High-speed rail: Birmingham says no

Some fascinating straws in the wind from Birmingham, proposed destination of the Government’s £17 billion high-speed supertrain.

If anywhere was going to be in favour of HS2, it should surely be Brum – which stands to see its London service speeded up the most (by a claimed 35 minutes.) The council and various local business groups have been dutifully campaigning for the albatross.

But in a survey by the Birmingham Post, two-thirds of those who responded opposed the new line and 70% said other transport investment should be a higher priority. Fifty-five per cent also disputed the Government’s claim that high-speed rail would be good for the local economy.

The survey doesn’t appear to have been a representative opinion poll, so it really is only a straw in the wind – but it is still interesting that the pro-HS2 camp has been unable to mobilise supporters in what should be the scheme’s heartland.

Even more interestingly, the Post itself has written a leader saying that the Government’s case for HS2 has “run out of steam” and adding that Whitehall’s forecasts of passenger numbers and projected economic benefits “appear to be inflated.”

That is absolutely right. HS2 could, in fact, substantially damage existing plans for the regeneration of Birmingham’s Eastside. The centrepiece of the scheme, a new £123 million university campus on which £30 million has already been spent, was scrapped after the Government said that HS2 needed the site. A new scheme, for a campus only just over half the size, has now been drawn up – and the university is still waiting for its £30 million back. The new, shrunken campus is to go on a site planned for a new “vertical theme park” – which has in turn also been scrapped.

Inflated, too, has been the Government’s claim of the journey time saving of high-speed rail. The figure they quote for the fastest time on the existing line – 1 hour and 24 minutes – is wrong. The fastest train at present does it in 1 hour 12 minutes, so the saving is 23 minutes, not 35 – and even less once you factor in that HS2’s Brum terminus is further away from the city centre than New Street, the existing stop.

It simply won’t do for the Transport Secretary, Philip Hammond, to go on claiming that all HS2’s opponents are “Nimbies.” The fact is that the case for HS2 is in deep intellectual trouble.


High-speed rail: more doubt over the economic case

In all the arguments about High Speed Two, the Government’s sexy new supertrain from London to Birmingham, it’s often forgotten that we already have a High Speed One – the domestic service along the Eurostar high-speed line from London to Kent. Instead of speculating about the high-speed future, we can go and see it for ourselves. As I described in Sunday’s paper, a visit makes a deeply sobering experience for any advocate of high-speed rail. Journey times are often little, if at all, quicker than they were before. Many of the high-speed trains run almost empty. And the conventional services that people actually do want to use have significantly deteriorated.

One area I didn’t have enough space to cover in detail was the economic impact of the line. Many people – not least the Transport Secretary, Philip Hammond – have claimed that HS2 will create “huge economic benefits,” with a “transformational” impact on the Midlands and North. But the experience of HS1 does not support these claims.

If anywhere along the Kent route benefited the most, it should be the town of Ashford – whose service to London is now entirely on new, dedicated high-speed track, and whose journey time to St Pancras is now 38 minutes. Ashford council has indeed claimed that HS1 is “proving an economic boon” for the town, and estate agents have hyped the supposed vibrancy of the local property market. All this has been dutifully regurgitated by various journalists.

But there appears no evidence whatever to support these claims – and substantial evidence that they are untrue. Since the line began full operation, in December 2009, Ashford’s unemployment rate has in fact fallen more slowly than the Kent average, more slowly than the South East average, and more slowly even than the Great Britain average (see below).

Over the same period, Ashford’s house prices have also risen more slowly than both the Kent and South Eastern average, though there may have been more of an impact on property values around the line’s other Kent station, Ebbsfleet.

Towns not served by the high-speed line, such as Tonbridge, Maidstone and Hastings, have often done far better on either or both of these measures than towns actually on the line. In two days of asking, neither Ashford council, nor any of the other local regeneration bodies, could provide me with any concrete figures showing that the line had benefited Kent. Instead, they tended to take refuge in woolly arguments about its having improved “perceptions” of the county.

It seems that another argument for high-speed rail is at best not proven, at worst hollow.

Claimant count          Jan      Jan      Jan              % change        % change

unemployment         09       10        11                    on 09              on 10

Ashford                      3.0      3.8       3.5                   +16.6              -7.9

Hastings                     6.7       8.6       7.4                   +10.4              -14

Tonbridge                  2.3       2.9       2.2                   -4.3                 -24.1

Kent                            3.2       3.3       3.0                  -6.2                 -9.1

SE England                2.3       3.0      2.5                   +8.7                -16.6

GB                               3.4       4.1       3.7                   +8.8                -9.8

Source: House of Commons Library, Office of National Statistics

Place names are parliamentary constituencies

House prices  (annual % change Q4 2009- Q4 2010)

South East  +7.4

Kent                +5

Tun Wells      -2.9

Thanet           -0.9

Swale              +0.4

Shepway        +2.8

Ashford          +3.9

Dover             +5.4

Maidstone      +6.3

Canterbury    +6.8

Sevenoaks     +7.9

Gravesham    +8.1

Dartford         +12.5

Tonbridge      +14.5

Source: Land Registry. Place names are local authority areas

High-speed rail: Primrose Hill and Joan Bakewell largely spared. Shame about Belsize Park and a couple of council estates, though

High Speed Rail Two will bypass Primrose Hill
High Speed Rail Two will pass north of Primrose Hill (Photo: Heathcliff O'Malley)

Most of the “significant” changes “unveiled” to the London-Birmingham high-speed rail route by the Transport Secretary, Philip Hammond, today aren’t very significant, and nor were they unveiled today. They are in fact largely the changes unveiled in the so-called “supplementary report” published by HS2, the line’s promoters, back on 8 September. This is the kind of spin that used to give New Labour a bad name.

But there are at least two interesting and significant alterations that we hadn’t heard about before. Along the Northolt corridor and in the west London suburb of Ruislip, where seven streets were said by the council to be “at risk,” the land take has been reduced a bit, sparing by the looks of it most of the properties to be demolished (though not always their gardens, and of course the lucky inhabitants will still have a high-speed railway roaring right past them.) Download the map of the line here (it is the one ending 04004).

And just out of Euston, the line of the HS2 tunnel which was to have passed right under the upmarket Primrose Hill district has now been moved a bit to the north. It now runs beneath Gloucester Avenue, on the edge of the neighbourhood, and closer to the existing surface railway line. (Download here – the one ending 04001.)

Several hundred Primrose Hill houses could still suffer vibrations from the tunnel. Estimates published on the HS2 website (p23 of slides) are that properties within 100 metres are at risk. There will also be a new tunnel portal surfacing from the line on to the existing rail network near the Regents Park Road railway bridge, causing more disruption during building work.

But the line no longer goes right under the heart of Primrose Hill, nor does it pass directly beneath the houses of Dame Joan Bakewell, Robert Plant and Adam Ant (it still goes fairly near David Miliband’s gaff, alas.) Isn’t it great what fear of celebrity lobbying can do for you?

Sadly, in order to accommodate this change, the HS2 tunnel now curves into the southern end of a whole new wealthy neighbourhood, Belsize Park, going under Fellows Road and bringing upmarket Eton Avenue within vibration range. However, most of the new people impacted are council tenants on an estate along Adelaide Road.

Nor, though the Government may have taken fright at the massed ranks of the Primrose Hill brigade, has it done anything for a much poorer neighbourhood which will be far worse affected.

Just west of Euston station, five council blocks of the Regents Park Estate, with 220 flats and at least 500 residents, will be demolished to accommodate a widened station “throat.” From the plans, that looks like it hasn’t changed. And Euston itself will still be extended some hundreds of feet to the west, swallowing up at least a further 20 homes, 25 businesses including two major hotels, and most of a park, St James’s Gardens.

Less aggro for rich people – poor people treated even worse. Could this be Conservative government in action?

High-speed rail madness: some useful links

The continued meltdown of the country’s transport network (even though, at the time of writing, the last snow in London fell more than two days ago) is the best reminder we could need that, instead of wasting our money on flashy high-speed rail vanity projects, we need to get the ordinary, everyday basic network in order.

The gods, I thought, were making a particular point when they decreed that Eurostar, which uses Britain’s only existing high-speed line, should suffer some of the worst disruption.

Philip Hammond, the transport secretary, is supposed to be announcing the precise route of the new high-speed line today – but has instead spent his time fending off questions about Britain’s “third world” transport systems, to quote his predecessor Lord Adonis.

I’ve a piece in this morning’s paper examining the case for the new line made by its promoters themselves. The small print of their own prospectus makes, bluntly, an even more persuasive case against the project than anything produced by any Home Counties protest group.

It says, among other things, that the £17 billion project

–         could actually increase Britain’s greenhouse gas emissions by up to 26.6 million tonnes and that any possible reduction there is in CO2 will be “small… HS2 would not be a major factor in managing carbon in the transport sector.”  (Chapter 1 p7, Chapter 4 p180)

–         would only reduce road traffic by a tiny amount, for instance traffic on the southern section of the M1 would fall by just 2% over the next 23 years!  (Chapter 4 p175)

–         has a totally flaky business case, which depends on what even the prospectus admits is an increase in demand “of at least double today’s [historically high] levels.” (Chapter 4, p188.)

–         will devastate existing services to many places off the route – for instance:

–         Coventry will see its existing fast service from London slashed by two-thirds, from three trains an hour to one, and slowed down from 59 to 69 min (Technical Appendix 2, pp 17, 19 – scroll down the PDF past Appendix 1 to find Appendix 2).

–         Stoke on Trent will see its existing fast service halved, from two trains an hour to one, and slowed down from 84 to 87 min (Technical Appendix 2, p16).

–         Trains on the Great Western main line (GWML) from Bristol, Cardiff, Oxford, Reading and the like into Paddington will be slowed down so they can interchange with the high-speed route at a new station at Old Oak Common (chapter 4, p175).

–         London Overground inner-suburban services from Watford into Euston could be “removed” to make room at the station for high-speed services (chapter 3, p64.)

Even for travellers to Birmingham, the high-speed line won’t use the existing New Street station in the heart of the city centre, but a new terminal at Fazeley Street, on the eastern edge of the centre. So much of the time you save on the way will be negated by the less convenient location of the station in Brum.

And if you need to change to an onward local service (the vast majority of which will continue to use New Street) your journey will again be slower than it is now, because you’ll have to transfer between stations in Birmingham city centre.

Too much of the coverage of high speed rail has focused on the impact, devastating as that will be, on the Chilterns and other places. But this line’s real and fatal weakness is that it does not stack up in environmental, economic or even transport terms.