Like the other month’s ‘Panorama’ programme, last night’s ‘Dispatches’ programme written and presented by Liam Halligan was puffed for days by the remaining groups opposed to Hs2, who (once again) proclaimed that it would be the ‘smoking gun’ that would finally kill off HS2. As usual, the truth was very different.
What did we actually learn from the 30 minute programme? Nothing that we didn’t know already. Like Panorama it was a rehash of old news and stories spiced up with ‘revelations’ that weren’t, plus an awful lot of un-attributable briefings from anonymous sources where speculation was presented as fact.
In the first part of the programme Halligan spent a lot of time with weary Northern Rail commuters on short-formed or delayed trains who (understandably) were complaining about the service. The Pacer trains came in for particular criticism – but more of them later…
Early on, Halligan is filmed getting off a train at Liverpool Lime St. Was there any mention of the fact the station’s just had £340m spent on it as it’s been rebuilt, had platforms added and extended, extensive track alterations and been resignalled? Of course not.
Halligan goes on to say the cost of Hs2 ‘ballooned’ from £33bn in 2011 to £56bn in 2015. As usual, Halligan doesn’t give any context. He doesn’t explain that this increase was due to the cost of Hs2 being uplifted to reflect inflation and that the 2015 figure includes the cost of the trains (£7bn) which wasn’t included in the 2011 figure. The contingency figures were also adjusted. The spending review in 2015 set the long term funding envelope for Hs2 at £55.7bn (including contingency) So, the actual cost of building Hs2 hasn’t changed, but admitting that doesn’t fit the narrative. Halligan then went on to say that “some experts predict a massive £100bn bill” (note the plural). In fact, only one person, Michael Byng – who came up with the figure – is predicting £100bn, but that doesn’t fit the narrative either.
Halligan then does a piece to camera on the Hs2 Curzon St construction site where he says “Given the vast cost, does Hs2 even make sense. This is a complex question” – so he trots off to for an ‘exclusive’ interview with Prof Stephen Glaister, who’s been critical of Hs2 in the past. So, is the complex question answered? Of course not. Halligan asks “is it (Hs2) good value”? Glaister replies “nobody knows”. So, that’s cleared that up then! In a tightly edited video, Glaister then goes on to say “You really must put it in the context of an overall strategy about what you think the national problem is” – something Halligan utterly fails to do as the very reason for building Hs2 is never, ever mentioned in the programme. The fact Hs2 is designed to free up capacity on our existing Victorian network because its full is completely ignored – despite Halligan mentioning record passenger numbers earlier in the programme!
Halligan then goes on to claim that Hs2 “hasn’t been thought through” and that their ‘might’ be better ways of spending the money. This completely ignores the fact that a huge amount of research into the need for Hs2 has been done. Proposals examined in great detail by both WS Atkins and Network Rail back in 2012/13 comprised a set of incremental capacity and connectivity improvements achieved by “upgrades to the conventional rail network that could: provide additional capacity and improved connectivity for the set of main centres that would directly benefit from HS2; and also provide benefit to those places from freed up capacity that would be created by HS2 on the conventional network”. The upgrades included “measures relating to commuter capacity on lines around the major conurbations on routes potentially affected by HS2 to ensure compatibility with the wider objectives of HS2 of increasing rail capacity for commuters”.
However, it was found that the schemes necessary would require 2,770 weekend closures, endless bus substitutions and increased journey times for more than 14 years, and achieve far fewer overall benefits.
Also attention to the impact of even further traffic on the WCML (London-Birmingham is now 180 years old!) was referred to by David Higgins in evidence to the House of Commons Transport Select Committee as long ago as 2012, when he described the WCML as “a busy, heavily-used railway, and we’re really pounding it. . . . What we really should be doing when we finish the first stage of High Speed 2 is take the old West Coast route out and spend a year fixing it up, and doing it properly. Because by then I reckon it will be really trashed.”
If Halligan was really trying to answer what he himself calls a “complex” question, you would think he would know about this research and mention why we’re actually building Hs2 in the first place. But doing that wouldn’t fit the narrative either.
Halligan then returns to Liverpool and talks (again) about Pacers, calling them the ‘workhorse’ of the Northern rail network that are “ex-bus chassis bolted onto train wheels – a joke”. It’s complete nonsense of course and the joke’s actually on Halligan as it shows a cavalier attitude to facts to try and project an image. Some Pacers do have bus components (the Class 142s used similar body panels used by Leyland National buses) but the trains were from an original design by British Rail and the Class 142s were built on brand new steel rail vehicle underframes at Workington in 1985-87. The sister units, the Class 144s used by Northern don’t use any bus components. They were built as pure rail vehicles by British Rail in Derby in 1986-87.
Halligan does mention the Pacers are being phased out but snidely remarks that it “hasn’t happened yet”, ignoring that fact it is happening and that by 2020 they will all have gone for scrap. He never mentions that one of their replacements is a £450m fleet of brand-new trains which are starting to be delivered to Northern now – because that wouldn’t fit the narrative either. Nor would talking about the Great North Rail Project a massive investment scheme that’s modernising and electrifying lines across the North. It never even gets a mention. Ironically, the day Dispatches was aired another (albeit very late) milestone was reached as the first electric trains ran between Manchester and Preston via Bolton. Here’s one of them.
Halligan *could* have talked about this as these electrification schemes are allowing more modern diesel trains to be cascaded to help replace the Pacers he’s obsessed about. But no doubt that didn’t fit the narrative either! So much for answering “complex” questions…
Next up is a long (another two and a half minutes out of a 26 minute programme) piece of film showing Halligan & his crew travelling on another busy Pacer just to show people what a packed Pacer is like. At one point Halligan laments that some people can’t get on the train to get to work “because there’s just no room”. The irony that there would have been more if he hadn’t taken up space filming this pointless stuff and spent more time really trying to answer those ‘complex’ questions hasn’t occurred to him!
At the end of the piece Halligan brings up Northern Powerhouse Rail, which he gives a cursory outline of. Then he goes to see Mayor of Manchester, Andy Burnham. So, are we finally going to see some of those ‘complex’ questions answered? Of course not. It’s a completely pointless and heavily edited interview. Firstly Halligan recounts his earlier journey, only this time emotively saying Pacers were built of out “scrap buses” (another load of tosh). Then asks why “this wouldn’t be allowed in Surrey”? So, no complex questions there then, this is starting to get cringeworthy. Then we come to the crunch – Halligan tries to put Burnham on the spot about Hs2 and asks the most stupid and pointless question so far. He says to Burnham. “If you had to choose between linking up Northern cities or yet another North-South link, what would you choose”?
There you have it, ‘complex’ questions reduced to asking a something as dumb as this. Because it’s a choice Burnham never has to make. It’s not in his power and way above his paygrade – and Halligan should know this. Hs2 is decided on by MPs sitting in Parliament through the Hybrid Bill process. It’s a national infrastructure project, not a regional transport initiative. Burham’s first answer? “we need BOTH”. But then he’s free to say ‘but’ knowing it doesn’t matter. The whole interview was a waste of time and as Burnham showed on Twitter later, he was less than impressed.
Now Halligan reveals that there’s been an ‘exclusive’ Dispatches poll that suggests that 63% of those in the North who were asked wanted Hs2 money spent on Northern Powerhouse Rail instead. The expression ‘No shit, Sherlock!’ springs to mind.
Northerners want money spent in the North isn’t exactly a revelation, is it? I’ll bet if you asked Southerners would they rather see NPR money spent on Crossrail 2 you’d get the same answer! So what does any of this actually prove – and how does any of this answer any ‘complex’ questions?
Next Halligan goes back to Newcastle to interview Prof John Tomaney, another person who’s well known for having been critical of Hs2. What revelations are we to be treated to this time? We get another of Halligan’s pintless pieces to camera in which we’re told that “getting from Middlesborough to Newcastle, just 30 miles, takes almost an hour and a half. That’s an average speed then, of around 23 miles an hour. Slower than a galloping horse.” Really? “almost” an hour and a half? Hmm, let’s see what National Rail Enquiries says. Oh! – an hourly service that takes 1hr 7mins with a change at Darlington. As for that “just” 30 miles, by rail it’s actually 51!
Halligan has got his facts wrong again either by accident due to shoddy research, or by design to fit his narrative.
Meanwhile, what’s Tomaney got to say? Will Hs2 help “tackle the North-South divide” muses Halligan? Tomaney answers a completely different question – “the idea that Hs2 would be the solution to the economic regeneration of the North is I think, a weak argument. Billions of pounds are being invested in making very short reductions in journey times to London”.
Hang on a minute! Let’s have a look at some sample journey times taken from official HS2 documents.
Knocking an hour off the time between London and Manchester is a 47% decrease! Now, what about times between Northern cities and the Midlands as Hs2 is just as much about connecting those cities as London. From Birmingham to Manchester it’s 54% and from Birmingham to Leeds it’s a staggering 58% decrease. I’m afraid what we’re seeing here is some good old fashioned envy of the South and some Northerners obsession with London, to the exclusion of all else – including fact.
Next up after Tomaney is an interview with Alistair Darling, former Labour Transport Minister from May 2002 to May 2006 and Chancellor from June 2007 until May 2010. Darling repeats some of his longstanding criticisms of Hs2, talking about most people commuting, not “doing the long distance stuff”. This ignores that fact that Hs2 frees up capacity on existing lines for more commuter services, especially around Leeds and Manchester – as well as the corridor from Rugby via Milton Keynes to Euston.
Those of us who remember Darling’s tenure in Transport find his ‘concern’ for the lot of Northern commuters hypocritical, because it was under Darling that plans for tram networks in Leeds and Liverpool were cancelled as he refused to guarantee funding. Oddly, Halligan seems unaware of this. He also seems unaware that the only rail electrification that happened under Darling (either as Transport Minister or as Chancellor) was a paltry 8 miles, from Kidsgrove to Crewe! This was a fill in to create a diversionary route during the horrendously expensive West Coast Route Modernisation (WCRM), which ended up costing £10bn but should have been a lot more before it was descoped. The fact this line is now full is why we started planning Hs2!
After Darling, Halligan moves on to more emotive videos of Northern passengers and their daily commute. It manages to waste more time into the break and that’s all.
In Part 2 we get more facts and figures about cancellations and yet more videos of passengers travelling – I wonder how many minutes Halligan wasted in total this way? Halligan then goes on to claim that Hs2 will be spending £4bn a year for the next 10 years. Finally, we get to Halligan’s ‘bombshell’ as he confides to camera “But a Senior Cabinet source has told me, with costs spiralling, Ministers have allocated even more than that. £6bn for Hs2 for the next decade”! And the evidence for this is? None. Not a shred. Zip. Bugger all. Halligan expects you to believe that (un-named Ministers) have found an extra £20bn that doesn’t appear on any Government books – anywhere. Not the Dept for Transport, nor the Treasury. The National Audit Office are unawares, as are the Public Accounts Committee. Nobody knows about this apart from an anonymous source, Halligan and now – you!
We now get into the second part of the guff as Halligan informs us that, apparently (due to these cost overruns no-one offers any evidence for), Ministers are “reconsidering” Hs2 and “considering” stopping Hs2 in Birmingham. There’s no evidence offered for this speculative nonsense either, other than un-named ‘sources’.
Now we cut back to Andy Burnham, who addresses the rumours (pointing out that’s all they are), saying “that would be criminal, that would be a complete waste of money” He’s right, of course. Back in Newcastle, Tomany agrees – as does Glaister who points out that just going from London to Birmingham “makes no sense” and that “you have to do the whole scheme”.
Bored with the North, Halligan goes to Oxford to get consultants Oxera to crunch some numbers to prove what everyone already knows. Only building Phase 1 of Hs2 makes no economic sense (cue another few minutes wasted). Halligan also asks if spending the Hs2 money would generate a bigger BCR if it was spent in the North. The answer’s yes – but yet again, this completely ignores why we’re building Hs2 in the first place.
Finally, with just 5 minutes of the programme left to go after all the fillers and time-wasting, Halligan interviews Mark Thurston, the Chief Executive of Hs2. Of course, Halligan can’t resist introducing both him and details of his salary (£650,000pa). The actual interview isn’t much better. Halligan talks about all the wild guesses for the ‘actual’ costs of Hs2 as he asks a series of “what if” questions. Thurston plays it with a straight (factual) bat. “What I am very clear on and Hs2 is very clear on is the budget for this scheme is £56bn” Halligan tries again by quoting the former hs2 Chair who’s said “nobody knows the finals costs” – which is true but Halligan twists this to mean costs can only increase – ignoring the fact the recent contracts for the stations at Euston and Old Oak Common both came in under estimates – but that wouldn’t fit the narrative. Thurston reiterates – Hs2 has to be built for £56bn and a lot of people are involved to make that happen. It was another interview that was a waste of time and Halligan didn’t get what he wanted, so we’re back more spin about ‘spiralling costs’ (with no evidence offered), then another piece to camera where Halligan claims “A Cabinet source has told me the Government’s actively considering scrapping the whole of Hs2”.
Hang on a minute! This same Cabinet ‘source’ also (supposedly) said that they’ve stashed an extra £20bn down the back of the sofa out of the way of the auditors to make sure Hs2 CAN be built! Make your mind up…
We now move on to yet another poll. Apparently on 20% of voters want Hs2 built. Now ignoring the fact that asking anyone in a poll should the Government spend money on anything (bar the sacred NHS) is almost certainly going to get a negative, what’s the point of this? This is a Parliamentary democracy, not the X-Factor. MPs, not polls decide on Hs2.
Now we go back to Darling who says “don’t get me wrong, I want to see money spent on Britain’s rail network” These are hollow words. Did I mention that one of the reasons we still have the Pacers that Halligan hates is because when the Northern Rail franchise was let in 2004 it was done on the basis of Zero growth and no investment in new trains. Who was Transport Minister at the time? Darling. Funny that Halligan doesn’t seem to know that, or wouldn’t that fit the narrative either?
Finally, we end up with Glaister and Tomaney delivering their opinions, neither of which are convincing. Tomaney talks of Hs2 being ‘steamrollered’ through, ignoring the fact it was debated for years before Parliament voted to build it.
The last few minutes are wasted by filling them out with a Manchester poet reciting ‘his thoughts’ on (yes, you’ve guessed it) Pacer trains. Only it isn’t on a Pacer, it’s a newly refurbished Class 150, part of Northern’s commitment to have all it’s existing trains improved!
Now, what hasn’t Halligan told you? An awful lot…
If you thought this was the work of an unbiased journalist, you’d be sadly mistaken. Halligan has form for long opposition to Hs2, as this tweet found by Henri Murison shows.
There’s something else too. Halligan (who writes for the Telegraph) is also an ardent Brexit supporter, which hardly squares with his supposed ‘concern’ for the North. Like many Brexit supporters he has a background that involves sovereign wealth funds and (according to his Wikipedia entry) links to Russia. Apparently, he also carries an Irish passport, which means the Freedom of Movement he’s helped deny to everyone else he’ll be keeping for himself.
I mention all this because there’s an uncanny crossover between those supporting Brexit also opposing Hs2. He also has links to the Social Media Foundation, a ‘think tank’ based in Tufton St, London. By a complete fluke I’m sure, Tufton St is also home to another building that holds two other fans of Hs2, the Taxpayers Alliance and the Institute of Economic Affairs. Halligan’s a columnist for hardline Brexiteer Tim Montgomerie’s UnHerd media platform which was launched last year (see link). ‘Monty’ is yet another opponent of Hs2, as is another of the organisations Monty’s involved in, ConHome, which tries to influence Tory policy. You know, on things like Hs2! Of course, I’m sure all this is a complete co-incidence and that Halligan’s Dispatches piece wasn’t really just a poor attempt at stitching up Hs2 and changing Government policy…
I’ve a favour to ask…
If you enjoy reading these blogs, please consider clicking on an advert – or two! You don’t have to buy anything, honest! The clicks just help me cover the cost of running this blog. Many thanks, Paul