography at the London School of Economics — who declares that he used to be an adviser to HS2 Ltd but is now a sceptic — has claimed HS2 is poor value for money compared with other transport plans, and may well be poor value for money compared with alternatives that ‘address exactly the same set of problems.’ Click here to read. 

There are others, too, who have looked at the alternatives, put forward by W S Atkins in conjunction with Network Rail to the HS2 Strategic Business Plan, and taken a similar view — even though the alternatives are reckoned to require at least 14 years of major disruption at weekends affecting all three of the existing north-south main lines: the East Coast, Midland and West Coast routes.

But it has to be asked if such an alternative option is worth pursuing? — bearing in mind that the additional capacity to be provided would be much less than that offered by HS2, and after completion no further significant capacity could be provided without then building new infrastructure at great additional cost. Indeed, to boost capacity at the southern end of the East Coast Main Line, Network Rail proposes that a new 60km (40-mile) new two-track alignment would have to be built anyway between Alexandra Palace in North London and Biggleswade in Bedfordshire as part of the alternative to HS2.

In effect, if growth continues after the alternatives are completed, HS2 would merely have been postponed — in much the same way that Automatic Train Protection (ATP) was abandoned in 1995 for fear that its cost would undermine the then government’s desire to privatise Railtrack PLC. But now ATP is having to be adopted as part of costly train control and signaling schemes to squeeze more capacity out of the existing network.

And if anyone is in doubt about the need for more capacity, it should be noted that when Network Rail’s expenditure was agreed for the period 2009-14, the Office of Rail Regulation estimated passenger growth would be 6% a year — whereas it has actually turned out to be 9% a year, half as much again higher than forecast despite the economic recession, so the expected capacity crunch could occur sooner rather than later.  By comparison, HS2 Ltd has based all its plans on assumed growth of only 2% a year.

There are also further questions regarding the possible strategic alternatives to HS2, including the very serious one of whether there would be sufficient buses and coaches — and, above all, qualified drivers — available to provide all the replacement services necessary at weekends for 14 years? And by how much would train operators’ revenues be depressed by the loss of passengers deterred from traveling because of the disruption, longer journey times and dislike to replacement bus services? 

During West Coast Route Modernisation between 2002 and 2008 (and, please remember, it was a modernisation scheme, which is still not yet complete, and not an upgrade as originally intended) Network Rail had to pay £650 million in compensation to train operators.  The enhancements now suggested as an alternative to HS2 would involve three main lines, not just one, and extend over a longer period of time, so at current prices compensation could easily add around £2 billion to the bill.

And then — above all — the question has to be asked: is it really sensible to consider as alternatives to building the new line schemes that attempt to upgrade infrastructure that mostly pre-dates the 20th Century and not unusually is 150 years-or-more old?  After all, the core section of the West Coast Main Line between London, Birmingham, Liverpool and Manchester, is already 175 years old.

This question, I believe, is particularly valid currently as concern grows about the impact of extreme weather conditions — and some of the resulting difficulties were recently explained to the House of Commons Transport Select Committee by Network Rail’s chief executive Sir David Higgins, who is soon to take over as chairman of HS2 Ltd.

Four of the five wettest years in the last 100 years have occurred since 2000 and the summer of 2012 was the wettest on record, he told the MPs.  Since his evidence was given in October there have been further warnings from the Environment Agency of flood risks this coming winter (2013-14) due to the ground being severely waterlogged already because of the autumn’s heavy rainfall.

‘120,000 slopes, 80,000 structures’

“It is not correct to say that this railway is designed for extreme weather,” David Higgins told the Select Committee. “Last summer [2012] we had 50 major landslides in western, particularly south-west, England in one day.”

He went on: “We have over 120,000 slopes. We have 80,000 tunnels, bridges and structures across the network.

“Half of those 80,000 are over 100 years old,” said David Higgins, a highly qualified civil engineer who has frequently drawn attention to the age and 19th Century origins of much of the railway system.

“We found last summer that railway embankments failed that had been classified as stable and reasonably good just because of the level of water that had built up in rivers or the amount of rain we had. I don’t believe you can ever provide for that or design it out.

“Unfortunately, many of our railway lines have been built on, beside or even in watercourses. Therefore, because they have been around for 100 years or so, they are very exposed to that sort of weather.

“We will do a lot more monitoring. We can progressively improve flood defences and monitoring, but it is much more a case of pre-empting what happens when a bad event happens so that we keep the railways safe.”

David Higgins explained: “The really big improvement we have had – and it has taken two years of negotiation with the Office of Rail Regulation, in which I have been heavily involved – is to say that railway embankments and railway structures are all different.”

And he said: “Of course, they are old and Victorian,” adding: “Many of them were never even designed.”

So it really does have to be asked if it is right or sensible to consider attempting major enhancements and upgrades of ageing railway infrastructure at a time when Network Rail is having increasing difficulty in keeping it in good repair? — and when, increasingly, we hear warnings of extreme weather becoming more likely.

The best solution — surely? — must be to provide urgently-needed additional capacity, plus some to spare for future growth, by constructing HS2 to the best-possible 21st Century engineering standards rather than patching and mending what the 19th Century railway pioneers bequeathed to us.

No one ever suggested widening Telford’s A5 route as an alternative to building the M1/M6, or enhancing the A40/A41 roads instead of constructing the M40.  

In London, the foresight of Joseph Bazalgette gave the city a drainage system that has largely managed to cope since Victorian times until today. But no one has suggested enhancing the original tunnels and now new sewers and drains are being built beneath London.

Having endured substantial reductions in railway trunk route capacity over the past 50 years, why is it now that some people seem to think it is better value, and we can cope in the future, by squeezing more capacity out of what is left, rather than adding to it by building anew and replacing some of what has been lost in the past half century?

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