Thursday, 16 May 2013

Britain's HS 2,- Another log across the line, and what to do about it.

Britain's National Audit Office has probably raised cheers amongst the "Say No To.." lobbies, the tribes of the Chilterns and the media (many of them seem to live in the Chilterns). It is becoming unfashionable in some circles to admit being in favour of spending the required billions on this project rather than the usual schools an' hospitals, welfare, the arts or almost anything else. "This is a vanity project" they say." The UK, the worlds's 6th or 7th largest economy, is a poor country and can't afford such things,-or any other real progress.  This is not for the likes of us. We can patch, mend, tweak what we have and it will do."

So what's it all about? The Conservative/coalition Transport Minister has come out fighting and repeating that the case is good and strong. Labour have wrung their hands a bit and expressed concern but no more than that. It started as their (Lord Adonis') project. He just said "It must be done". The contorted "business case" now being argued about came later,- in 2011.

It is true that this one is a dossier of  theoretical nonsense . Not to mention considerable irrelevance and pure speculation.  It relied on complicated and ridiculous formulae for calculating amongst other things the value of working time saved by business travellers,its creation of jobs and measurable benefits to the north/south split. There were other point-missing nonsenses too, all of them offering themselves as hostages to fortune and interminable debate rather than clarity. As result the paper is hugely vulnerable to being challenged and rubbished because the simple answer about the medium and long term economics and benefits/disbenefits is that nobody knows and much depends on what else happens. The forecasts are only a guess and even the brightest (especially the brightest some say) economists often get it wrong. We can speculate for ever, a favourite occupation of economists and politicians, especially those of a "do nothing" mind, but still it's only a guess based on our own fuzzy logic or gut feel.  If the Victorians had done the same rather than just going for it the UK would have hardly a yard or railway track.  We probably wouldn't have much in the way of roads either,- or anything conentious.  Even for the Victorians, forcing the lines through the territory of powerful landowners  and other vested interests was at least as difficult as any of the engineering problems faced in actually getting the tracks into place. Fortunately for suceeding generations they did push their way through. Some schemes worked, some didn't. Many closures occured before, as result of, and after the Beeching reports of 1963 and 1965. Much pruning was has gone on to safeguard the survival of the network but even then some closures, or at least failure to subsequently secure the trackbeds, were disastrous. (HS 2 might not be needed now if the Great Central line from London to the Midlands has been preserved).

The fact is that whether or not a project was worthwhile is often only measurable years later. As Stephanie Flanders of the BBC points out today, if economists advice had been followed, such things as the Channel Tunnel and the M25 would never have been built. HS 2 is just such a thing and the unavoidable fact is that sooner or later it has to be done if rail transport from London to the north is not to grind to a halt.

As the refreshingly plain speaking Minister of Transport, Patrick McLoughlin, has quickly said ,the fact is that Britain is running out of track capacity on the route and in one form or another new tracks will have to be built. Putting these alongside existing ones, something many down the pub and in smarter dinner parties believe is the solution, isn't an option. The West and East Coast main lines already feature long stretches of 4 tracks (basically 2 each way despite some bi-directional signalling) . Adding two more alongside would mean nightmarish six tracked junctions with each getting in some or all of the others' way, resulting in very little, if any real capacity gain.  It wouldn't  do anything for journey times either. As Lord Adonis clearly saw it ,the only answer is an entirely separate new line, built with modern high speed gradients and sweeping curves, thereby taking the fastest trains away from the current mixed-speed lines. This is also the best and most cost effective solution. With all trains running at the same speed, line capacity is maximised by being able to put up to one every 3 minutes past any given point.

The Labour government made a rod for its own, and now the coalitions' , back by not just simply declaring "We need a new line because we are running out of capacity, so we are going to build it." That would not have avoided the harrumphing and gnashing of teeth especially in the nicer parts of the Chilterns to much of which there is limited public access anyway, but it would have been starkly simple, difficult to challenge and avoided the inevitability of the published business case being branded as questionable and therefore making the strategically essential project needlessly vulnerable.

The government will just have to press on, safe in the knowledge that any successor Labour one will do exactly the same. If it did call a halt, we could be sure that none of the suggested alternatives would happen either,- not without years of "further consultations" and dithering anyway. The " Just do it" approach is sometimes needed. This is one of those occasions if the UK is not going to suffer the economic and social damage of increasing transport paralysis.

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