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HS2 update

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Three months on from the decision to cancel HS2, three parliamentary committee hearings provided further information on how this decision was taken, along with its implications.

Liaison Committee 19 December

The liaison gives the chairs of the various parliamentary select committee the opportunity to question Prime Minister Rishi Sunak. At this hearing, Sunak answered 108 questions. This included one from transport select committee chair, Iain Stewart who asked what the Government is doing to address the long-term capacity on the West Coast Main Line (WCML) north of Birmingham, which will soon be at capacity.

Sunak responded that HS2 phase 1 will provide space for about a quarter of a million passengers which will handle triple the current demand. He accepted there are options to focus on pinch points which the Government will look at though, some of those are being addressed by HS2 phase 1.

As can be seen, his response did not answer the question asked about capacity north of Birmingham. It also repeated an oft-quoted figure that HS2 phase 1 will provide a daily capacity of 250,000 WCML. As this is equivalent to 18 Pendolino trains running 24 hours per day, it is difficult to see how this claim can be true. Its credibility is further diminished by the refusal of the Department for Transport (DfT) to provide Rail Engineer with the assumptions and calculations from which this claim is derived.

Transport Select Committee 30 November

This committee heard evidence from Huw Merriman, Minister for Rail and HS2, and Alan Over, DfT’s Director General, High Speed Rail Group.

At this hearing, Merriman also mentioned the dubious claim that HS2 phase 1 would provide 250,000 seats a day. With the cancellation of HS2 phase 2, Manchester will not have a station that can accept the previously planned 2 x 200-metre HS2 trains. The city will now get single 200-metre-long trains which provide less capacity than the current 265-metre Pendolinos. To make best use of scarce WCML train paths north of Birmingham, Merriman advised that the DfT was considering 2 x 200-metre trains potentially splitting at Crewe with one then going to Manchester and the other to Liverpool.

He also advised that the DfT is looking at the digital signalling being provided on the East Coast Main Line. He felt that: “digitisation allows us to put more trains on without delivering more track.” Railtrack thought the same 20 years ago and, as a result, the company went into administration. Our feature ‘Digital Delusion’ published in issue 167 (September 2018) explains why. This also showed that on a mixed traffic railway such as the WCML, infrastructure is the main capacity constraint.

Table from 1999 WCML report shows that whilst digital signalling offers capacity improvements for Metros, on a mixed traffic railway like the WCML the main capacity constraint is infrastructure configuration.

In response to concerns that WCML capacity was very constricted north of Birmingham, Alan Over advised that modelling had shown that: “even a return to previous trend growth would leave sufficient capacity such that there wasn’t a problem until the mid to late 2030s.” Yet the line is already at capacity, and HS2 was the result of serious concerns about WCML capacity in 2010, after which traffic increased at a far greater rate than expected.

Over also advised that to make the best use of capacity, the DfT, HS2, and Network Rail were looking at infrastructure interventions, rolling stock, and train service specifications. He considered that we should have some preliminary views in the coming months.

Transport Select Committee 10 January

This hearing heard evidence from Sir Jon Thompson, HS2’s executive chair and was a continuation of its meeting on 30 November.

He advised the committee that HS2 had not been party to the decision to cancel phase 2 and that the level of detail provided by those developing policy to cancel phase 2 “lacked some specificity”. Hence the DfT has asked for detailed analysis on six areas: Handsacre junction, rolling stock, Euston tunnelling, Old Oak Common, Curzon Street, and the phase 2a eastern stub.

In respect of costs, he noted that construction inflation over the past three years has been 27% (e.g. steel 47%, rebar 53%, and concrete 48%). In current prices this has added between £8 billion and £10 billion to the 2019 estimate. He also advised that the cost of a green tunnel (a cutting covered by concrete sections and earth) is three times that of the cutting.

Thompson also noted that a key learning from Crossrail was the need for system integration of the track, signals, power, trains, and other systems. Hence HS2 has appointed a chief railway officer whose role is to integrate these together. To do so it is important that this role has significant power and authority across the whole of the organisation.

He said that HS2 was advising the DfT that the rolling stock contract should not be changed. However, he recognised that the views of Network Rail and others needed to be considered.

Rail Engineer has learnt from other sources that the order for HS2 trains was based on HS2 phase 2a services. With the cancellation of this phase, these trains will now be slower north of Birmingham. Hence this may result in more trains being required rather than fewer trains, as seemed to the case when the phase 2 cancellation was announced.

He provided an interesting explanation of what closing down phase 2a involves. It requires: (i) closing down, making safe, and restoring 41 early works sites and 1,184 boreholes; (ii) ensuring compliance with the 1,500 undertakings and assurances in the Act; (iii) closing down and transferring to Network Rail their HS2 work at Crewe which will become their responsibility; and (iv) finalising data and records of what HS2 has done on the land.

He noted that HS2 has spent £728 million on phase 2a early works and that: “Now we need to clean up and reverse what we’ve done.” With the additional cost that entails, the abortive cost of cancelling phase 2a will be well over £1 billion.

These Parliamentary committees are a rich source of information about the Government’s HS2 decision. They show that this decision was not thought through, is supported by dubious information, that the WCML capacity problem is ignored or downplayed, and the significant abortive costs are associated with this decision.

The MPs on these committees who ask the right questions are to be commended.

Image credit: HS2 / Railtrack

David Shirres BSc CEng MIMechE DEM
David Shirres BSc CEng MIMechE DEMhttp://therailengineer.com

Rolling stock, depots, Scottish and Russian railways

David Shirres joined British Rail in 1968 as a scholarship student and graduated in Mechanical Engineering from Sussex University. He has also been awarded a Diploma in Engineering Management by the Institution of Mechanical Engineers.

His roles in British Rail included Maintenance Assistant at Slade Green, Depot Engineer at Haymarket, Scottish DM&EE Training Engineer and ScotRail Safety Systems Manager.

In 1975, he took a three-year break as a volunteer to manage an irrigation project in Bangladesh.

He retired from Network Rail in 2009 after a 37-year railway career. At that time, he was working on the Airdrie to Bathgate project in a role that included the management of utilities and consents. Prior to that, his roles in the privatised railway included various quality, safety and environmental management posts.

David was appointed Editor of Rail Engineer in January 2017 and, since 2010, has written many articles for the magazine on a wide variety of topics including events in Scotland, rail innovation and Russian Railways. In 2013, the latter gave him an award for being its international journalist of the year.

He is also an active member of the IMechE’s Railway Division, having been Chair and Secretary of its Scottish Centre.


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