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HS1 chair: High speed rail is fundamentally flawed

The case for a new UK super-fast railway is fundamentally flawed and will be beset by huge delays because of a miscalculation of support for the scheme, the boss of High Speed 1 (HS1) has said.

HS1 chairman Rob Holden told NCE he thought the government had failed to secure public backing for High Speed 2 (HS2) and urged it to be reconsidered as a non-high speed line to secure its future.

Holden, who was chief executive of Crossrail between 2009 and 2011, said that scheme promoter HS2 Ltd was failing where the cross-London railway had succeeded.

“On Crossrail, there was a lot of positive engagement ahead of construction,” he said. “HS2 has lost a lot of the public engagement, and added to that, [the scheme promoter] began changing its justification for the scheme.”

Holden was referring to the recent shift in rhetoric for the scheme; the case for HS2 was originally based on it being a cost-effective fulfilment of the future need for capacity along the West Coast Main Line (WCML). The scheme gathered momentum as it would avoid a repetition of the complex and costly WCML upgrade, which completed in 2008 with a hefty price tag of £9bn.

A new classic line alternative was ruled out in a cost-benefit analysis in favour of a high speed railway serving London, Birmingham, Manchester and Leeds; a £30bn scheme was initially outlined by then Labour transport secretary Lord Adonis in March 2010.

At the time, Adonis said: “The time has come for Britain to plan seriously for high speed rail between our major cities. The high speed line from London to the Channel Tunnel has been a clear success, and many European and Asian countries now have extensive and successful high speed networks. I believe high speed rail has a big part to play in Britain’s future.”

However, in recent months, amid growing unease ahead of the first phase Hybrid Bill heading to Parliament (for London to Birmingham), the scheme has been rebranded as primarily a project that will ease future capacity and connectivity issues on the wider rail network.

In March, new HS2 chief executive David Higgins redefined it as a cost, capacity and connectivity- conscious scheme, and to demonstrate the new focus, he abandoned the proposed HS1 link, branding it expensive and substandard.

“So far the focus has tended to be on individual places, and individual stations,” Higgins said in March. “We need to think broader than that and properly co-ordinate HS2 – not just with the existing network, but also the plans for its improvement during the time HS2 will take to be built.”

But Holden said the desire for high speed could be the project’s downfall, and called for a rethink. “I don’t think they’ve got it right – I’ve always said its design specification for high speed is flawed,” Holden said.

He added that the UK’s geography – particularly the relatively short distances between cities – meant that the design speed of 400km/h would not be met.

“It won’t operate at 400km/h,” he said. If the route had included Manchester to Glasgow and Leeds to Edinburgh, he argued the scheme might have a sufficient city-to-city distance for high speed, but even then, he warned that the number of passengers would not justify such a scheme.

Holden said the scheme was suffering from becoming purely a civil engineering project, rather than the railway project it should be regarded as. “It’s first and foremost an engineers’ project, which is what Crossrail was,” he said. “I inherited a civil engineering project [on Crossrail] and turned it into a railway project.”

If the high speed design specification was to be ignored, then the scheme could be made more palatable to a greater number of people, he argued. “If it isn’t high speed, the alignment can be reconfigured to take it out of the Chilterns,” said Holden. “That would remove many of the objections and reduce the cost of the scheme enormously.”

The current HS2 alignment requires a straight route through the Chilterns, an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, which is where the majority of objections have been raised to date. A classic line would not require such a direct design and could potentially move through less controversial land.

Holden warned that the objections to the scheme would pose a great threat to the scheme’s budget. “You’ll have the most influential lawyers, with submissions numbering into the thousands,” he said.

  • Do you think Rob Holden has a point? Take our poll, right.


Readers' comments (4)

  • At last, some sanity.

    Has everyone forgotten the grandiose claims for passenger numbers that were used to justify HS 1 - none of which have been met in its twenty years of operation.

    The shift in the promotional emphasis from high speed to capacity was telling - as is the silence regarding the original claims for passenger numbers.

    Would it not be sensible to start reconsidering the reopening some of the disused lines - Great Central springs to mind - as a far better use of public money.

    I remember all too well the extraordinary pressure exerted to try to close the Settle to Carlisle line only for those same siren voices to claim, long after, that the line should have been saved and that they were misunderstood.

    The challenge now is to enhance capacity through extending platforms, upgrading stations, adding extra rolling stock and reopening some of the disused lines to provide "redundancy" - the need for which was so eloquently demonstrated at Dawlish - and, as Rob Holden so wisely advocates, a fundamental review of the planned alignment and performance specification.

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  • Barry Walton

    According to the schedules, at the top of the order, China's daily high speed train runs at 175 mph taking 7 hrs and 59 minutes from Beijing to Guangzhou South. Its second fastest daily train takes 9 hours and 17 minutes. Its third fastest daily train takes......... There is no third daily high speed train between Beijing and Guangzhou South

    London to Birmingham at this speed every fifteen minutes? I think not.

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  • This provides an excellent follow up to Colin Elliff's in NCE 15.05.14, on which I have already commented. What is needed is more capacity, on new, fairly high speed, rail alignments fully integrated with the existing classic rail network. Instead of passing through the Chilterns AONB and the heart of "middle England", it follow existing transport corridors, such as the M1 and possibly the Midland Main Line out of London.

    Nigel King MICE.

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  • Just two important adjustments to this article: the first justification for HS2 was around sustainable transport - getting the shift from roads and air to rail. You need to read the background EU TEN-T policy to see this; and it is in that context that EU funded some improvements to WCML.

    Secondly, it is wholly wrong to say that UK needs to develop HSR. The EU definition for HSR is 200kph on improved track. As far as the EU is concerned (look at their maps) the UK already has substantial HSR including 2 tracks between London and Scotland. The issue is not between HSR or non-HSR - it's between 200kph HSR and 400kph HSR. The Government could save face by arguing that it is 400kph that has been the cause of so many of the environmental problems with HS2 - and what is needed is not the cancellation of HSR but of 400kph HSR.
    By the way, the problems caused by the 400kph design speed extend over many more areas than just the Chilterns! And of course Higgins has coped with the already expanding costs by simply knocking out links to Euston/HS1 and Heathrow so that the connectivity of HS2 is fatally flawed.

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