Wednesday, 18 September 2013

Setting Out My Stall - Basic Pros and Cons

I shall be standing as a candidate for the Green Party in the 2014 local elections in Cambridge. Many will be  aware that the Green Party's overall position is against the current HS2 plan. Since I am in favour of a new north-south rail line, I thought this blog might be a good place to put forward my ideas, and to start a reason-led discussion aboout HS2 and high-speed rail in general.

Good reasons for doubting the benefits of HS2:

Regional Economic effects

I think it will be impossible to predict "where" economic benefits will be located, ie which region will the benficiary of it. However, this would suggest that building a new line from Birmingham to Leeds and Manchester(the 'northern' part of HS2) would be the right thing to do.

Benefits to Northern Cities too late

Benefits come only after about 20 years, in 2033. This further undermines the government's case - 2033 will be 4 parliaments down the line.

Localised disruption to residential areas

Especially in the urban areas such as Camden where the expansion of Euston Station requires the demolition of very many properties. (Waterloo Station and its approaches required the demolition of vastly more slum and other dwellings in the 19th century. But few would doubt the benefit of Waterloo. Although, maybe a subterranean (tunnelled) approach would have been better, and trains sent under London to form another Crossrail - and that is what Crossrail2 is in effect). Some are calling for an East-West facing station between Euston and Kings Cross, that would certainly save Camden and would arguably be much better for onward connectivity. Trains would presumably terminate in a variety of locations in outer (or just outside) London.

My own reasons for a new high-speed line are:

Reduced Disruption and Increased Benefit

Every time you do work on a live railway, you have to close it while you do the work. All the benefits from the line, all the improvements you made, are lost, albeit temporarily. For example in 2014, a scheme to improve Watford Junction is going ahead at a cost of £81 million. This will involve closing the main line out of Euston for 36 days - a single blockade of 17 days, the other 19 involving weekend closures, or over extended public holidays, just the sort of time you wanting to be travelling to see you family, etc etc. This is an extreme case, but if we assumed that a project to increase capacity on the present railway might only take half the number of days, ie £4m = 1 day, then a spend of £40bn over 20 years = £2bn per year = 500 days per year of closure of the present network. OK, we might reduce that by a bit given that a lot of work would also go on reopening Beeching-closed lines - but then the line would have to close for new connecting junctions to be installed, new signalling etc etc. It all adds up. Building a totally new line reduces conflicts between the existing services and the construction of the new.

Coping with Increases in Rail Passenger and Freight Traffic

Disrupting existing rail lines would certainly be one way to reduce the growth of rail traffic!! People woud be so put off, they'd just travel by other means, and build their businesses aound transport by that other means, and quite possibly wouldn't ever return. Factories, shops, warehouses, houses etc would all be in the wrong place.

Population Increase

Much as it would be nice for the UK population to be already peaking, I don't think that's going to happen. Population may well increase by 10% in the period leading up to 2033. That's going to add to demand.

Value of Working on the Train

For many, this is a disbenefit to HS2, since they say, if you can work on the train, why do you need speed? But can you get "on" the train? And because of the rise in hand-held and mobile IT technology, rail is increasingly the travel mode of choice - so that will mean increasing moves away from road travel towards rail, in which case there is definitely a need for more rail capacity, hence a new line.

One Rail Line, Three Routes,

The HS2 plan (agreed it's not the only credible one - of you know of others, please add comments to this blog!) serves cities currenly served by three main rail ines: the WCML, the MML, and the ECML (the lines out of Euston, St Pancras and Kings Cross). So an alternative "upgrade" plan would disrupt all these 3 main lines, whereas HS2 will not substantially disrupt any of them

New is Easier

I cannot deny that building a new line will destroy tracts of countryside (though the sound pollution will not be nearly as great as a motorway; HS1 in Kent is a case in point.) but crucially the line will not be surrounded by swathes of housing development, which normally follows new motorway construction. But - New is Cheaper. When was the last time you took your car to the garage and asked them to do some improvements - perhaps, improve the engine (more fuel-efficient?) or add an extra seat or two (for a growing family, or to carry an elderly relative)? Huh? No, you'd go out and buy a new car. Who'd ever think it was cheaper to convert an old car. (Of course, sometimes we love our old cars so much that we do modify them, but we generally use them for fun trips around the place, not as a workhorse form of transport...?)

Benefits Freight and Short-Distance Commuters

What of ordinary people - not just the "fat cats"? The present railway runs through our centres of population, and is thus well-suited to picking passengers up at successive stations. Yet today, many stations see most of their trains rushing through at high speed. Expensive pieces of real-estate, barriers to local movement (a railway line stops people moving around town as easily because they can't cross the line) provide very little in the way of local transport benefit. Remove the non-stop trains from the exsiting tracks, and allow the trains back to serve the areas through which they travel, and be cheaper to boot. Removing the fast trains, also gives you space to get freight trains back on the rails, which is the first stage towards getting lorries off the motorways and on to more sustainable transport. One rail freight company has expressed a wish to take over one pair of tracks on the WCML exclusively for the use of freight, such is the potential demand. This will reduce costs of moving goods.

So that's me setting out my platform in support of HS2 - or more precisely, any new north-south rail line. It could be that a freight-only railway, with an enlarged loading-gauge, could be built, allowing continental-sized trains to operate - and also the much-desired double-deck trains. That wouldn't give the same capacity boost to passenger services, but would cope if the expansion of passenger numbers is lower than forecast in the government's HS2 case.

I await comments with interest. Thanks!

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