Saturday, 16 March 2013

High Speed Few

with the mayor of london announcing "nearly" a billion pounds* for cycling in the capital, we may have forgotten a "public" transport scheme which dwarfs this plan in scale and cost. (*over ten years!)

Phwoar! A bridge over a canal, what an engineering-fest. Photo from
HS2 website.
I refer of course to High Speed 2 or the friendlier HS2 which will connect London with Birmingham and if we are lucky, Manchester and Leeds at some point in the future, possibly.

Here is a summary of some statistics to start us off:
  • The whole scheme (including a spur to Heathrow) will cost £34.5bn
  • It will create "benefits" of £47bn (over 60 years)
  • It will raise fare revenues of £34bn (over 60 years)
  • The level of spending on the project spread over 20 years is expected to be less than £2bn a year
  • If the whole scheme is built, it will create 330 miles of track
  • 18 trains per hour in each direction when fully operation
  • Up to 1100 people per train
So, by my rough maths, that will be £104 million a mile - or a bit more than the Mayor's proposed (and not quite funded) annual cycle budget for the entire city. 

Here is part of my route to work, the carriageway
is shot. The surface is bad enough, but the water 
has got in underneath and it is falling apart from 
the deeper layers. Still, if a few people can get 
from London to Birmingham a little bit quicker,
that will be fine.
Or looking at infrastructure already built, this year it is estimated that there is a highway maintenance budget shortfall of £829m in England or to bring the road network in England and Wales (including London) back up to standard will need a £10.5bn (I realise the survey is undertaken by a trade body, but it gets an awful lot of replies from local authority engineers). There is estimated to be 245,000 miles of roads in the UK. 

I am not interested in who pays what for the roads as we all pay one way or another and we all benefit, but it is a scandal that the UK has left its biggest piece of public infrastructure to crumble like is has and for so long. 

The motorways and trunk roads are in pretty good nick and so most of the neglect is on the local streets we rely on to get to work, school and the shops; our day to day travel.

I know I am a highways person and I don't have much professional interest in rail, but with the state of our existing transport infrastructure, HS2 seems like something we can ill afford. 

I am just not sure who needs to travel across the UK on all the time and why doing it a bit quicker will help the rest of the UK. If we need to spend on rail, we need schemes like Crossrail and London Overground in major UK cities to get people in and out efficiently and safety, plus it will free up road space for cycling and essential city functions like deliveries and waste collection.

HS2 tells us there will be many advantages;
  • Creating crucial space on crowded routes
  • Releasing room for freight
  • Better journeys between cities
  • Economic benefits and jobs
  • A whole new passenger experience
  • Positive environmental benefits
  • Regeneration
The Institute of Economic Affairs is less convinced, they state "The estimated cost of £34 billion to construct HS2 is equivalent to £1000 per UK income-tax payer. Most taxpayers will derive no benefit from the scheme." HS2 Action Alliance is not in agreement with the scheme and rebuts HS2's positives. So, just who are we building this scheme for?

I don't commute long distances between major cities and I don't know anybody who does. I know people in Brighton and Stevenage who work in London and get there by train, pay the insane rail ticket costs and HS2 certainly won't help them. I know sales reps who travel all around the country selling their wares and HS2 won't help them. 

HS2 is essentially about linking up London with Birmingham and then (probably) spurs to Manchester and Leeds, but it will do nothing to help people move around these cities. Will people switch from their cars stuck on the M40 and M6 for HS2? Will HS2 help children walk to school? Will HS2 improve transport in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland? Will HS2 do anything for East Anglia's hammering by freight lorries using the eastern ports?

HS2 will do nothing to sort out local transport problems like the
traffic congestion on Oxlow Lane, Dagenham, when the school run is

on. We need to make places like this easy for pedestrians and cycle
users so they don't need to sit in traffic, like the bus from which this 
photo was taken!
I am less worried about the various arguments for and against HS2 and more worried about whether it is the right scheme for the UK, even though it will keep many of my fellow professionals in a job. The trade press is full of articles praising the project and it is a bonanza to the private sector which is advising the Government on the project and who will build and operate the scheme (like HS1).

Against the backdrop of the ongoing scandal of our (literally) crumbling local roads and people's daily travel needs, this project is in my opinion, yet another centralised bit of political vanity. Imagine if this money was invested in walking, cycling and public transport in London, Birmingham, Manchester and Leeds?


  1. I think it is reasonably clear that HS2 is aimed at business travel. That presumably is where the somewhat underwhelming estimate of "benefits" comes from. The theory is that businessmen will benefit from fast inter-city journeys, to attend meetings etc.

    Quite why anyone really feels the need to makwe it to Brum from London in less than an hour instead of a less than an hour and a half I really don't know - after all, it will end up taking longer to get from an office in the City or West End to the rail terminus than the rail journey itself will take! Rather like a typical short haul European air journey where the flying time is no more than a fifth of the total journey time.

    So HS2 only makes sense if it extends to Manchester and Leeds, and then to Edinburgh and Glasgow. Even on current services at up to 125mph, from centre to centre you probably make the journey to Manchester faster by train than by air, and although it is more expensive by train, to a businessman, recovering the fare on expenses, that isn't important.

    If the train reduces the demand for air travel over these distances (and to places like Paris, Brussels, Amsterdam, where rail times already compete well with air) that can only be a good thing.

    Or can it? I am a "businessman" and I have frequent dealings with people in Mancheter, Leeds, Amsterdam, Paris, New York etc. And yet, I almost never find it necessary to go there. That is partly because, getting on in years now and having been there, done that, I have woken up to the fact that there is no glamour in travel, but that also suggests that manny people make journeys which are really not necessary. I cringe at my colleagues who travel to the States, Business Class at a cost of £4-5k return, for purely internal matters where there is no client picking up the tab. This is MY money they are chucking away!

    You see, we have these amazing new devices, arrived since the advent of the aeroplane, called the telephone, and email, and videoconferencing. We recently installed a system called Microsoft Lync, which handles all our phone calls and conferencing, but can also permit us to "chat" in a short message system. If my colleague Jeff in Chicago or Lou in New York want to arrange a conversation, they just drop a short message which I can reply to in an instant, and we can set up a three-way conference call in a matter of minutes.

    So, who needs to do all this travel? We alreadt know that young people are staying away in droves from cars, not just because they can't afford them - true - but because they have new ways to communicate with each other which doesn't require them to climb into a car and drive miles to meet them. Twitter, facebook, BBM, texting. My daughter skypes her best mate Alice, who is living for a couple of years in LA as her mum is seconded there by her employers, every Sunday morning.

    While I would have some concerns about the absence of a high speed rail line implying more motorway traffic, or further Heathrow runway expansion, there is another view, which is to move away from hypermobility altogether. One of these days it will happen, whether we like it or not, and by then the adjustment will be all the more painful.

  2. Perhaps if we weren't skint and had developed high speed rail at the same time of motorways we wouldn't be so far behind. Short haul flights have shrunk a bit in recent years and yes, the need to be physically present for some business has also diminished (Lync is pretty cool!).

    I just think that the day to day travel of ordinary people should be our priority at the moment - we have never done local travel well and that is why many roads surrounding towns and cities are stuffed twice a day.