NOTE: Much of this blog was written in 2015 with updates added in later years.
Buoyed by dissatisfaction with the major political parties over Brexit the Greens are placing themselves as a serious political party rather than just another pressure group.
Their problem is their policies & the way they choose them haven’t kept up. They also have a nasty habit of being rather authoritarian & don’t seem to like listening to advice – unless it’s from people they want to hear.
Personally, when I lived in London I would often vote Green, especially in the Mayoral elections where they normally got my secondary vote. Like many people I liked the idea of the Greens but what I’ve seen & heard these past few years has changed my opinion. The Greens made a mess of running Brighton & their pronouncements on rail transport (and Hs2 in particular) have combined hand-wringing, daft ideas & very dodgy assumptions. Then we saw their then leader, Natalie Bennett implode in an interview with LBC radio’s Nick Ferrari.
This has led me to cast a critical eye over their policies relating to rail transport. What I’ve found is less than impressive. In parts, it’s downright dishonest. You see, the Greens have become obsessed with who owns the railways rather than understanding how they operate. They seem to have fallen for the populist rather than the pragmatic. They’ve ditched the chance to genuinely do things that will help the environment in favour of tub-thumping to gain votes.
I’ve cast a critical eye over the policy statements which they’ve displayed on their website. The one for Transport dates from 2009. It was amended in 2014 and again in 2017, more than two years after I originally wrote this critique.
Now, there is some good stuff in there but what amazed me is how nothing is costed. It’s one huge statement of intent, a shopping list – with no idea how much any of it will be paid for other than a few glib phrases about ‘the polluter pays’, then mention of road charging & fuel taxes. It’s probably no wonder. Can you imagine spelling out detailed costs to the electorate & then expect them to vote for you? The Greens answer to everything seems to be ‘well, we’ll stick a tax on it’.
But my alarm bells really sounded when I read this on rail;
“TR231 The division of rail and track companies into a competitive rather than a cooperative organisation, and the fragmentation of the rail industry into 100 companies by privatisation, has been disastrous for safety and reliability and the provision of an integrated service. The Green Party would overcome this through public ownership (see TR230), but also by making the rail service more democratically accountable at local and regional levels.”
What? Say again? “privatisation, has been disastrous for safety and reliability and the provision of an integrated service”
What a complete and utter load of ideological tosh – and also plain wrong! Note that I wrote this critique way back in March 2015. That totally false statement is still on the Green Party’s website now (April 2018).
First, let’s look at safety. The experts are the Rail Standards & Safety Board (RSSB) who monitor rail safety & collate the statistics in their annual reports. Here’s their 2014 report.
It states: “There were no passenger or workforce fatalities in train accidents in 2013/14. This is the seventh year in succession with no such fatalities. At 0.2 events per year, the ten year moving average for these train accidents is at its lowest ever level”
Hear that? Its lowest ever level. There’s more.
“There were no passenger train derailments. This is the first year with no such derailments since recording began more than 20 years ago”.
More than 20 years ago. Remember that date. That’s pre 1994 – the year the railways were privatised. Now, what was that The Greens said? Oh yes, “privatisation, has been disastrous for safety and reliability”
In fact, the truth is that rail safety has been steadily improving for decades & that improvement has continued under privatisation. The Greens are not telling the truth about rail safety.
Now let’s take a look at punctuality. This is more complex due to the fact the way performance is measured has changed over the years. Before privatisation it wasn’t really monitored. BR used to publish a performance figure in their annual report but how it was calculated is a mystery, it certainly wasn’t transparent. The figure never got above 90%. Privatisation brought in a standard method of calculating punctuality called the Public Performance Measure (PPM) it’s monitored independently & published openly.
Rather than supply you with a single chart, I’d suggest you look at this which will give you a whole host of information on punctuality & performance:
There’s no doubt that there was a major setback after that Hatfield crash in 2000. Yet this led to the demise of Railtrack & the establishment of Network Rail, which turned the situation around & punctuality rose even higher. Since privatisation, there’s been a huge increase in the numbers of trains run every year & we’ve seen a massive increase in the numbers of passengers being carried.
Today, punctuality is far better than under BR but it is starting to fall back as our old network is put under increasing pressure. We’ll come back to this point later, but yet again the Greens have been shown to be deceiving people with their claims. Their attitude to privatisation appears to have nothing to do with the reality on the ground & everything to do with grandstanding in the hope of gaining some votes.
Now let’s move on to their attitude to High Speed 2 (Hs2). The Greens claim that:
“TR244 The Green Party believes that long-distance service provision should not concentrate on high speeds where this will affect local service provision or take up an excessive amount of limited resources. The Green Party supports the principle of a new north-south high speed line which would reduce the number of short-haul flights within the UK.”
Well, that’s nice! But what do those fine principles mean in practice? Opposing building a new North-South high speed line, that’s what!
The utterly bizarre thing about this position is that it contradicts many of their other high-sounding ideals about extending rail use, getting more freight on rail, reducing air travel – and protecting the environment (amongst others).
Hs2 is designed to relieve the pressure on the UK’s major rail artery, the West Coast Main Line (WCML) which is the busiest mixed use railway in Europe. The line is already running drastically short of spare capacity at the Southern end between Rugby & London but it will be full by 2024 at the latest. That means we need to be need to do something now. That something is phase 1 of Hs2 which was planned to be open by 2026. Incredibly, the Greens oppose building Hs2. The effect of not building is will be rail gridlock on the WCML, followed shortly after by the East Coast Main Line (ECML). Allowing this to happen defies logic & commonsense. It’s anything but ‘green’, yet this is what the Greens want to do.
The Greens ridiculous situation of facing both ways at the same time came about due to a vote at their 2011 conference. Yes, rather like the old Labour party, conference decides what Green party policy is. Labour were sensible enough to ditch this as it led to such things as the infamous ‘longest suicide note in history’ (Labour’s 1983 manifesto).
The Green Party spokesperson on sustainable development is Professor John Whitelegg, a man who has always opposed high speed rail in the UK, he was influential in getting the Greens to oppose Hs2. He’s hardly an independent expert. He’s a member of the Greens who was a Green Councillor in Lancaster. At the Greens 2011 conference he made a series of statements that simply don’t stand up, such as:
“The proposed HS2 trains would burn 50% more energy mile-for-mile than the Eurostar”
How he can justify this when the specifications of the new Hs2 trains hasn’t been decided on is a mystery. It’s also a remarkably simplistic soundbite as the reality is these are quite complex calculations which contain a host of variables. To reduce it to such a simplistic level renders it meaningless. For example, comparisons between different trains are most usefully made in terms of the average energy used per seat-kilometre (i.e. total energy used per kilometre for the whole train divided by the total number of seats). Where does Prof Whitelegg make this comparison? He doesn’t. It would be impossible. The new Hs2 trains haven’t even been designed yet!
Another soundbite was ““HS2 would produce more than twice the emissions of an intercity train”
Really? Shouldn’t we first define which intercity train? After all, there’s more than one, diesel & electric! Again, this is a complex set of calculations simplified to the point of meaningless. It ignores the fact train design is continually evolving & that high speed trains are getting faster – yet use less energy. It also ignores the fact that emissions are only part of the story.
But my favourite was this, “HS2 is a ‘rich person’s railway’ – the business case assumes that a third of passengers will be on incomes of £70,000 or more”
Clearly, what Prof Whitelegg was doing here was pandering to some good old class prejudices (including his own, he was a long-standing member of the Labour party before joining the Greens). Does anyone seriously think any Government of any political colour would spend billions building a high speed, high capacity railway between our major cities, then price everybody but the ‘rich’ off it? Hs2’s 18 trains per hour will provide 26,000 extra passenger seats per hour, it’s essentially a high speed, long distance metro service. It would be economic & logistical folly to price it only for the ‘rich’ but this is the nonsense that Prof Whitelegg has sold to the Greens, based on an out of context quote taken from the HS2 business case!
So, it seems that, based on hearing only one side of the story – and a story simplified & prejudiced as to be almost worthless, the Greens voted to reject High Speed 2.
I found further evidence of Prof Whitelegg’s crazy attitude to UK railways in this Green party press release;
In it, Prof Whitelegg airily asserts that;
“Capacity problems on the West Coast Main Line can be solved by more trains, longer trains, passing loops and intelligent city regional planning. Going for extra capacity with a new high speed line ignores the impressive development of sophisticated teleconferencing, videoconferences and on-the-move IT solutions. The demand for rail transport is not an immutable physical law and can be reduced by promoting IT solutions. High speed rail is not a ‘get out of jail’ free card for carbon emissions and climate change. The proposed HS2 trains would burn 50% more energy mile-for-mile than the Eurostar and HS2 would produce more than twice the emissions of an intercity train”.
Isn’t it wonderful when, with a flourish of their pen, an academic can ‘solve’ problems like that, without being troubled by the reality on the ground? Let’s have a look at the reality Whitelegg has ignored. A problem with academics is they rarely seem to talk to people at the coal face. If Whitelegg had, he’d have heard a few pithy home truths about his claims about the WCML.
More trains? The WCML is almost at capacity, especially the Southern section between Rugby & Euston. So where’s Whitelegg’s evidence that we can fit more trains on it? He offers none. How on earth he thinks the busiest mixed traffic main line in Europe can fit more & more trains on it for the next 20,50 or 100 years is beyond me.
Longer trains? We’re already doing that. The problem that Whitelegg ignores is you can’t keep extending trains indefinitely. London Midland are already running the maximum length they can – 12 cars. To extend them any more would be horrendously expensive as it would require platforms to be extended. In many places there simply isn’t the physical space to do that as tunnels, bridges & junctions are in the way. Virgin trains have extended most of their Pendolino’s to 11 cars. You could maybe get away with extending them to 12 but they would only be able to be used on certain routes. A great example is Liverpool Lime St station. The approaches are in a very deep cutting under the city with limited space for the crossings that allow trains to use different platforms. Extend the platforms & you can’t fit in the tracks so you render much of the station unusable! It’s the same at Birmingham New St and several other locations. Of course, HS2 doesn’t just help take the pressure off the WCML, it does the same for the ECML. I’d love to take Prof Whitelegg to Kings Cross, stand him on the end of the platform looking towards the Gasworks Tunnels & ask him to explain to me how, exactly, he would extend platforms there! Here’s a picture to illustrate the problem. This is the view from the end of one of the platforms.
There’s also another problem with longer trains. They eat up capacity. With shorter trains you can have more than one using a platform at the same time. Good examples of this are Manchester Piccadilly & Birmingham New St. Stick much longer trains in and you run out of space, so you either have to cut services or build more platforms. Anyone who knows New St station will know building new platforms would be an expensive nightmare.
As for more passing loops…
Whitelegg’s lack of knowledge of rail operations & the situation on the ground has let him down again. He ignores the fact that all of the first 82 miles of the WCML out of Euston is essentially already four tracks, like this:
These run parallel all the way from Euston as far as Hanslope Junction, 56 miles out of Euston. The tracks are in two pairs, the gap between the two sets (known in railway parlance as the ’10 foot’) is closer than on many later railways. This led to difficulties when the route was modernised (at a cost of £9bn) as it wasn’t possible to safely close one pair of tracks & keep the other pair running – the whole line had to be closed. Also, much of the line is built on embankments or traverses deep cuttings (like the famous one at Tring). So, where is the space for Whitelegg’s loops. The simple answer is – there isn’t. Not without spending some very serious money & causing huge disruption. Also, let’s not forget this railway was built over 175 years ago & a lot of it passes through densely populated areas with no spare land either side of the tracks. You’d have to demolish a lot of homes to build loops.
People with knowledge of rail operations could have told Whitelegg & the Green party these problems. What a pity they’ve never bothered to talk to them. But then that’s academia for you. In the real world you ignore the devil in the detail at your peril.
Whitelegg’s airy dismissal of the need for Hs2 & belief we can just keep fitting more & more traffic on our existing Victorian network is nonsense that ignores practical reality. Even if possible, how much capacity would Whitelegg’s hair-brained ideas add to the WCML? He doesn’t say. In contrast, Hs2 will add 143% & massively cut journey times, which will encourage exactly the sort of modal shift the Greens want.
Oh, one last thing. Let’s look at Whitelegg & the Greens claims that we don’t need Hs2 because of “sophisticated teleconferencing, videoconferences and on-the-move IT solutions” We’ve had these for many years now. This little graph shows what impact they’ve had on rail passenger growth. None. At all.
Rail travel continues to grow. This week the Office of Rail Regulation (ORR) released the latest figures which shows that we’ve hit record levels;
So much for IT removing the need for travel!
2017 UPDATE: The above chart only dates to 2011-12. Has the growth stopped? No. Here’s the latest chart from the Dept of Transport which tracks growth to 2016.
You can find more 2016 data here.
One more thing. Whilst I was researching this blog I came across this, which is the speech of an unnamed Green party leader, delivered in 2013;
“There’s been one flagship leading the way in English transport policy in recent years – High Speed Two. Yet it is increasingly clear that HS2 not only should not be built, but will not be built.”
The irony of this confident assertion was that a year later the all party consensus on the need for Hs2 prevailed and the Hs2 Hybrid Bill was passed with 452 MPs voting for and only 41 against! The bill is now passing through the petitioning state & will receive Royal Assent in 2016. UPDATE. Royal Assent was actually granted in February 2017.
So, where does all this leave the Greens? Well, with their green credentials shot to pieces really. Let’s be honest – Hs2 is the only game in town. If we’re not going to end up with rail gridlock we need to be getting on with planning & building a new rail spine now. As it is, the first stage of Hs2 won’t be ready until 2026 & phase 2 won’t be open until possibly 2033. The Greens fine words on encouraging modal shift & getting people out of cars will remain just that – words. They have no credible alternatives to offer. They’ve failed to listen to the rail industry & a wider cross section of transport experts & fallen for the siren words of one of their own with an axe to grind. It’s left them with no credibility & no solutions to offer on transport. In fact, it will only make things worse. Without sufficient rail capacity for the future we’ll be even more reliant on road & air transport. Is that what they really want?
Energy consumption & carbon: http://www.greengauge21.net/wp-content/uploads/Energy-Consumption-and-CO2-impacts.pdf
Just build moreloops?http://www.appghsr.co.uk/upload/Chiltern%20Railways%20submission.pdf
HSR speeds & carbon; http://tinyurl.com/myx3vxf
Faster trains increase CO2?. The Japanese prove otherwise; http://www.uic.org/cdrom/2008/11_wcrr2008/pdf/R.184.108.40.206.pdf …