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HS2 - build northern section first, or forget it

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HS2 - build northern section first, or forget it

Post by Chas Peeps on Sun Nov 24, 2013 5:11 pm

Sounding flippant on an issue of such considerable national importance is not my intention. I remain conflicted on the pros and cons of building a high speed rail link and have yet to decide whether I support the project or not.
 
The current plan to build the section of line between London and Birmingham first, followed by the northern sections heading to Greater Manchester, Leeds and York later goes right to the heart of political priorities in this country and our politicians' capacity to lie and make the wrong decisions for the wrong reasons at the wrong time.
 
For now, I will leave the detailed numbers out, because sometimes they are so huge they cannot be comprehended and can deflect from far bigger issues of economic and political principle.
 
First of all, let's compare a similar infrastructure project, The Channel Tunnel. It's final cost was 80% above its initial budget. It doesn't take a mastermind to work out that if the cost of HS2 between London and Birmingham ended up costing almost twice as much as was originally estimated, the obvious decision to take is to cancel the northern sections and terminate it at Birmingham.
 
Second, when the economic benefits and costs are being evaluated in 2013, surely the benefits should not be weighed against the current estimated cost but against this cost PLUS 80%.
 
Why 80%?
 
Large infrastructure projects are 'ransom contracts'. When private contractors compete for the work, they have an interest in keeping their bids as low as possible to maximise the chance of winning the contract and then rely on being able to claim 'extras' as the work proceeds. If we examine the Channel Tunnel, when negotiations for 'extra' costs were underway between the contractor TML and the client, Euro Tunnel, two major factors were at work. TML could have simply withdrawn its tunnel cutting 'moles' from both sides of the tunnel and left Euro Tunnel with two useless and unconnected tunnels. Second, if TML had decided to wind up commercially or go bust, Euro Tunnel would have faced the nightmare of engaging another suitably qualified contractor to complete the project at premium rates. All of this is commercial reality and leads to the client of any major infrastructure project being in a very weak position to dictate and control end costs.  There are others, of course......
 
A British politician once asked his French counterpart how France had managed to build perfectly straight high speed railway lines from one end of the country to the other, when in Britain our major motorways and railways snake tortuously around land owners who refuse to sell out at project planning stage or who can exert undue political, social or financial influence on key decision makers (remember the TV series called 'Blot on the Landscape'?).  The French politician replied "Monsieur, you do not consult the frogs before you drain the swamp". This may go completely against the British grain of fairness and the rights of the individual above the State but does go a long way to explaining why historically our main canals, railways and roads often snake around far more than they need to from a purely engineering point of view.
 
Another major one would be connected with 'unforeseen' additional engineering and construction costs. This is a very interesting one in itself because it always begs the question 'what could have been reasonably foreseen before the project started?'. This is the stuff of construction / civil engineering experts, claims negotiators, arbitrators, mediators and lawyers all of whom earn their livings from such disagreements. There is usually only one loser on public works projects and that is the taxpayer.
 
The final major factor is 'The Swampy Effect'.  Any large infrastructure project will come up against considerable resistance from both land owing NIMBYs (NIMBY = Not In My By Yard) and concerned environmentalists epitomised by the anti-road  campaigner known as 'Swampy' that slows down construction and increases costs. Of the two resisting factions, I must declare that I have far more sympathy with the environmentalists who tend not to be brain dead self-interested Tories whose concern for the environment only extends as far as the view from their own homes.
 
There are of course other factors but I think these are the major ones.
 
Since the UK joined the European Single Market, there has been a definite movement of relative economic activity and prosperity from the northern regions southwards, with the beneficial effect being greatest in the south east corner of the UK, the closest to continental Europe.
 
Supporters of HS2 declare that it is their intention and belief that HS2 will improve the connection of the north and midlands to the prosperous south east corner and the European market beyond, thereby improving the economies of those areas of the country.
 
Despite the fact that HS2 seems to have the support of the great northern cities that are earmarked to be connected to the network, I have two major lingering reservations.
 
The first is that I wonder whether we are building it at least twenty years after other comparable industrialised countries (such as France and Japan) and if it will already be obsolete and a huge White Elephant by the time it is completed.
 
The second is that due to time and cost over-runs in construction, the HS2 line will end up terminating at Birmingham and will further worsen the north-south economic divide, the very opposite of its stated intention.
 
This all brings me back to my opening suggestion. It appears that the CONDEM coalition government may have between 50 and 60 Tory rebels within its ranks who will vote against HS2. This means that the coalition will need Labour Party support for the project to proceed. When Ed Miliband was reported as indicating that Labour would require a guarantee on the maximum project cost before supporting it, he is either a fool for believing that costs can be controlled or he is taking us for fools and assuming that he can provide Labour support on the back of an empty guarantee to get him off the immediate political hook.
 
As a political strategy, it would make far more sense and demonstrate far more courage for Miliband and the Labour Party to either reject HS2 now before further taxpayer expense and explain the reasons for that decision or provide a conditional acceptance as the scheme edges forward. Although counter-intuitive, if one of those conditions was that the northern cities were linked to Birmingham first, it will smoke out those Tories who currently support HS2, knowing in their guts that it will go massively over budget and will never go north of Birmingham.
 
In short, it is time for the Labour Party to begin to act for the people that it claims to represent. Then, and only then, will I begin to believe that Milibandism really is a return to a Labour Party of principle, morality and political bravery that is ready to act in the best interests of the majority of the people in this country.
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Re: HS2 - build northern section first, or forget it

Post by oftenwrong on Sun Nov 24, 2013 6:57 pm

HS2 falls at the very first hurdle. A primary requirement for people living/working to the North or West of London is a direct rail connection with Heathrow.
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Re: HS2 - build northern section first, or forget it

Post by Redflag on Mon Nov 25, 2013 9:59 am

I think that HS2 was dreamt up by a Tory who wanted an expensive train set to play with, and could not care two hoots about people needing to travel to and from North/South because more than likely they would not be able to afford the train fare.  I do not think it will go ahead because most of the tracks go through safe Tory seats one of those seats belongs to Diddy Giddy constituency.:yeahthat:
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Re: HS2 - build northern section first, or forget it

Post by Ivan on Sat Nov 30, 2013 5:24 pm

Chas Peeps. Thank you for that very fluent, thoughtful and interesting opening post. I certainly agree with your basic argument – if HS2 is to be constructed, the northern section should be completed first, an idea supported by the Institute for Public Policy Research.
 
A few years ago, I took a train from Paris Est to Strasbourg and the journey took four hours. In June this year, I did the same journey (but in the opposite direction) and it took two and a quarter hours. In between my two trips, a direct line had been constructed and a TGV service introduced. The train I took in June didn't stop and reached speeds of just over 320 kph (200mph). Has it all been worth it to the French? Apparently their TGV service breaks even, and while the absurdity of moving the European Parliament meetings back and forth between Brussels and Strasbourg continues, it will attract plenty of users.
 
It’s been projected that HS2 would shorten the journey from Leeds to Birmingham from 118 minutes to 57 minutes, and that it would reduce the time taken to get from Manchester to Birmingham from 88 minutes to 41 minutes. It used to be assumed that business people did little or no work on long train journeys, but mobile phones and laptops have changed that, so is speed so important these days?
 
The TGV brought Lille to within one hour of Paris. Prof John Tomaney of University College London says that in France, Spain and South Korea the evidence suggests it is capital cities that benefit from high speed trains by sucking more wealth to the centre. The main effect of HS2 could be to encourage commuting from Birmingham to London.
 
If we are to have HS2, couldn’t the new line be built alongside motorways to reduce the damage done to the landscape?  HS1 certainly runs alongside the M20 in Kent as it approaches the Channel Tunnel. I’m not convinced that the project is good for the environment. The Tories claim that HS2 would move millions of air and road trips on to rail, but isn’t it likely that most users would otherwise take conventional train services or simply not make the trip?
 
HS2 would generate thousands of construction jobs and many more once the entire line was running. But maybe there is a better solution. An earlier generation of Tory vandals wrecked much of our railway network, inspired by a certain Dr Beeching. He closed the southern section of the Great Central Railway, where express trains used to run from London to Rugby, Leicester, Nottingham, Sheffield and Leeds, with a branch to Manchester - most of the destinations planned for HS2. That route could be restored for a fraction of the estimated cost of this project.
 
Sources:-
 
http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-24159571
 
http://www.telegraph.co.uk/journalists/andrew-gilligan/10406562/HS2-now-Labour-look-at-an-alternative-scheme.html
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Re: HS2 - build northern section first, or forget it

Post by oftenwrong on Wed Dec 04, 2013 10:41 pm

"If we are to have HS2"

The Sunday Times thinks that the decision has already been made.  HS2 is going to be built.  Their judgment is based upon the conduct of previous similar "enquiries".  

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Re: HS2 - build northern section first, or forget it

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