Platform alterations…

I don’t need to tell you that I’m a fan of the railways, having walked an abandoned line from Southport to Preston, and joined blogger Michael Holdsworth on a similar walk into Preston from Grimsargh. That’s just scraping the surface; I grew up fascinated by trains, travelling on them, with them, and with an almost autistic attachment to the stations along each route. No need to wait for a muffled announcement about the train now approaching, as I can rattle off the poetry of station calls on my own; Leyland, Wigan North Western, Bryn, Garswood, St Helens Central…

My love of the railways extends to defending (to a point) the ramshackle approach towards infrastructure and spending in this country. We don’t do it particularly well, and never have. As romantic a view as I’ve always had about them good old days, it doesn’t take long to find contemporary reports from passengers in the 1950s and 1960s that remind us today that British rail has always been crowded, under-funded and bloated with management. The Government department in charge of looking after the whole thing has not been a champion of rail for generations, preferring roads and cars and the motor industry millions that goes with it. Rail has suffered not just because of our love of the car, but because it’s simply far sexier for an MP to sign off another motorway junction than it is a train station.

Which is where we find ourselves with the “HS2” scheme to build a new railway line – “the biggest amount of rail infrastructure spending since the Victorians” – from a new hub outside Heathrow into Birmingham, thence to Manchester in the West and Leeds/Sheffield in the East. A highly controversial and contentious piece of infrastructure spending, and exactly the kind of “pay now, yield the results later” long-term planning for which the DfT has a reputation of shunning in normal circumstances. In its hope to poke economic growth with a stick, the DfT has become the main cheerleader for “HS2” and connected purposes, claiming that the line is vital to bring economic growth to the country, bring northern England new employment opportunities and to free up capacity on the creaking, over-capacity WCML.

And I’m against “HS2”.  Used to be quite neutral, then moved towards being broadly in favour, and now against. Typical LibDem, right?

But the case for “HS2” was always quite flimsy and liquid. I just can’t say that it’s looking particularly strong enough now to justify the strength with which so many fingers are crossed.

One of the best economic cases against “HS2” comes, oddly enough, from tech-site The Register, which blasts the cost-benefit analysis by using its own level headed approach towards the assumption that the commuters of 20-years hence will be the same as those today. The numbers from the Government side don’t add up very well.

The Government assumes that high-speed, long distance travel has to be needed in the 2020s and 2030s because jobs will always be in offices down south, and workers will always be in commuter homes in Solihull and Hazel Grove and Normanton. Link the north with the south, they say, and jobs will be “secured” and growth will be “encouraged”. But what jobs and what growth? There’s always commuters willing to travel, only not from one end of the country to another, and if the percentage of people who require a flight from Manchester to London City Airport is X today, there’s no guarantee that it’ll be “X+” in 2030. As The Register points out, the business traveller who is used to justify the cost is already spending days working from home and hours working en route; what cost analysis exists to prove they’d be happier scrapping all that for a traditional 9-5 in 30 years time?

No such case exists.

A screenplay for “There Will Be Billions” is being drafted. Work at London Euston alone is estimated today to be somewhere around £1.2 billion and will only go higher. The total spend across the network can only be considerably higher than £2 billion. Public expenditure on the project could be in the area of £900 million by the time of the general election, and there’s almost no chance of Parliamentary Scrutiny outside painfully awkward appearances in front of the Public Accounts Committee. The existing proposed route from London into Birmingham and then beyond has already been altered – at cost – due to the “they’ve used a flat map!” approach to deciding on the route. New stations have had to be proposed to placate complaints, much in the same way as unnecessary junctions were added to the M25 to stop people complaining about their back-gardens being ruined in the 1980s.

As you might have heard, the M25 still gets congested quite a lot, despite the amount of extra junctions and numerous extensions.  “HS2” is exactly the same – lots of new stations (slowing down a supposed High Speed line in the process) without improving the existing network.

At the time of writing, the cost/benefit analysis of “HS2” has plummeted to 90p in the pound (source ), and that’s not likely to get any better. Three times as many journeys are into London, not from it, sucking money away from the very outer regions towards the very conurbation Ministers claim needs no further help. Building a new “HS2” station in central Manchester will require existing track to be re-routed, creating a shambles of delay and construction chaos which can only be repeated twenty-fold across every part of its proposed — and as yet unconfirmed — route.

We already have some of the highest fares anywhere in Europe, and those can only grow higher and higher. My love of the railways means there’s only one way to save the network from itself. Scrap “HS2” now to focus on specific regional issues. Force franchise holders to update rolling stock, build new stations, and work on expanding the existing lines such as the WCML. Hard love is admitting that the best way to save the thing you love is not to do the obvious. “HS2” is too obvious, and too clearly flawed. To save the railways, it needs abandoning.

2 thoughts on “Platform alterations…

  1. I’m afraid Liam that your prescription for the railways looks deeply flawed from where I’m sitting.

    Expanding the WCML is a non-starter. Do you remember the last WCML upgrade? It cost £9bn and delivered marginal upgrades at best. It also caused two years of disruption; how we all loved taking over four hours to get from Manchester to London! One weekend I found the genuine quickest way to London by train was to go via Leamington Spa and into Marylebone. Allowed me to chalk off a new route, but not really the point.

    An upgrade of the WCML might cost as much as HS2 in the long run, and even if it doesn’t, it will deliver marginal improvements with intolerable disruption.

    In fact, for many places it will not deliver improvements at all, but service reductions. We are already running out of room. Last month, Virgin were refused permission to run direct London to Blackpool services because the regulator does not think they can be run without disrupting the network. Open-access operators have been rebuffed. Established stops are slowly losing services to accommodate the Pendolino services; Macclesfield, Congleton, Penrith. David Morris MP is campaigning to reopen the main-line platforms at Carnforth but Virgin is cutting Lancaster out of some diagrams! The WCML route utilisation strategy suggests removing the fast service from Wigan and Warrington (first stop Preston, so you’d be alright).

    Have a look at Staffordshire where perfectly functioning stations have lost all their services because there’s no capacity. That’s the future under an “upgraded” WCML.

    We haven’t even talked about freight yet. You didn’t mention freight. Freight can’t work from home or get high-speed broadband.

    We need capacity. The most cost-effective way to deliver capacity is a new line. If we’re going to have a new line, let’s make it a good one. Don’t quote me a BCR from a bunch of NIMBYs based on a worst-case scenario (if we did that, we’d never build anything!). This project brings more than a BCR, anyway; cost-benefit analysis skews heavily in favour of investing more in the south-east. Building in investment-poor areas pays off in the long-run. As you can tell by all the people who still say that the Jubilee Line extension was a waste of money due to a poor BCR… oh wait, nobody says that any more.

    You could also make the savings you suggest by scrapping Crossrail. You didn’t, though. Neither are 51M. Curious, that.

    You also suggested investing in regional lines. I don’t believe that is mutually exclusive to HS2. Neither does the Government.

    Transpennine electrification? Check.
    Electrification to Bolton, Preston and Blackpool? Check.
    Electrification to Windermere? Check.
    Northern hub? Check.
    Ordsall chord? Check.
    Local investment? Check. (Walkden station has a new lower, longer platform and shiny new signals. Thanks!)

    (Incidentally, the main benefit of the Ordsall chord is that it provides a new route for trains to get from the Leeds line to Manchester Airport without crossing all the tracks south of Piccadilly where there is – wait for it – no spare capacity. The same capacity issues have reduced local services in peak hours to accommodate Pendolinos. All issues solved by the new capacity of HS2).

    Anyway, have typed all this on my phone on the train to work (wonder how stop hs2 get to work?) so that will have to do for now.

    • Cheers Ian, always a pleasure.

      I have only just got to this position because checking the options–and in reality we’ve only got three, one of which is “do nothing”–the cost and uncertainty of “HS2” means it looks like far too much of a shot in the dark. There’s no guarantee that passenger numbers would be enough to justify carving through half the country on the off-chance that people at three arbitrarily positioned stations would be willing to travel to London.

      By using the money on the WCML and East Coast Lines, the focus can be on where passengers and stations already exist–or should be–rather than cutting through towns and cities of considerable size who would be forced to take slower, shabbier, older stock.

      I agree with you that that list of projects up here is to be celebrated, I can’t wait to see what new services could come when the Blackpool-Preston-Bolton-Manchester lines are electrified. But how can anyone celebrate that at the same time as welcoming a multibillion pound speedway from Birmingham? I’m not against national infrastructure schemes per se, but this one seems far too high on promises with no evidence that its milk and honey won’t be poisoned.

      I don’t accept that putting in HS2 in 30 years time next to Piccadilly is going to suddenly open up dozens of lines into/out of that station, without just as much money going into better stock., timetable management and all the rest of it. Why not just spend money on guaranteeing Platforms 15./16 and the rest of it?

Comments are closed.