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High Speed Two needs to signal its true intentions

High Speed 2 (HS2) this week seemed to move a step closer to being a done deal but there remain many unanswered questions.

The scheme’s promoters and transport secretary Philip Hammond stressed to MPs that — despite suggestions to the contrary — their principal motivation for the scheme was the need for increased rail capacity between key cities and not a need for speed.

It sounded a convincing argument as they gave evidence last week in the Transport Committee’s final session scrutinising the case for HS2.

Hammond said that the pursuit of a high speed network was a numbers game. A conventional rail option was simply not going to have the impact he wanted.

While it would cost between 10% and 15% less to build such a traditional network than the £33bn super fast version, you would lose a third of the economic benefits it promises by hooking the regions into a national and likely international network, he said.

The witnesses told the committee that they refuted suggestions that HS2 may have over-inflated passenger forecasts and, therefore, the economic case.

They said that the projections — while speculative — had been reviewed and tested against figures for rail passenger growth over the past 15 years and were also lower for the future than what has been experienced.

Hammond went so far as to say the projections were “conservative” to the extent that the risks posed are more likely to come from underestimating.

Convincing? Maybe. The numbers suggest a sound basis for this justification of the project. But some of the MPs on the committee needed more convincing.

LibDem MP John Leech, for one, latched on to the issue of whether fare structures had been fully scrutinised. He argued that surely this was a vital factor in determining future use.

HS2’s work made a presumption that fare structures for the new line would be the same as existing ones, but that’s as far as the work went. Leech challenged witnesses from HS2 that rather than making assumptions, it would be prudent to instead carry out detailed work on how fare systems would be operated up front.

If restricted to advance bookings alone, as happens elsewhere, or if fares are very high, the concern is that this would have a dramatic impact on the take-up of the service — and ultimately the economic case for such a line.

Hammond was adamant that HS2 would be a provider for all the regions — not just a connection to and from capital city London — because it would also free up capacity on the conventional network serving regional stops.

But in the same meeting he admitted that high speed rail was a “rich man’s tool”, which suggests there could be a real threat to its take-up on a mass scale.

HS2 chief engineer Andrew McNaughton agreed that more detailed work on the fare structure should, and would, go ahead if and when the project gains ministerial support at the next milestone.

Consultation ended in July for the first section of the proposed high speed line from London to Birmingham. The responses are now being digested before Hammond makes his announcement — due before the end of this year.

But is it too late to turn back? Can the fare issue be investigated in enough detail in time to make a difference?

And if the results suggest that switching from a high speed to a conventional line becomes a more attractive economic proposition will it change the plans?

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