What's wrong with HS2? 30 Cs of Criticism

on Friday, 17 February 2012. Posted in News from 2012, James's blog

Note - this is a first draft, published to enable comments & feedback before final circulation.

  1. Competition with air travel (cheap flights?)

Shorthaul flights are extremely wasteful, both of aviation fuel and of valuable slots at congested airports. It should therefore make total sense to offer an alternative to these flights using high-speed rail. However, HS2 is likely to have very little impact on the UK domestic aviation market, for two key reasons.

  1. Firstly, existing rail services are already competing effectively against domestic flights on routes from London to northern England – around 80% of the market for passenger travel between Manchester and London is already carried by rail, whereas flights from Leeds Bradford, Liverpool, Blackpool and Durham Tees Valley airports have all ceased in recent years.
  2. Secondly, in order for HS2 to attract the high-value business traveller away from flights to Scotland and enable same-day return train travel, a time saving of around two hours as needed compared to the current services. The likely saving of around 45 minutes to one hour  will attract small numbers of mainly cost conscious air passengers, but the projection of 6,000,000 passengers per year transferring from short-haul flights is nothing other than fantasy.


  1. Can’t Replace Heathrow


One of the most ridiculous claims made in support of HS2 is that it replaces the need for a third runway at Heathrow.

 One of the more ridiculous claims in reference to HS2 is that it would act as a “replacement” for a third runway at Heathrow. Even though the claims about passengers switching from air to rail are massively over-stated (see above), were the original 6 million figure claimed by the DfT to be true, and were all of those passengers to be using Heathrow instead of any other London airports, it would still result in a reduction in capacity of Heathrow of less than 10%. In fact, one of the better things about HS2 is that it actually provides better access (via Old Oak Common) to Heathrow from the West Midlands and northern England, in turn increasing demand for flights from Heathrow still further.

A new runway at Heathrow, were it to be built (see article about why Gatwick is more realistic if anywhere), would be expected to add capacity for around 20-30 million passengers per year, yet it is unlikely that HS2 would actually result in any more than a million passengers at best transferring away from Heathrow domestic flights.

A sales pitch based on a 30:1 ratio of claim to be truth would be bad enough – but when HS2 as an alternative to a 3rd runway at Heathrow was first announced by shadow transport secretary Theresa Villiers as the “cornerstone” of Conservative transport policy, is suggested a complete lack of any kind of grip on reality.

  1. Construction phasing

The irony of the way HS2 has been proposed is that the cost per mile falls drastically once the project has reached the edge of the Home Counties. This is largely because the amount of tunnelling that is needed is much less.

The return on investment for the second phase should also be much greater, as the additional length of track will enable new services to use it (e.g. to/from Leeds), and more services can be run using longer and possibly double deck trains, therefore increasing capacity. Phase 2 will also make much better use of the line built in phase 1. Additionally, phase 2 should allow regional high-speed trains to operate from Birmingham to Manchester, Leeds and beyond. In total, the additional number of high-speed seat miles per pound invested is around four times higher on the second phase than it is on the first. Yet, for some reason, the DfT has come up with a BCR (benefit cost ratio) of 2 for the first phase, and only a slightly higher figure of 2.5 for the second. Granted, some of the benefits from the second phase enhance the case for the first, but on its own, the first phase cannot deliver these. So why such a small difference?

The benefit to cost ratio slips as low as 1.4 if we just use the “direct benefits” figure, and even this is dubious, as explained below.

So the sale pitch might read “Invest in the whole project at once, and a much greater and faster return can be achieved”. Unfortunately, this sounds too much like a Ponzi scheme, so we are left with a very real prospect that billions of pounds are poured into the highly dubious phase 1 of the project, and that for one reason or another (unfortunately there are many) phase 2 gets cancelled, making HS2 a white elephant so white that even Daz could not get it any whiter.

Then there is the small question of timing.

  1. Colwhich

Of all the many flaws of the first phase of the HS2 proposal, Colwhich must be one of the biggest. If the prime purpose of HS2 is to release capacity (see above), then surely the route should continue beyond its current join with the West Coast Main line south of Rugeley up to the junction at Colwhich, which is just 7 miles further on. This is where the lines from Manchester and Stafford merge. Any transportation line is only as good as its weakest point, and stopping the line short of this junction creates a huge potential bottleneck with HS2 trains and classic services using the West Coast mainline fighting for the same short section of track.

Why does phase 1 stop where it does? It seems that a budget has been set, and that is where it runs out. Would it not be cheaper still to join the line south of Lichfield instead of crossing it and then looping back? The proposed arrangement might make the continuation of Phase 2 easier – but even with this, there will still be some running on classic lines at least as far south of Stafford. So why not enable optimum capacity on the line to Rugby from the start?

  1. Cost

The biggest and most obvious criticism of HS2 is its cost. People often ask why the government should  spend £34bn “just” to “shave a few minutes of the journey time from Birmingham to London”. As the project is split into two projects, the cost for both phases is often quoted for phase 1 – sometimes erroneously, at other times more deliberately, but it is easy to see why people get confused.

On its own, the first phase will cost just under £19bn – and it is on this part of the project, for which we have detailed information, that I am basing the majority of my criticism.

Due, amongst other factors, to the amount of the line which is situated in tunnel, this first phase is astronomically expensive, working out at around £150m per mile, far more than any comparable high-speed rail project in continental Europe. One explanation for these high costs is that the cost of land and wages is higher in the UK, but many people remain unconvinced, especially as High Speed 1 – which had an even longer tunnel to get out of London and across the Thames – cost “only” £60m per mile. Inflation might increase this figure slightly, but not to the extent that the cost ends up more than double – remember that the price quoted is based on 2011 prices, not on completion.

The McNulty review suggested that rail fares in the UK could be up to 40% cheaper than they are now. Before the Hybrid bill for this project is passed, a similar review must be undertaken to find credible ways of bringing down the cost of the project to more acceptable levels. I can think of certain airline industry executives who would relish the chance to slash the amount being spent down to more acceptable levels.

  1. Capacity

Given the crowding during certain pinch points, and continuous increases in train usage, most people would accept that some form of capacity increase on the West Coast Main line is necessary.

Whilst more space will be provided on the route between Birmingham and London, this must be the one route where the largest number of alternatives are available. In total there are four possible routes between Birmingham and the London area, the main three being West Coast Mainline (Virgin Trains), via Northampton (London Midland) via High Wycombe (Chiltern).

Various packages have been proposed to ease capacity further, and this is on top of the most obvious quick win of adding extra carriages. Supporters of the scheme say that such measures are “already being done” – and that is it. Why stop at 11 coaches, and why only do some of the fleet? Apparently this does not suit the cost benefit calculations – yet somehow a new line does?

I accept that the principal objective of HS2 is to add more capacity, and that “extra capacity 1” just would never have caught on. However, everything must be done to make the best use of the existing line, which is here already, not in 2026, before embarking on a new project, including:

  • Extending all trains as far as possible – 12, 14 carriages?
  • Only using the Voyager fleet in doubled-up mode.
  • Changing at least one first class coach to standard. First Great Western get by with 2 to 2/12 out of 8, whereas HS1 Highspeed has no first class, and on the Japanese Shinkansen, First Class is four abreast. Naturally, there is a risk of some loss of revenue – average first class occupancy is just 20%, but it is during the peaks when revenue and demand is highest. As conversion would be releasing more seats over a longer time period, the benefits should still outweigh the loss of revenue.
  • Cram in more seats Logically, continuing this reasoning forward, another 25% could be gained by making Standard Class 5 abreast, as used by many London Midland services. I would personally hate this as I really don’t think work can be done in such a cattle-truck – but – London Midland provide no information on their timetables about which of their services use which configuration. This can only suggest that many passengers are not that bothered – or that a small seat is better than no seat. The American budget airline JetBlue used to offer 34” of legroom towards the back of the aircraft, compared with 32” at the front. Providing larger seats in a reserved section, and an unreserved section with smaller seats may be one way to carry more people whilst still having more space for those who make the effort of booking it.
  • Cheaper upgrades – sometimes advance purchase first class tickets can be only slightly more than standard, and sometimes they are even cheaper. This helps balance the load, and is potentially more useful than just converting carriages. Yet there are still times when standard class is completely over-run and first class is full of empty space. A more intelligent solution would be to have a variable onboard upgrade system – even employ an auction if needed, this could easily be done using a mobile app. This would be a revenue raiser, whereas being forced to “declassify” first class creates a free-for-all, resulting in the original first class ticketholders being entitled to refunds of the price difference.
  • Bar / standing area – an even more extreme measure would be to designate one coach as a bar / standing area with flip-up chairs along the side. On the busiest services out of London, this would still be better than having everyone standing in the vestibules, whilst on the longer journeys up towards Scotland, it could enable a much more sociable experience.
  • More flexible “walk up” pricing – it has been claimed by the StopHS2 group that only just over half of all standard class seats on Virgin Trains heading north are occupied during the afternoon peak period. Without a rebuttal figure from either the DfT or supporters of HS2, I can see why this might be true. Peak time tickets are so expensive (£120 return – check from Birmingham to Euston) that the only ones who travel in this period are those who aren’t paying. Either side of this peak there is a huge crush as people all try and get home on the first available off-peak service. Chiltern Railways have a much more simple fare structure - £25 off peak, £50 interim and £75 peak return from the West Midlands to London. Why can’t Virgin Trains do the same.
  • Run the same standard of train at all times. During the peak period, 2 London Midland trains each hour run on the “fast” lines, serving destinations around Milton Keynes. These create a “wake” behind them, effectively taking up the same path allowance of two trains. It would be more efficient to use a Voyager type train for these services, even if that isn’t what they are designed for.
  • Reservation only trains – again, another last resort, but still far cheaper than building a new line. The French TGV services must be reserved, just as with any airline. This makes over-crowding impossible, although it has the downside of artificially inflating prices, and offering no flexibility for last-minute changes. However, it does ensure optimal efficiency, giving the TGV an overall occupancy level upwards of 70%, compared to around 50% for the German ICE, and around 35-40% for UK long distance trains.
  • Run more trains - As all railways will eventually adopt the ETRMS signalling system, trains will be able to run closer together still, so there is further opportunity to increase the number of services run in and out of Euston – although Euston itself would still need remodelling.
  1. Commuters

Whilst HS2 would provide extra capacity on a number of trunk inter-city lines, it would do little to relieve the misery felt by millions of commuters on a day-to-day basis. Unfortunately, their times is valued by the DfT at a much lower rate than longer distance travellers, so the business case for doing simple things like lengthening commuter trains doesn’t look so attractive. Meanwhile, the longer distance operator with the most over-crowding is actually First Great Western, whose main London terminal is Paddington – totally unaffected by HS2.

  1. Credit rating

At the moment, Britain maintains its AAA credit rating, and we all hope that we will continue to do so. However, given the tens of billions that must be invested in this project before it starts to bring in returns, there is a very real prospect that the effective rate of borrowing to make this happen will never see

  1. Contingency (lack of)

South of Lichfield, there is no diversionary route, nor is there any opportunity to at least divert hybrid trains onto the existing lines at Birmingham, in the event of a problem with the high-speed line.

Hopefully, these new services should prove to be extremely reliable, but any line is subject to potential delays, as we’ve seen with Eurostar. Continental routes tend to have more stations, so if there was a blockage at one point, a partial service could be provided with buses as a continuation. Much as though everyone hates “Rail Replacement Buses”, they are infinitely better than “rail replcament not availables”.

Historically, high speed rail suffers far few delays than classic rail – but Ryanair also have fewer delays than almost every other airline. It is the disasters people remember, not the on-time performances.

  1. Claimed economic benefits

A large element of the economic case (70% of economic benefits) for HS2 is based on savings in time compared to trains on the classic network, on the assumption that time spent on trains is not productive. This is clearly not the case, as modern portable electronic devices make it possible to do many of the activities which are possible in the office.

In fact, some business users claim train time is even more productive than in the office, as they can switch off distractions, and I have always personally found time spent on the move to be excellent for creative thinking.

The DfT rely on a study, which they themselves commissioned (whoever pays the piper), claiming that people only use 10% of their time on trains productively. Yet, the DfT has also based their calculations on the average train user earning £70,000 per year. Whilst some people may waste their time, are they seriously suggesting that executives earning this sort of salary do nothing at all whilst on board?

Also, the is no reason to assume that time saved by taking a faster train would mean more time spent at the office – it may just been a longer lie in or getting home earlier (although maybe we should expect our £70k executives to be putting the hours in!).

There may still be benefits from enabling business travellers to get more done on a same-day return trip, avoiding hotel expenses at the same time – but to base 70% of the business case on time savings alone is extremely dubious.

  1. Contempt

The way the HS2 consultation was conducted has shown nothing but contempt for people affected by it. Of course, asked if they think Christmas is a good idea, turkeys will say no – yet rather than go for the obvious “save our countryside” line, much of the campaign against HS2 has actually been based on the economics, moving away from the more typical “nimby” placards.

A much more balanced approach would be to have adopted the methodology used in the Future of Aviation White Paper in 2003, and presented at least three alternative routes for consultation. Merely presenting a highly detailed design proposal which looked very much like a done deal, and was naturally confirmed to be so, was not the sort of behaviour that should be expected from a government promoting “localism”.

The reason used for not consulting on other route options was that doing so would have caused more widespread blight. This is questionable – being on one of many route options is not the same as being on the only route, and speculation is closed once the route is confirmed. Meanwhile, numerous communities across the East Midlands, the North West and South Yorkshire are all facing the uncertainty of not knowing at all where the next phase will go.

Unfortunately, the Labour opposition have even less credibility, having proposed this route in the first place, and then coming up with suggestions for alternative routes as the decision was announced.

9) Cardiff and Bristol

Looking beyond HS2 and its natural extensions to Newcastle and Scotland, should the route prove successful, at some stage 'HS3' might be developed along the line of the great Western route to Cardiff and Bristol, with hybrid continuation to Devon and Cornwall. The first step of such a route may well be a fast connection between Redding and Heathrow airport, and consideration should be given as to whether this route would then join the HS2 tunnel at Old Oak Common, or if new additional capacity would be needed to get into central London.

If the former option is investigated, this might perhaps result in up to 6 more trains per hour running through the tunnel to Euston. Some engineers have commented that high-speed lines could take up to 30 trains per hour, but it is doubtful that Euston could take this extra capacity without further extension.

Considering our appauling track record of forward thinking, is it not better to give some consideration now as to what impact this additional line may have, even if it is many years into the future, than to have to make costly alterations later?

10. Connecting to airports


Claims that HS2 could provide a direct link into Heathrow – based on an hourly train with a complex join and split operation, which only serves Terminal 5, yet comes with a price tag of £4bn – are clearly bogus.

  • See more detail on why HS2 will never serve Heathrow directly

More worrying is that there has been no consideration at all for how a potential replacement Thames hub airport might be connected to London and beyond. Whilst these plans might well be totally unrealistic, it is much more likely that Gatwick will expand, and if anywhere was to gain a new runway, that is where it would go. Yet HS2, with its monstrously expensive tunnel which still only lands passengers on the northern edge of Zone 1, lands people with the same tortuous tube journey to get to Victoria that they already have at the moment. A much more convenient connection to Gatwick could be provided at Old Oak Common, but so far this opportunity has not been investigated.


  • See more detail on why HS2 fails to consider a Thames Hub airport or Gatwick expansion, together with comments on access to other London airports.

11. Car parking


Although the aim of integrated transport should be to encourage as much transfer as possible between long-distance trains and local rail and bus services, there will always be a sizeable number of people who will want to use a park-and-ride facility. A short drive to the station for a long-distance train journey should still be a more environmentally sound option than driving all the way.

Of the four proposed stations, only the Birmingham Parkway[1] station has any formal parking provision. Whilst it would be unrealistic to expect parking provision to be provided at Euston, which sits on the edge of London’s congestion zone, Old Oak Common is in a more suburban location, so it should be able to provide some level of parking on-site or nearby, yet it barely seems to have enough space for a drop-off zone.

Meanwhile, there is nothing confirmed in the plans for Curzon Street station to have parking, but plenty of other city centre stations do, sometimes integrated as part of a larger development – such as the Bull Ring which is adjacent to Birmingham Moor St and New St. Understandably, parking structures will have objectors. This can backfire – it is far more architecturally acceptable to integrate parking structures into a station complex design from the start than it is to add them as an afterthought later. Even worse, if demand for parking is not met by the station developers, it can just result in any available backstreet land being used, generating no revenue for the station operator, and further weakening the business case.

12. Central line and Overground (Old Oak Common)

Old Oak Common is an excellent idea to make up for the failure of Crossrail to serve the Euston – St Pancras – King’s Cross complex in the first place.

However, as it currently stands, it shows complete lack of foresight in terms of integrating into the huge network of other transport links in the nearby area.

  • Detail

13. Chiltern Route

Following recent upgrades, the Chiltern route to Marylebone, using 100 mph diesel trains is just eight minutes slower than the West Coast mainline service, clearly demonstrating that the Virgin Pendolino could be sped up somewhat to make maximum use of the line.

Meanwhile, there is ample capacity to increase frequencies still further, and longer trains could also be used.

The  Chiltern route could also provide a fantastic level of through connections if the West Hampstead interchange was given the go-ahead. This project has been proposed now for at least 10 years, and could provide a similar level of connectivity as Old Oak Common.

Yet again, why are the simple projects left gathering dust, when the glossy ones get all the attention?

14. Cornering

The DfT engineering report is very convenient – if linespeed were any faster, carbon emissions would be far too high; whereas if line speeds were made lower, they would not be a significant saving in either cost or energy use.

The reality is that all of these differences are subject to performance curves where there are increasing and diminishing returns, depending on the variables introduced.

Some critics have suggested that if it is all about capacity, why not just build a conventional line. As someone who would rather see a proper fast link to Scotland, I’d rather see a fast line, but I’d equally accept anything that brought down the cost significantly. The DfT claim that a conventional line would only save 9% compared to the one they are building. Conventional trains, which could be operated up to 140 mph with tilts, have a curve radius of around 1800m, whereas the high-speed line as prescribed has a curve radius of 7200m – so they amount of land needed to contain a complete circle of track actually goes up sixteenfold. Of course, track occupies a line not a circle, but this level of inflexibility gives far fewer options compared to a more conventional curve. Is the saving really just 9%?

15. Competition

The experience of HS1 has shown that there is virtually no discount for off-peak travel, when compared to a fully flexible peak-time fare:

To travel from Ashford to London during peak times costs £32.20, whereas the off-peak rate is £30.40, a saving of just £1.80 each way. It is apparent that the operators South Eastern trains have no real incentive to provide heavily discounted tickets, as they are also the operators of classic service trains in the south-east.

It is absolutely imperative that whichever company is given the operating licence to run services on HS2 is not the same company that runs services on the West Coast Main line.

Ideally, different services should be provided by different operators -- this would at least provide competition on the section from the Birmingham Parkway station to London – although this is probably not realistic as it doesn’t give the same flexibility to turn trains round at the Euston terminus.

16. Connectivity with other lines

Once phase 2 is completed, HS2 should provide excellent onward connectivity at both Manchester Piccadilly and Leeds, as the main stations will be used in each city. With adjustments, there is also still a great deal of connectivity that can be provided both in Birmingham and at Old Oak Common.

However one area that loses out is the East Midlands corridor. This could be simple to rectify, although DfT documents have said the junctions would be too difficult. This seems improbable on a new line.

As it curves around Litchfield, HS2 crosses a line used largely for freight, but which provides a very straight journey to Burton on Trent and onto Derby. There is also the possibility of providing a fast link to Nottingham. Based on a journey time to Lichfield of around 50 minutes, and another 5 to reach Burton on Trent, services could be operated to Nottingham and Sheffield, saving around 20 minutes and half an hour respectively, a similar time-saving to the other cities served by the first phase of HS2.

As both of these terminally currently have two trains an hour to London, this could release up to 4 track paths each hour on the busy East Midlands route, thus significantly improving the business case for Phase 1.

17. Cross-country Cut

Traditionally, cross-country trains operate from Birmingham to all corners of the UK. HS2 offers the prospect of a dramatic reduction in the time taken by cross-country journeys from Birmingham to Manchester and Leeds, and also for journeys beyond these points using electrified lines to Glasgow up the West Coast, Newcastle up the east coast and Edinburgh via either.

However, the current proposals completely sever the cross-country axis, as there is no facility to make a right turn out of Birmingham Curzon Street and continue towards either Reading or Bristol. Both of these corridors are extremely busy and could benefit from electrification anyway. There should at least be through running between Bristol and Leeds and between Reading and Manchester. This would require some remodelling around Proofhouse Junction, but it would also have the advantage of releasing capacity from New Street, effectively creating a local and a long distance station, creating opportunities for retail and catering to adapt to these different markets.

18. Curzon Street

Birmingham Curzon Street will have the dubious distinction of being the only regional high-speed rail terminus in Europe that hasn't either been built on the site of an existing station, or combined all other services under one new roof on a new site (e.g. Zaragoza). This is a surprising lament to many, considering how badly hated new Street is. However, although New Street is undergoing a significant cosmetic enhancement, there is no room to accommodate new trains, especially ones which are longer and taller than the current ones. A tunnel through New Street would obviously be prohibitively expensive, and it will provide relatively little benefit as most services would still terminate there.

A much more interesting proposal was put forward by Arup to develop a “Birmingham Gateway” station on the same site as proposed for the current HS2 station.

This would have been a much more attractive option as all trains would have connected in the same place. Ultimately, the power of such a networked hub should have outweighed the slight location disadvantage.

Despite the seemingly incredible short-sightedness of making changes to New St without considering the impacts of a high speed line, this project is already happening, and whilst I remain heavily critical of much of what the DfT is doing, this is a mistake they inherited, not one they made.

Much more worryingly, in the consultation document regarding development of the station at Curzon Street, whereas most aspects were described using the word would, the idea of a much-needed fixed travelator link between the two stations was only mooted with a could. This means that these two stations might easily end up like St Pancras and Euston – you can walk between them, but you have to dodge traffic, shoppers, stargazers and anyone else who gets in the way. Of course you can always hop on the tube from Euston and Birmingham trams are promised too – but when? And let’s hope they’ve learned a few lessons from Edinburgh too!

19. Carbon Dioxide & Coal

There is much scepticism over whether or not high-speed to HS2 will provide a net reduction in carbon emissions, considering the environmental case for the new line claims it will be carbon neutral at best.

However, ultimately carbon emissions are as much a question of power sourcing as they are a question of energy usage and efficiency. With electric cars also likely to see a significant uptake in the coming years, investment needs to be made in the power supply to ensure that trains using HS2 can take as much supply from UK generated renewable energy as possible.

Far too much emphasis has been placed on wind power, whereas the German model is to use a lot more solar power. A combination of all available options will be needed, as unlike Switzerland and Norway, which do have virtually carbon free (at the point of use) rail networks, we don’t have much opportunity to use hydro-power.

20. Classic lines


A lot of emphasis has been placed on how HS2 will improve services on classic lines due to the extra capacity it releases. Many people are unsurprisingly sceptical, especially as much of the additional capacity may well be released for freight, rather than passenger services. Meanwhile, there are numerous smaller projects which despite having been proposed for decades, remain long overdue, for example just locally to Coventry are the following:

·                     Coventry to Royal Leamington Spa is an important part of the cross-country network, as well as a potential local link between Stratford upon Avon and Nuneaton, yet it remains single track. It may see the new high-speed line run underneath it, whilst it remains a massive bottleneck both to passenger services and freight. At long last, an upgrade of the Nuneaton to Coventry railway has recently been improved.

·                     Kenilworth is already the largest town in England to have a railway running through it but no station, and thanks to HS2 it will now have two railways and no station.

·                     Warwick is a sizeable town with a world-famous castle, yet disabled access is only available to passengers arriving from London or departing to Birmingham. If you are wheelchair bound, you might as well enter a scene from the League of Gentlemen – “Welcome to the town you’ll never leave!” This is totally unacceptable in 2012.

21. Calatrava (Architecture)

Santiago Calatrava is a Spanish architect who was designed many iconic station projects, including the Central Station in Liège, Belgium, Lyon airport TGV station and Oriente Station in Lisbon. Other notable architecturally impressive new station developments in mainland Europe include Berlin's Grand Central, and the combined Terminal 2 and associated TGV station at Paris Charles de Gaulle airport.

Whatever criticisms may be levelled at the exorbitant cost of the first phase of HS2, station design is one area where design by cost benefit ratio is not the way forward.

The capital costs of a high-speed rail project are largely borne by the tracks themselves and the foundations they are laid on (especially tunnels, viaducts etc). Even in stations, a high proportion of the cost is already allocated to the station box design, the platforms (which are of a universal shape) and the track layouts -- leaving the architecture as essentially a case of how to attach a roof to the platforms and cross bridges.

Design drawings for the stations so far suggest that no thought has been applied to making these projects as exciting as possible. Architectural competitions must be held for all of the stations, and such designs should include the whole scheme, including commercial space, parking and other structures – otherwise we will just end up with a visual mess like the Bull Ring Shopping Centre!

22. Compatibility

Plenty of emphasis has been placed on claims that HS2 will be backwardly compatible with the classic lines. The Department of Transport's detailed documents suggest a different picture -- classic compatible (hybrid) trains may be as short as eight carriages, giving them a treble disadvantage compared to classic trains on the same track:

·                     Unlike Virgin Pendolino stock, Hybrid trains will not be able to tilt, and therefore will be slower on conventional truck.

·                     Many Virgin Pendolino trains are already extending to 11 carriages, and could be extended further.

·                     Any operator using the classic tracks for a considerable length of time (especially London to Scotland) will have cost disadvantage compared to operators of Pendolino or similar trains, as they will be having to pay for much more expensive rolling stock, but only getting the benefits for a small portion of the journey.

The  majority of services will be operated by so-called captive trains -- i.e. high-speed line only trains, once phase 2 is open. Those services that are operated by hybrid trains will still be at a disadvantage as the captive trains can be upto 20 carriages long, and they could also be double decker. As the hybrid trains cost more to build, there is an increased operational cost which will have to either be borne by the operator or passed on to the user.

Although the DfT claim trains will run to Glasgow in the first phase, time savings will be negligible given that the losses due to tilting (around 11 minutes) will counter-balance much of the 20-30 minute time saving the first stretch of line offers. There is a lot of extra cost involved to save 15 minutes on a 4 hour 30 minute journey.

With phase two open, could there be pressure to run more services using the “captive” fleet, and to quietly brush the hybrids aside? Hopefully not as by then they should have been paid for, but if any train order gets amended or delayed, we know which one it will be.

This then begs the question as to whether or not this nearly century old (by then) high-speed train technology is the best way of providing additional speed and capacity at all.

23. Chuo Shinkansen (Maglev)

In the 1980s, a pioneering maglev train was launched, connecting Birmingham Airport to the Birmingham International railway station. Since then, Maglevs have been in commercial service both in China and Japan. Despite its incredibly short track length, the Shanghai airport maglev is the fastest scheduled train service in the world (268mph), and reliability is 99.9%+.

A new magle – the Chuo Shinkansen is being constructed in Japan between Tokyo and Nagoya. Whilst the cost of this line is very high, this is entirely due to the choice of route, not the technology.

Maglevs present some potentially very substantial advantages over conventional or high-speed trains:

·                     Faster speeds -- Maglevs have already demonstrated the potential for speeds which are much more comparable with aircraft, giving the realistic prospect of a journey from London to Scotland taking less than two hours.

·                     Faster acceleration and braking – to accelerate to 300km/h, a German ICE high speed train needs 28km, whereas a Maglev needs just 5km. This means more stops could be added without such a serious reduction in journey time.

·                     No contact friction -- high-speed trains become very expensive to maintain as speeds increase due to wear and tear on the wheels, whereas Maglevs have no wheels, so they incur much less friction, and are therefore cheaper both to operate due to lower energy usage and to maintain.

·                     Steeper gradients and tight cornering -- due to the technology used, Maglevs can fit much more tightly into the landscape, and can more easily follow existing corridors such as motorways.

·                     Cheaper tunnelling - as Maglevs ride closer to the tracks than wheeled trains, and have no need for pantographs and overhead wires.

Of course, opting for Maglev technology would be more of a risk, but it would certainly provide the revolution David Cameron has rather ambitiously used to describe the first phase of HS2.

Previous governments may have rejected Maglevs, but high-speed rail was also rejected until as recently as 2007. Far more significantly, a proposal has been made to develop the 'UK Ultraspeed' Maglev from London to central Scotland using entirely private funds. Considering the potential environmental advantages and Maglevs, both in terms of their affect on the visual landscape and they reduce energy usage, combined with the opportunity to fund the scheme without draining the public purse, isn't it about time Maglevs were given another look?

Note – the “Ultraspeed” route proposal is based on connecting up regional airports, rather than city centres. It does not present a credible alternative in its current form – so the failure of Maglev so far is more down to lack of promotion than any inherent failings in the system.

24. Commercial development

The Hong Kong model of metro development relies on releasing land above stations for commercial development, especially shopping centres and offices. Through this system, Hong Kong has been able to develop one of the world's most efficient metro systems, without affecting the city-state’s very low tax rate.

In Germany, major stations in cities such as Leipzig and Berlin have developed large shopping centres on-site, whereas in Switzerland the “Railcity” concept has been developed to include extensive shopping facilities in most major stations. Swiss planning laws give these centres additional advantages – for example, shops can only open on Sundays if they are inside a station.

Although the recent Department of Transport statement claims that the stations will act as catalysts for development, there is scant evidence from the plans that they actually will do so. If anything, the updated plans for Euston station suggest that there will be even less retail space than the current station, whereas Old Oak Common station is nothing more than two adjacent sets of platforms, with no suggestion of any retail or office space being provided at all. The opportunity to capitalise on this location in particular is running out, as the site is also intended to be the maintenance depot for Crossrail trains, when a structure could easily be built to allow development on top of this.

Meanwhile, planning permission has been granted for a significant remodel of the NEC site, yet the new station is detached from this location, on a site adjacent to a landfill site, which relies on a people mover service which can easily be swamped at peak times and on exhibition days. Locating this station on a loop (like at Cologne Bonn Airport), so that it is at the centre of the NEC and airport site would negate the need for such a people mover, and therefore much of the extra costs of doing this would already be defrayed. This site could also then be used for easy cross-platform interchange between local and HS2 services, and additionally it would enable trains to join the HS2 line, having started at Wolverhampton.

25. Cycleways

This may be my last point, but it is by no means the least!

The consultation document described the short stretch of old railway line between Kenilworth and Berkswell as being 'abandoned'. This is not technically true, as the line is a popular off-road walking and cycling route. Whilst this may seem like a trivial complaint, it is symptomatic of a much wider malaise in transport planning.

Attention always goes to the headline grabbing prestige projects, of which HS2 is by far and away the most prominent, whilst highly beneficial infrastructure for cyclists and pedestrians is often ignored. Birmingham in particular has one of the worst rates of cycling participation of any European city at just 1%. Coventry is not much better at 2% -- compare this to the Dutch city of Groningen, where 57% of journeys made by bike.

Sadly, there are just too many old railway lines which would make excellent long-distance walking and cycle paths, but which do remain dis-used. Ironically, this may be because local authorities have been waiting for them to be transferred back into usable railways, something which is not likely to happen on most of them.

The cost per mile for off-road cycle lanes is around £200,000, with considerably less be needed for quality on road lanes and measures which help improve ride-ability, such as advanced stop lines. Overall, cycle facilities can be developed for less than 1/1000th of the cost per mile of HS2 phase 1. Once built, cycle-ways require no ongoing subsidy and only very occasional maintenance, whilst also bringing the additional health benefits that mechanised transport cannot bring, and bringing down the balance of payments deficit by not depending on imported energy.

Before embarking on the hugely expensive and risky project that HS2 is, the government should also make a firm commitment to improving pedestrian and cycle facilities across the country and making sure each town has a meaningful and achievable target to raise cycling participation. Selecting a handful of “showcase towns”, or chucking a few million here and there at minor initiatives just will not do.

If HS2 has already raided the piggybank, then take some money from NHS funds!

26. Coventry

I will end with what is perhaps should be my easiest criticism, namely that because I live in Coventry, I will see no benefit from HS2, especially not from the first phase. Until Phase 2, Coventry will become the largest city in Europe to have high-speed rail on its doorstep, but not to have a station. I have left this till last, because I don't want to over emphasise what could be seen as a very local complaint.

Ultimately, people in Coventry should be classified as 'imbys' - ie, we should want this railway passing through, and we should be asking for a station.

Unsurprisingly, the local council do not see it that way, and they have voted unanimously to oppose HS2. We are told by promoters of the project that we will still benefit due to the freed up capacity, and that, for example, there will be more trains between Birmingham and Coventry. How many more do we want? There are already seven trains an hour between the two cities.

The reality is akin to telling a premiership football team that they will find it easier in the championship as there will be less competition.

Some opponents have claimed they will be as few as three fast trains per day running between Coventry and London, a figure I consider a little bit alarmist. However, I doubt there will be more than one each hour, as HS2 will take the premium traffic with trains offering up to 3 times the capacity. I also expect that instead of a one stop to London service we have at the moment, trains will always call at Rugby, Milton Keynes and Watford Junction, and maybe a few other additional points too (Hemel Hempstead, Leighton Buzzard).

Realistically, a 'Coventry South Parkway' station might well be too close to the Birmingham stations to suit the very high speeds that the government is pushing for, and it might undermine the commercial viability of the Birmingham Parkway station (note – as they currently stand, Birmingham International and Coventry both get similar patronage, yet the regional airport at Birmingham and the Exhibition Centre, important though they are, have been favoured over a whole city).

However, there is a much simpler question -- why not have a junction with HS2 using the underused Leamington to Coventry line (see classic lines above)? This could also enable some trains to run through from Wolverhampton, although a junction at the Birmingham airport site would still be better for this. This may still cause issues with line speeds, and if it was an either or between serving Coventry and having the opportunity to serve the whole East Midlands region from phase 1, I’d go for the latter.

So I am resigned to accepting that Coventry loses far more from HS2 than it gains.  Supporters say we have a station just 10 minutes’ drive away – but not everyone either can or wants to drive, and this is really only useful if you live on the western side of Coventry.

David Cameron has promised that HS2 will end the north-south divide, a claim full of hyperbole considering that regional disparities are far more complex than a single limited stop rail line can solve.

What it certainly will do though is create an on-off divide -- the growth corridors between Rugby and Milton Keynes will suffer the same fate as Coventry, whereas Wolverhampton may or may not maintain a through service to London. Look into phase 2 though, and it gets even more worrying -- whereas Stockport and Wakefield -- each with a similar population to Coventry may lose out because they are no longer the first stop on the way south to London, Sheffield is also likely to miss out entirely, as they will have to make do with a “South Yorkshire” Parkway station. It is likely that Derby and Nottingham also lose out, unless the measures suggested above are adopted.

When high speed rail has been developed in Europe, it has been common for small communities to be left out, and that is understandable. HS2 is much harder to support when it leaves out the place you live, but there is no reason to repeat this pattern further north, where there will be a bit more capacity (above the divide in the “Y”), so more stations can be accommodated.

Update: Since writing this first draft, I have seen a map suggesting the route might head east to Nottingham and then up to serve Sheffield city centre aswell. If so, this would be an enormous improvement – but the map was only an indication of flows, not an actual route proposal.

[1] It is highly inappropriate to call this station “Birmingham Interchange” when it does not enable direct cross-platform interchange with other train services, so I use the more accurate term “Parkway”.

Comments (1)

  • Gerald


    17 February 2012 at 04:51 |
    Phew, that's quite a read!

    Well as a Brummie, I think it will bring us nothing but benefits. I think you should worry less about whether or not the maths add up and just be glad that we are finally investing in the rail infrastructure we need - not to mention all the opportunities we'll get with Birmingham airport and its longer runway, more routes and so on.

    To put it in context, what is the UK economy - £3bn+. So if we spent all of it in one year and did the lot (which we should do, this has to go beyond Birmingham to be worthwhile) - it would still only be about 1% of GDP.

    Some of your comments are very constructive, others really cyncial. Have faith in the powers that be - do you really think a Tory government would be doing this if they didn't see the economic benefits?

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