COMMENT FROM THE ARCHIVES: R892 - Build HS2 in full, says Review

  • This Comment was published in RAIL 892 (November 20-December 3 2019).

It was no surprise to hear that publication of the Oakervee High Speed 2 Review was to be delayed until after the Yuletide General Election - but it was a surprise to see a draft of the report leaked to The Times, which published details on November 12.

The leak indicated that Oakervee had concluded that the proposed Y-shaped network should be built in full, despite rising costs, in order to secure best value. I have previouslyargued that Oakervee was more about validation than cancellation, although it was also clear that there would have to be mitigation, too. And so it has proved, if this leak is a genuine summary of Oakervee’s draft conclusions.

I had worried about what those mitigations might be, because there are either limited options which would yield major savings at enormous cost in terms of value and economic outcomes - or fanciful ideas which sound good but which would save relatively little.

For example, we’ve seen lots of heat, but little light, about reducing speeds. This would save maybe £500 million, which on a project costing tens of billions of pounds is marginal. Or there’s major surgery, such as scrapping the Eastern section to Leeds through the East Midlands. This would indeed reduce costs significantly, but would also scrap one of the potentially most transformative pieces of the whole HS2 project in economic/social impact.

Likewise Euston and the radical proposal to scrap the proposed HS2 terminus and its expensive tunnel link to Old Oak, where a new terminus would be located. HS2 passengers would thereby be distributed across London by Crossrail. Superficially logical, this is in reality a barmy proposal: Old Oak could never have the capacity to process and reverse the intense HS2 traffic pattern and timetable.

Scrapping the entire project was never likely to be proposed, given that £9 billion has already been spent and regeneration/business development in Birmingham is already rapidly under way ready for HS2’s arrival. I also cannot envisage any government, regardless of political outlook, scrapping what will be Europe’s biggest civil engineering project in whatever degree of post-Brexit turmoil we encounter. Scrapping HS2 could also deliver a near-mortal blow to our already-strugglingcivil engineering contracting industry.

Relatively minor mitigations include reducing the proposed 18 trains per hour (tph) in each direction to 14 and scrapping the HS2/West Coast Main Line junction at Handsacre in favour of building Phase 2a directly to a WCML connection at Crewe. The leaked report also proposes allowing existing trains on HS2 to maximise connectivity benefits.

HS2’s ‘procurement strategy’ is criticised - but vaguely. And herein, I suspect, lies the real problem with HS2 costs. Assuming what I have learned is true, it is not a story Government will enjoy seeing discussed.

I am led to believe that in procuring construction contracts HS2 was ordered by Government to ‘export design risk’, which sounds innocuous. It isn’t. Take an embankment. You design it, build it, put a railway on it (all long established, easily costed technology), use it and maintain it.  But what if you said  to the designer/builder: “We want you to guarantee this embankment will not settle by more than 25mm over the next 30 years.”

Three things happen. Firstly, we now have an explanation for all the torrid tales we’ve been hearing about ludicrous gold-plating. In this instance it’s a perfectly good embankment which then has hefty concrete columns sunk into it to eye-watering depths: you effectively build a viaduct inside your new embankment. Secondly, because the risk is so gobsmacking, and your company might not be around in 30 years when the settlement is 26mm and hideous financial penalties kick in, the builder has to insure against the liability. And the third thing? The cost absolutely soars.

I am told that this Government contracting insanity turbo-charges costs by one third. This would equate to £20bn on the full Y network - almost exactly the increase in costs which triggered Oakervee’s review in the first place!

Now, as regular readers know I have been highly critical of HS2’s approach - not least it’s appalling public messaging, which recently has improved significantly. But to blame HS2 for contracting failures when it is simply following government orders is way out of line. This is government - yet again - seeking to palm off risk, which it should rightly bear, to the private sector. It has form for this. In rail, franchises have been hobbled by the DfT forcing franchise holders to underwrite national economy risks (GDP) they are ill-equipped to bear and which is clearly a government responsibility. Likewise railway pensions, where Government has sought to off-load risk onto the private sector. Here, it seems, Government is compelling HS2 to pass on long-term infrastructure risk to contractors who build it - with the inevitable skyrocketing of costs. 

Oakervee Review Deputy Chairman Tony Berkeley (a long-standing HS2 critic) claims the report is a whitewash which crucially relies on manipulation of the Benefit Cost Ratio. Berkeley claims that benefits are calculated on a basis of an “unachievable 18tph” when the report says it would be prudent to run 14tph - especially as no HS route in the world operates more than this number, other than a Japanese route running 15tph.

Sounds convincing - until it’s pointed out that the Japanese route in question was designed to run 15tph and that the limiting factor is the ‘junction reoccupation factor’. In other words, that Japanese line has flat station throats and so the frequency of arrivals and departures is limited by the minimum time taken for quarter-mile-long trains to clear points and crossings to allow conflicting movements. It is nothing to do with technology out along the line. Automatic Train Operation and ETCS can make a difference on the open line - it cannot solve the bottleneckproblem of flat terminus throat layouts.

This is why the new Euston terminus features grade-separated junctions to allow simultaneous arrivals and departures. This boosted capacity is key. Given limited scope for specification reductions,  Oakervee might recommend scrapping the grade separations at Euston in favour of a flat throat. You’d save a few hundred million pounds, but you would also limit HS2 - otherwise designed for 18tph -  to no more than 14tph for ever.

This is not a new principle. Look at the throats and approaches to both Euston and King’s Cross and you’ll see the grade separations that the Victorians built for exactly this reason - they boost capacity massively. There are no such grade separations at Paddington, Victoria and Waterloo, and we are still paying a hefty price in terms of restricted capacity.

We must not do the same with HS2. Build the full network. It’s time to get on with it.

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