COMMENT SPECIAL: Let’s get HS2 done


I have often despaired at the poor-quality journalism seen in national broadcast and print news media. Sometimes, it’s actually funny. But the towering tsunami of misleading, badly researched and plain wrong ‘news’ I saw about the recent HS2 leaked report was anything but funny. It came closer to boiling my bladder than any other recent irritant. I cannot recall seeing such poor standards in the reporting of any railway news in the last decade. And my goodness, that’s a low bar.

I arrived home on January 20 after a day’s dire coverage of the leaked Oakervee HS2 report and switched on the TV. The first words I heard (direct quote) were from Sky News anchor Mark Austin: “…the HS2 train arriving in 20 years has a £106bn bill attached… details of a damning leaked report…”

BBC News also reported the £106bn figure as fact. For ITV, it was “the latest estimate”.

Bizarrely - but equally damaging - was a suggestion that north of Birmingham HS2 would use bits of new line cobbled together with sections of existing routes, conjuring images of pre-HS1 Eurostar from Waterloo. Unsurprisingly - and rightly - Greater Manchester Mayor Andy Burnham exploded, angrily rejecting this “second class option of trains trundling on old track north of Birmingham”.

I have many issues with Burnham’s rail approach (especially Northern), but on HS2 RAIL is shoulder-to-shoulder with the Manchester Mayor and Birmingham Mayor Andy Street. This pair are batting jointly across the political divide to campaign for HS2 - and I’m right there with them.

This is an enormously important and highly divisive national question demanding rational argument - but this is well-nigh impossible when the story as reported by wider national media is so flawed and deficient.

When I started in railway journalism as Assistant Editor of Steam World in 1981, I vividly remember Editor David Wilcock saying: “Nige, we aren’t here to give either a platform or credibility to nutters!” There were only a handful of standard gauge heritage railways back then, and Woodham’s Barry scrapyard was still full of derelict steam engines. Every day brought press releases making wild claims about buying and reopening another branch line, or selling enough key rings to acquire and restore Woodham’s wrecks ‘within two years.’

David was right that an editor has a responsibility to excercise a healthy degree of informed scepticism. His view was that if we reported every scheme as they would have liked, we would have looked silly and misled our readers into believing some wild claims. He insisted on at least challenging those claims, setting context and examining provenance in reporting their news.

This sort of scepticism seemed completely absent from all the HS2 Oakervee leak news coverage I saw or read. Every news editor had apparently swallowed it whole, failed to properly understand its nuances, and served up the damaging coverage its leakers had hoped for. Gullible news editors had ‘fallen for it’.

■ Where was the scepticism? The key questions for a news editor were: Who leaked this? What do they have to gain? What is it the leakers want us to say to further their case? Can the figures be trusted? Where do the numbers come from? What do they cover? Are we being used by the leaker for his or her own ends?

So, I’ve listed a few of the myths (which should have been dispelled), key questions (that should have been answered), and contextual points (which should have been clarified) about the leaked report. As a news editor of 35 years and counting, here are some notes I would have made, to brief my journalists:

■ North of Birmingham, all we have are lines drawn on a map. No detailed design has been done. None. So how is that £106bn arrived at? And what is it? Estimate? Proposed budget? Make sure we have properly taken inflation into account and don’t forget the very large Treasury contingencies forced on HS2 a few years ago, which jacked up costs from £32bn to around £44bn. Is Oakervee saying that costs could reach £106bn unless HS2 north of Birmingham is reassessed/redesigned?

■ Using traditional lines and some new HS lines north of Birmingham? Does that really mean a Eurostar-Folkestone ‘trundle’? Or is Oakervee proposing that HS2 north of Birmingham should be designed in conjunction with Northern Powerhouse Rail, so existing and high-speed services are properly integrated? Dig deeper into this to ensure we properly understand what is really being said.

■ New northern Conservative MPs claim that Northern Powerhouse Rail (NPR) is more important than HS2 and should be pursued instead. Ask them to explain precisely what they mean, given that NPR is 100% dependent on using HS2 infrastructure, such as the enlarged/enhanced Manchester Piccadilly. If HS2 isn’t built, then NPR as envisaged is impossible. How do these Tory MPs reconcile their opposition to HS2 with the Prime Minister’s promises to ‘do right’ by northern constituencies who lent them their votes (his words) in 2019? Put them on  the spot.

■ Related question -  nail this nonsense that HS2’s budget could be better spent on northern city transport projects, or even hospitals and schools. Projects such as HS2 are funded from specific borrowing, because long-term financial benefits ensure the project pays for itself through increased economic activity. If HS2 is scrapped that borrowing doesn’t take place. There is no pile of HS2 money which could be spent on Northern light rail or hospitals - or anything else. This is a myth.

■ As for HS2 being the most expensive railway in the world (or the most expensive in Europe), Crossrail and the Channel Tunnel were both more expensive. As for comparative European HSR costs; if you exclude stations and rolling stock from the price, HS2 Phase 1 has a rough cost of £24bn - about £170m per mile at 2019 prices. That compares with £109m/mile for HSL-Zuid in the Netherlands and £200m/mile for the Gyeongbu high-speed railway in South Korea - both lines where the stations were a separate project. Incidentally, HS1 cost £135m/mile at 2019 prices, while the M74 extension in Glasgow cost £185m/mile. Crossrail is costing at least £270m/mile.

Aside from the direct financial costs of cancelling HS2 (up to £8bn has already been spent) and tens of thousands of obvious job losses, what would be the long-term wider financial implications for UK plc? It would be unprecedented for such a massive project, which has been under way for a decade, to be cancelled. How would our civil engineering and construction industry react? Would contractors lose trust in Government? Would they ‘price in’ much higher risk on future government projects? Will future big projects therefore cost more if we scrap HS2? Is this a greater cost than whatever the perceived savings are from scrapping HS2?

■ Let’s clarify the ancient woodlands question. The emerging new Lower Thames motorway crossing (14 miles) takes 54 hectares of such woodland, while the entire 345 miles of HS2 takes just 58 hectares. A House of Lords committee has commented: “The loss of less than one hectare of ancient woodland from about 11,000 in the Chiltern AoNB is, we consider, a remarkable achievement.” Let’s answer this definitively. It is claimed that the whole HS2 route from London to Leeds and Manchester will have an impact on just 0.01% of our ancient woodlands - that’s just one ten-thousandth of ALL the UK’s ancient woodland. Opponents give the impression of much greater impact. Find out.

■ One of the biggest cost drivers has been Government’s insistence that HS2 contractors take long-term risk on whatever they build. This has added around 30% to costs on Phase 1 - on the whole project this would amount to £30bn of avoidable costs to the taxpayer.

I’ll leave you to decide how many of these key issues were properly explored by TV and print news in their Oakervee leak coverage. That potential £30bn of extra costs caused directly by Government procurement policy has not been reported or commented on in detail anywhere in the national news. Shameful. News editors should hang their heads in shame. How could such a major source of over budget cost be missed?

A major problem is that just about all the news coverage I saw focused almost exclusively on financial cost. The costs of NOT going ahead with HS2 barely had a mention in terms of the lost massive capacity enhancements on the West Coast, East Coast and Midland Main Lines, all of which would benefit from a doubling - or even tripling - of capacity at not one penny of extra cost in terms of better infrastructure. All HS2 benefits to the existing network come from the removal of existing trains. On the West Coast, for example, transferring 47 daily Euston-Manchester weekday expresses alone to HS2 releases enormous capability to run many more commuter, inter-urban and freight trains. And by the way, the fact that this number before privatisation was 17 underscores the urgent need for HS2. As Yorkshire journalist Andrew White pointed out, the National Audit Office’s 2006 report into the West Coast Route Modernisation concluded: “The programme’s remaining key projects will increase capacity for passengers and freight, but the industry consensus is that the line will not be able to sustain current growth levels beyond 2015-2020.”

HS2 effectively gives us four ‘new’ main lines for the price of one - nowhere do you see this enormous ‘free’ benefit strongly reported or advocated. The quickest way to get thousands of new commuter trains onto our existing network is to build HS2.

A common anti-HS2 argument is that
existing lines could be upgraded instead of building HS2. Not one of these critics offers any evidence as to how it might be accomplished, or at what cost. To their shame, not a single national media news editor… not one… briefed staff to examine such a frequently peddled alleged HS2 alternative.

We have done this. I asked a specialist to look at upgrading existing lines to broadly assess what this would actually mean. Let’s start with the first requirement: segregation of long-distance express services, which is one of HS2’s key advantages. We would need to:

■ Add two extra tracks on the WCML all the way from London to Birmingham andf Manchester.

■ Add two extra tracks for much of the MML as far as Sheffield.

■ Add two extra tracks on the ECML from King’s Cross to Leeds and York, including new tunnels and a new viaduct at Welwyn.

■ Quadruple CrossCountry’s routefrom Birmingham to Derby, Sheffield and Doncaster.

■ Grade separate EVERY junction on ALL of those lines - dozens of projects the size of the current £200m Werrington dive under, north of Peterborough.

Anyone recalling the heartache, massive cost, disruption and significant political damage caused by the West Coast upgrade to the government of the day will recoil at such a prospect. Small wonder NR CEO Andrew Haines described this supposed alternative to HS2 as “absurd”, warning that it could close parts of our inter-city network every weekend for 30 years. Think also of imposing London Bridge or Euston-style disruption nationwide at every major station, where extending platforms for longer trains and widening the footprint for extra platforms  would wipe out thousands of homes and businesses as well as triggering massive road diversion costs in all these congested towns and cities. In the countryside, those thousands of miles of main line widening would have a much bigger impact on ancient woodland than the 0.01% that HS2 planners have been smart enough to secure.

Watch or listen to national broadcast news, or read the newspapers, however, and you’ll learn none of this crucial information.

Oh, and by the way - even after such massive disruption over three decades, upgrading the existing network would still only create a fraction of the massive capacity uplift which HS2 brings on the three existing main lines from London to the North.  Building HS2 really is a no-brainer when you know the facts, but the failure of national news to tell you all this means we are courting national,  economic, social and transport disaster.

The consensus is that the Oakervee leak came from Downing Street advisers who are keen to kill HS2. And unless supporters rally and push back - hard - they may yet succeed.

They are shamefully aided and abetted by Secretary of State for Transport Grant Shapps, who, I assume, is dragging his feet because he is terrified of losing his job in the forthcoming Cabinet reshuffle. His often ludicrous comments about railways (“train operators have no incentive to run to time”) indicate a woeful lack of understanding to accompany his very evident lack of detailed interest in rail.

Nature - and politics - abhors a vacuum. In the absence of Oakervee’s published conclusions, we first had Lord Berkeley’s feeble minority report, which frankly even the national media found weak and pointless. Now we have this much more dangerous and malicious leak, seemingly from No. 10 advisers, which is doing real damage to HS2 given the appalling failings I have outlined in national news reporting and analysis. Shapps must understand that history will damn him for his clear breach of the Government’s promise to publish Oakervee promptly, when he received it - which was before Christmas.

Shapps and DfT officials parrot the line that Oakervee’s report is incomplete. That is not true. In my detailed research for this Comment Special I came across a tweet posted on January 20 by Andrew Sentance, whose header tells me that he is “Senior Adviser to Cambridge Econometrics and independent business economist, member of Bank of England MPC, 2006-11”:

“It is a total shambles that this HS2 review has not yet been published. It was completed nearly three months ago. I know as I was a member of the Oakervee review panel. When ministers describe the review report as a ‘draft’ they are misleading the public.”

In other words - we are being lied to. What a disgusting state of affairs, presided over by a Prime Minister who promised a new and honest approach. We are not seeing that.

My final words here are to Prime Minister Boris Johnson and HS2 Review Chairman Doug Oakervee - who I suspect is beyond enraged at this appalling Government policy, which is to allow this malicious leak to do its worst. This ‘rolls the pitch’ for scrapping HS2, or scaling it back to the point it becomes pointless, but still costs a fortune. It’s dishonest.

Doug - if you want to sit down for an interview with me, now or in future, just call me.

Boris - if you want to keep your credibility - but more importantly (for you and your legacy) those millions of loaned Northern votes which gave you the keys to No. 10 and such an enormous majority - do the decent and right thing: keep your promises.

Stand by your word. Convince us you told the truth. Let’s get HS2 done.

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  • Johnny walker - 14/02/2020 16:50

    let work on Upgrading existing lines and scrap hs2 and you should be ashamed of yourself Boris Johnson make hs2 to go ahead it should not go ahead and let give hs2 red light and scrap hs2 now and let work on reopening existing old rail tracks .

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  • John Helm - 14/02/2020 19:02

    Dear Nigel, I was originally in favour of HS2 and bought the arguments about capacity and not upgrading the existing network, etc, etc, etc. However, the more I studied it the more I began to realise how appallingly bad the current set up is. HS2 is a fundamentally flawed project; it gives high speed rail a bad name. It was conceived as a standalone and is very poorly integrated with the rest of the network. There are many things wrong with it, namely: It won’t connect with HS1 or Heathrow Airport; HS2 trains will run into dead end stations at Leeds, Manchester and Birmingham, with no through running beyond. Curzon Street will have HS2 trains all to itself as there will be no other connecting rail services to. Two different train fleets will be required, one to run on HS2, the other to serve the rest of the network. The London-centric nature is self-evident from its ‘Y’ configuration (and it will probably suck far more traffic southwards than the other way). Euston does not have the same Underground access as KX/StP (and doesn’t connect with Thameslink either). Also, the North does not end at Leeds or Manchester – though some folks in London seem to think so - and passengers to Scotland and the North East will still have to trundle over 19th century tracks to get there. (And at slower speeds too, as the non-tilting ‘classic compatibles’ will not be as fleet of foot as the ‘Pendolinos’). An Anglo-Scottish high speed line from the Central Belt linking up with HS1 and the Channel Tunnel would have made far better sense . . . (And if Boris wants to keep Scotland after the Brexit fall out in the UK it might make good political sense as well). Then there is the all-important question about FARES. HS2 promoters are very tight-lipped about this. If HS1 is anything to go by, premium fares (around 20%) will apply to pay back the massive capital outlay. A precedent has already been set. No point in building a railway if no one can afford to use it! The Berkeley report is not ‘feeble’. His lordship made a number of good points. If his allegation that Parliament was deliberately misled over the real costs of HS2 is true, it would constitute a very serious offence. Note also that the construction costs quoted for HS2 do not take account of: (1) the effect of future inflation; (2) rolling stock costs; and (3) a large chunk of the £43bn that Armitt (NIC) said was necessary for regional transport improvements. Oakervee waxes lyrical about property development at stations, especially at Euston and Curzon Street. But has he given the game away? Who benefits most from this? HS2 or the developers? Is the property tail wagging the rail dog? He offers no words of comfort for would be passengers. The poor sods will have to taxi, tram or leg it from Curzon St to New St, or squeeze themselves into overcrowded tubes between Euston and KX/StP. According to HSUK, the main HS2 design flaw is that it was configured for a maximum 400km/h (250mph) speed which necessitated a 7800m minimum radius curve, whereas a 360km/h (225mph) max speed would have reduced that to 5700m. The higher specification meant HS2 had to be routed through the Chilterns not the M1 – the natural corridor for traffic to the North and Midlands since Roman times, and one taken by the early road, rail and canal builders. HSUK also claimed that their plans could link up more places, more quickly and more cheaply. Why where these plans – drawn up by professional railway engineers - never seriously examined? They should have been properly scrutinised (if only to be debunked). Given that HS2 will be the construction project of the century all serious options should be on the table. It’s essential to get it right, even if that means a bit more delay by going back to square one and starting again. HS2 is a classic example of a good cause in the wrong hands. The politicians, civil servants and property developers who hatched this scheme have ticked all the wrong boxes and joined up all the wrong dots. It’s a text book example of how NOT to build a high speed railway. No self-respecting professional rail engineer would disgrace his name or his profession by coming up with such a useless and botched plan. But it’s deeply depressing to see that much of the rail lobby – including the rail press – appear to have uncritically accepted and swallowed much of the HS2 agenda. For the sums of money involved the nation deserves, and could have had, something much better than what is now offered. As you say in your piece, RAIL should not give a platform or credibility to ‘nutters’. Well, as things currently stand, HS2 must be the nuttiest scheme of the lot.

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    • Jacob Jonker. - 16/02/2020 07:42

      Yes, moreover, the entire scheme reads like a scam, and no, it is not a good cause. England is not France, as for the HS rail in Holland..., what a waste of money.

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      • John Helm - 17/02/2020 12:20

        And another thing: HS2 potentially threatens every other rail project in the country. Boris may be splashing the cash now but the day will come when it runs out and we will have to tighten our belts (again). It’s a fair bet that HS2 spend will get priority but there may not be much left for any other rail projects. How about that then, Nigel?

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    • Angus Munro - 22/02/2020 11:05

      Shinkansen trains on the Tokaido line have a 1 degree tilt. They can run through 2500m radius of curve sections at 270kmph/167mph, and 285kmph/177mph on 3km radius of curve. If the HS2 Talgo and Alstom trains can also tilt up to their historic 8 degree limit at 220mph HS2 speeds then we would be able to retain all HS2 published journey times to date even on a Grant Shapps denuded Phase 2b or core NPR Manchester to Leeds line. A 400kmph aligned Phase 2b or NPR line running tilting trains could have a radius of curve less than 6km, reducing alignment difficulties as population centres and terrain could be more easily avoided with noise mitigation costs reducing. The power units for all HS2 bidders can run at the HS2 design spec. However as the DfT/HS2 never had a requirement for tilt in their procurement document no one knows what the capability of Talgo or Alstom HS2 tilting trains could be. Talgo run tilting trains at 270kmph / 167mph on the Madrid-Seville line (and these really do tilt, probably up to 8 degrees having been on them) and the Alstom Avelia Liberty is downgraded in the US to 300kmph max but they say will tilt – but what is possible above the 4th generation 155mph Pendolino speed? Are the coaches locked out or can they continue to tilt to any speed? So there is an industry solution to having a tighter radius of curve 220mph high speed network (the straight restrictive Phase 1 being a major cost inflator for HS2) and with faster running on CP8 ERTMS upgraded lines up at least 155mph - it just needs industry to want to provide a solution and the DfT to understand there is a serious problem in being unable to run above 125mph on sinuous existing lines. 140mph is likely possible on the straight sections of existing line, but significant sections of the WCML, ECML north of Darlington, or the MML would remain 125mph max. That makes for a poor upgrade outcome unless tilt trains are chosen and they can all run at up to 155mph in tilt mode and bypass slower traffic that is overtaken at 4 track locations.

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  • Angus Munro - 22/02/2020 10:10

    Absolutely correct on many points, but just one day after HS2 was approved, Shapps indicated there would be a 6 month review of Phase 2b and NPR and that to keep costs down both could be more circuitous and so any trains have to run slower. Suddenly the HS2 published times of London to Glasgow and Edinburgh of 3h38m become a lot closer to 4h especially if Phase 2b becomes a traditional 125mph line and the WCML isn't upgraded. When the fastest Paris to Bordeaux journey is 2h5m today we will still be decades behind. There should now be a delay to seriously rethink what classic compatible and dedicated HS2 rolling stock runs on HS2 and beyond, and NPR. We will have a hybrid 220mph and sinuous existing network decades into the future – pick trains that can operate on both and offer potential opportunities for future speed increases on the existing network upon which they will operate. Putting HS2 non-tilting trains on 160 miles of HS2 to Crewe, to then cover the remaining 240 miles to Glasgow and Edinburgh at 125mph isn’t clever. 350kmph tilting trains now exist; they didn’t when the HS2 design began. If the West Coast Main Line could be considered by BR as a potential APT 155mph line in the 1970s, then with ERTMS/ETCS during CP7/CP8, we would have the ability to significantly decrease journey times all over the UK just by use of the next generation tilting trains from the likes of Alstom and Talgo. Conveniently, both companies will build their trains in the UK, but the DfT never specified that HS2 trains should tilt, even though both companies have the capability to produce such trains. Yes, a heavier tilting train isn’t ideal, but it is very likely it was only because HS2 had already spent billions of pounds, that we got the go ahead, and Phase 2b and NPR are likely to be denuded and not be to the specification of Phase 1&2a! So getting the go ahead for future lines will be a whole different ball game. We still have two £3bn aircraft carriers with insufficient F35s to fly from them and insufficient type 45 destroyers to defend them. Wishing for another £40bn high speed line just to Glasgow or even Newcastle is unlikely to be a priority for any future government. The Alstom Avelia Liberty is off for testing this week in Colorado. Capable of 350kmph and tilting (the 4th gen Pendolinos can do that to 155mph), then the 240 miles of track remaining from the end of Phase 2a at Crewe to Glasgow and Edinburgh could be upgraded with 4 tracks at suitable places to allow these trains to pass slower trains at speed. Talgo’s Madrid-Seville trains tilt at up to 270kmph, and the new power cars for HS2 meet the 360kmph speed requirements. Some lateral thinking is needed because I don't think there is anyone on this website that believes the WCML north of Wigan, or the ECML north of York are going to be replaced by shiny new 220mph HS2 type high speed lines anytime before 2040 given 160 miles = £40bn. More realistically, Denmark built 60km of 300kmph line for €1.1bn [2011 prices] and have approved another 35km of 250kmph line for €600m. This makes a hybrid new and part upgraded (via new and 4 track existing ERTMS) UK network an affordable compromise running trains between 155mph and 220mph. London to Glasgow or Edinburgh times could be down to 2h40m. NPR journey times slashed. These trains retain complete flexibility from future political and financial decisions. It is time to ensure that by buying next generation 220mph tilting trains which would allow HS2 speeds on the straight Phase 1&2a, near or actual HS2 speeds on more sinuously designed and relaxed new lines, and up to 155mph in tilt mode on upgraded ERTMS existing track the UK has an earlier route to a UK network which offers tax-payers fast competitive door to door journey times that can compete with aviation and cars. This could realistically happen by ERTMS roll out but only if the trains are bought this year. As for Nigel Harris’ article above, how many of us complained to the likes of the BBC when clearly incorrect information was broadcast? I received an apology and acknowledgement of their error last month after the host of the papers review on the BBC news channel continued to allow a guest to repeat the claim that 10 minutes was being saved by HS2 – these claims stick and voters remember them. If the industry hadn’t been so passive, we’d never have been in the position that HS2 was under threat. However the justification for major upgrading of the existing lines will probably be there in the future. ERTMS will help free up capacity, but many of the 4 tracking bypasses will inevitably be necessary – haven’t we been putting them off for decades? These can be accommodated out of town or at stations with sufficient land still available – why isn’t there a plan to provide bypass relief at the Digswell Viaduct for example? Isn’t one of the benefits of the southern part of HS2 having the ability, when time and cost suggest it is the best thing to do, to be able to temporarily close other lines and upgrade them properly in the early years after HS2 is opened while still offering suitable alternative passenger routes before HS2 is also full to capacity?

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