State of Britain’s Railways, Part 3 – High Speed 2

Speaking of building a better network (see parts one and part two), this brings us to the topic of High Speed 2, which was greenlighted this week by the government http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-16478954 . Now I’m not a huge fan of HS2 myself. I’d rather spend the money upgrading the existing network across larger parts of the country to allow fast, but somewhat slower “high speed” trains. For example, by straightening out the existing track network and upgrading signalling, the Pendolino trains could reach their true top speeds of 250 kmph. Not as fast as HS2, but it could be implemented over much more of the country which would benefit a higher proportion of the population. I’d also look at adapting track to take double-decker trains (to ease congestion), electrification of larger parts of the network and re-opening lines closed down by the Beechings Axe which are now arguably viable again, as is currently been applied to the Waverley line in Scotland.

However, I’m not going to throw the baby out with the bath water while looking a gift horse in the mouth. At this rate, any major investment in the UK railway network is better than the default policy over the last few years of no investment. So all I’ll say is “about bloody time!”

Off course inevitably this project has picked up a few critics. Some are clearly just astroturf’s working on behalf of the airline industry and car lobby. Others are the usual NIMBY brigade…or BANANA’s as they’re more often known these days. Noting my own reservations about HS2, but the arguments against it put forward by this crowd are frankly bonkers and need debunking:

HS2 will cut a swathe right through the Chilterns!
Yes indeed it will…but not nearly as badly as the existing railway line and the two 6 lane motorways (M40 and the M1) a few miles either side of the new line! How many of these naysayers drive cars? I’m guessing most, if not all. A railway line, from an environmental, noise and area usage point of view does a heck of a lot less damage than a motorway, So it is extremely hypocritical of anyone who drives to complain about this new line. Any opponents of HS2 who are true to their convictions, you can send me the keys to your car in SSAE :>>

Furthermore, while to Londoners the Chilterns might be an nice lovely spot, its hardly the prettiest place in the British isles. Compared to Wales, or the Lake District or the highlands in fact the Chilterns are pretty dog ugly. If building a railway line across this landscape is unacceptable, then we may as well go back to the caves, as how then can you justify building a nuclear waste dump under the Lake district, new renewable infrastructure (wind turbines, etc.) in the highlands, and go shale gas drilling in and around Morecambe bay? Such a policy is in fact BANANA’s (Build Absolutely Nothing Anywhere Near Anything). Of course most of the opponents of HS2 are the usual Chipping Norton set, who just don’t want a railway line in their backyard (so more Not near my Mansion’s swimming pool!)…after all they commute by Helicopter!

HS2 will cost billions of Taxpayers money!
And how much do we spend per year subsidising the car lobby? A lot more than HS2 will cost me suspects. One also has to consider the economic benefits a railway line will bring. i.e. that it may occur to foreigners that Britain actually isn’t falling behind the rest of the modern world and they’ll invest more money in the countries ailing manufacturing and construction industries. More trade between London and the Midlands means more jobs. And ultimately more trade, jobs and inward investment means higher tax revenue for the government. While again, there’s other things I’d rather spend £17 Billion on, but I’d rather it get spent on something useful. Many of the opponents of HS2 would rather spent it on Caviar and smoked salmon.

HS2 will produce higher carbon emissions!
While this is true, comparing an existing train to a high speed one (if electrified mind!), that is not the case when one compares a HS journey to a flight or journey by car. I refer to this chart from Dr Mc Kay. Although this compares on an energy rather than carbon footprint basis. Also, he only considers “high speed” trains up to a speed limit of 200 kmph. The HS2 trains will go a lot faster, and ultimately use a lot more energy (possibly up to double his estimates). But even so, a casual glance at this graph will show you that the energy costs of a High Speed Train are nowhere near those of a car or plane, i.e. he gives a upper limit for High Speed trains of 9kWh per 100 km’s (probably more like 15-18 kWh for HS2), 68 kWh for a car and 51 kWh for a plane.

Of course this analysis ignores capacity factors (i.e. are we comparing full trains to full cars and full planes, or partially full trains to singly occupied cars?). Incidentally, this is why you will often see such a diverse line of figures on the topic of HS2. I have come across attempts by the HS2 naysayers to portray a HS2 train as worse for emissions than a car….which is true if you compare a fully loaded Prius driven sensibly and slowly to a fraction full train. Of course the reality, a packed train and a singly occupied Mondeo driven above the speed limit, produces a result where a high speed train has about a quarter to a sixth the emissions of a car. Also one needs to consider all the other nasties that come out of the tailpipe of a car, or an aircraft compared to an electric train.

It will run through several sites of special scientific Interest
There are SSSI’s and then there are SSSI’s! You have to understand that essentially anywhere that a guy with a tweet jacket, a grant from a university and a tape measure is doing a study of wildlife can be classified as an SSSI. If I wanted too, Monday morning I could have my back garden declared a SSSI – that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t build on it or I can’t hang up my washing up! Now there are some SSSI that are important and critical, but you need to take each on a case by case basis. And again, we need to balance any environmental negatives for HS2 with the environmental positives (reduced pollution related to transport).

Ticket prices on HS2 will be hugely expensive and it will be the preserve of an elite wealthy few!
Admittedly this is one of the reasons I’d favour spending £17 Billion on something else. But in the interest of fairness, lets put this one to the test. What is the price difference on the current High speed One line London to Folkestone compared to the standard rail rate and how does that compare to prices across the rest of the network?

I just had a play around on a few ticket sales websites and it works out that the ticket price for HS One is around 41-28p per mile about 1.5 times the price on that same line if you opt for a slower “standard” service. Yes, that is a bit pricy, but it’s actually cheaper than the 80p anytime and 40p off-peak prices one would currently pay if going London to Birmingham. So it would seem to me, assuming those prices get transferred over to HS2, then it will not necessarily represent a massive increase in ticket prices. Also, the primary purpose of HS2 is to get trains up north quickly, thus anyone taking a train to say Glasgow, will benefit from the higher speed sprint the train makes through the Midlands. While I’d be the first to argue that rail ticket prices need to come down in Britain (see my past posting for more on that), I don’t see how this “rich elite” argument against HS2 stands up.

We need more local lines for commuters and freight not high speed trains!
Again, this is one of my own arguments against HS2. But I’m sure the supporters of HS2 will counter it by pointing out that by moving the high speed trains to a separate network it will free up space on the track for more commuter trains and freight services. Indeed one of the arguments in favour of HS2, as opposed to my own policy of upgrading existing lines, is that the UK’s current network is under severe strain as it is. Building new lines is the only way to ease congestion on lines, and the West Coast Mine Line is one of the most congested rail routes in the country. Given how much trouble and expense it is in this country to build new railway lines, we may as well build one to the highest standard possible. While I’d still argue my corner on an economics ground (spreading the money evenly around the country), even I have to concede that the HS2 supporters may have a point here.

Summary
So while I’m not giving my unwavering support to HS2, I’m sceptical of its benefits, but as I said at the beginning, lets not throw the baby out with the bathwater!

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