Regular readers may know that I’ve a cynical streak when it comes to academics. Sadly, there’s a number of them who seem to think their undoubted expertise in specific fields makes them a sage on all things, including complex subjects they know absolutely nothing about – not that this stops them pontificating!

The latest to come to my attention was this load of unmitigated tosh from Professor Dieter Helm, who’s an economist and lecturer at the University of Oxford and also an advisor to the Government.

Sadly, the professor seems to think that his knowledge of economics means that he doesn’t need to do any proper research when it comes to writing about the railways and HS2. If he had, he would have been very quickly dissuaded from writing the nonsense he’s produced. He starts badly, then rapidly goes down hill from there!

Here’s his opening stance:

“What is the question or questions to which HS2 is supposed to be an answer?” Do go on? “When it comes to HS2, the search for a justifying rationale has gone through many episodes. Only one, the original idea, has some merit, but HS2 is no longer an answer to it.” Really? And that original idea was what, exactly? “The original idea, the good one, was to integrate the UK into a European increasingly interconnected high-speed network” Err, Professor, if you’d bothered to do the slightest bit of research you’d have known that’s complete cobblers. Helm is talking about the link between HS1 and HS2 that was dropped by the Higgins review back in 2014.

In fact, that was never “the original idea” at all. HS2 came about because the then Labour Government asked Network Rail to look into the need for new rail capacity. The study, “Meeting the capacity challenge: The case for new lines” was published in 2009. Here’s a link to it. But the idea wasn’t new even then. An earlier feasibility study by W.S. Atkins was commissioned by the Strategic Rail Authority in 2001.

the 2009 Network Rail study considered four corridors and came to the conclusion that the best value option and the one that addressed future capacity constraints was a new high-speed route from London to Scotland.

Note that there was no mention of a link between the new line and HS1. This came about later.

The Network Rail study was the basis for HS2. It was taken forward by the Labour Government under Lord Adonis who’d already set up HS2 Ltd. HS2 Ltd reported back at the end of December 2009 and the then Transport Secretary, Andrew Adonis, published the Government’s response in a Command Paper, ‘High Speed Rail’, in March 2010. It was only then that a possible HS1-HS2 link was suggested as an option. It was never the “original idea” at all. That year, Labour lost power and the new Government confirmed the HS1-HS2 link as a firm proposal, until it became obvious it was a non-starter.

So, Helm’s fallen at the first hurdle. Let’s have a look at some of his other claims. Having got the first one badly wrong he claims that

First, it is not true that the existing lines could not be upgraded and carry more capacity. Railways are basically empty for almost all of the time, and the distance between and number of trains depends upon stations and signalling.  Standing on a mainline station platform at say Didcot Parkway, staring at the empty lines, reflects the fact that for most of the time there are no trains”.

Where to start with this nonsense? No-one has claimed that existing lines can’t be upgraded. Clearly, Helm has no idea that we spent £9bn upgrading the West Coast Main Line just 12 years ago! The point is that upgrading the Victorian network is complex, expensive and disruptive and it adds very little extra capacity compared to building a new high-speed line!

The next one’s even more laughable! Railways are “basically empty for almost all the time” Are you serious? This is weapons-grade nonsense. As for standing On Didcot Parkway, what on earth is that meant to prove? The levels of ignorance of how railway capacity actually works here is stunning. It would be laughable from an ordinary member of the public, but this man’s an Oxford Professor!

OK, let’s have a look at those ’empty railways’ in the real world. Here’s a copy of today’s actual train workings from ‘real time trains’ for Roade, which is on the two track section of the West Coast Main line South of Rugby. This is the section that phase 1 of HS2 is designed to relieve. This is what passed between 07:00 and 08:00 this morning. A note for those unfamiliar with this, the times in the two right hand columns show first the working timetable times, then the actual time the train passed.

There were 31 trains out of 32 scheduled, as one was cancelled. There’s 16 trains heading for Euston alone, that’s roughly one every four minutes. Some “mostly empty” railway, eh? Right, let’s have a look at the next bit of nonsense.

Few mainlines carry trains less than 10 to 15 minutes apart. Existing lines could be upgraded, and they have the great merit of already existing and require much less extra land and demolitions that the new line must have. For £100 billion, the existing rail network could be upgraded almost everywhere, with comprehensive modern signalling, station enhancements and a coherent fibre enabled communication system to run it

Yet again the Prof falls flat on his face in the first sentence. How many other main lines do I need to provide real-time running information to expose this nonsense on stilts? Has the Prof any idea of how much of our railway network HAS already been upgraded over the past few years, or how the fact Network Rail’s spending record amounts doing more?

How does any of this remove the need for HS2? It doesn’t. For example rebuilding Reading at a cost of £1bn a few years ago has done nothing to add capacity to the WCML, only HS2 can do that. OK, let’s plough on.

“Far from dispersing growth to the north from the south, it could easily work the other way around. Furthermore, it is not obvious that the economic growth problem in the north is caused by lack of connection to London, or that the £100 billon spent on HS2 is the best way of increasing the northern growth rate”.

Here we see the usual obsession with London, ignoring all the other places HS2 connects. But let’s tackle this one head on as I’m a perfect example of why this is a fallacy. I live in West Yorkshire but I often work in London. Where do I spend the money I earn in London? Most of it in West Yorkshire, where I live, not where I work. When I get the morning Express to London and home in the evening there are hundreds of other Yorkshire folk doing exactly the same, only now it’s getting increasingly difficult to work on the trains as they’re full. If I get the Grand Central service from Halifax to Kings Cross I’ll be lucky to get a seat, even in First Class, making me less productive. This is the difference between economic theory and reality. Right, next..

Promoting the economic growth prospects in the north is much more about connectivity within the north” The Prof seems blissfully unaware this is exactly what HS2 does. If we take “the North” as being out of the M25! The current rail services between Birmingham, Leeds and Manchester are slow and not fit for purpose. HS2 will cut journey times between B’ham and Manchester by 52% and B’ham and Leeds by 58%! It will make a huge difference in connectivity between those major cities – and many more.

“In transport, there are two main alternative options. The money could be spent on upgrading the existing rail network, with smart signalling and metering, and smart system coordination, better smarter stations, better access to stations, more and better stations, and better rail lines”.

Frankly, some of that doesn’t even make sense. What on earth is “smart signalling and metering“? If he’s referring to digital signalling like ATO, he’s clearly unaware of the limited capacity gains it offers on mixed traffic railways like the West Coast Main Line (the busiest in the EU). It’s estimated by signalling experts that digital signalling could offer around 15% extra capacity on mixed traffic lines. At the current rate of growth, that would be eaten up in just a few years. Then what? We’re back to square 1. In contrast, HS2 offers a massive capacity increase by moving non-stop express trains off the existing lines onto dedicated lines where digital signalling really can help because all trains are running at the same speeds. It also frees up lots of capacity on our existing network. Not just on the WCML but also on the East Coast and Midland main lines.

” If autonomous electric vehicles develop, controlled by smart systems, and powered by low carbon electricity generation, then roads may be better than rail in the future, having greater flexibility and able to take denser traffic.”

“If”? We need solutions now, not play wait and see! As it is autonomous vehicles have been overhyped and underachieved. I may not see eye to eye with the commentator Christian Wolmar on HS2, but he’s done some excellent work debunking the hype around driverless cars. Even “if” they did arrive there’s no way we’d be seeing what the Professor is suggesting as every vehicle on the road would need to be autonomous before you’d see this pipe-dream happen. But just say it did. Electric vehicles are still far more polluting than trains. Oh, and how an electric car carrying a max of 5 people and limited to 70mph will be ‘better’ than a 200mph train carrying 1100 is stretching reality to breaking point. This is no ‘alternative’ to HS2.

Finally, we get this old cherry.

“If the counterfactual is the infrastructures more generally, then the first candidate would be fibre and broadband. This would cost less than £100 billion to complete and one of its impacts would be to reduce the need to travel and hence the demand for travel.”

Really? As we’ve had fibre and broadband for many years now, perhaps the professor could say when it’s ever reduced travel demand? Rail passenger numbers are still growing and hitting record numbers. Here’s West Coast operator Virgin trains figures. Virgin has grown passenger numbers from 30.4m in 2012-13 to 38.3m in 2017-18, an increase of 25.98%!

Here’s the statistics for the other West Coast operator, West Midlands Trains. They’ve grown numbers from 60.5 million in 2012-13 to 74.9 million in 2017-18, that’s a growth of 23.8%. So much for broadband reducing travel…

In fact, it’s arguable that improved wireless communication and technology has helped increase, not cut, travel as less and less people are tied to their offices – hence so many people working on trains! OK, next…

“It is hard to avoid the conclusion that the future is more likely to be cars and vehicles than trains”

No, it’s really, really not, this is more nonsense on stilts. High-speed rail is the land transport of choice in the 21st century, which is why so many countries are investing in it. China has built 25,000 km already in just a few short years. Now we have Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Russia and Morocco added to the list. Soon there’ll be Indonesia, India, Thailand the USA and many others.

Like the professor, I could go on, but there’s little point. I think my job here is done. It’s a great shame when academics get so carried away with themselves they trot out stuff like this. I could call it badly-researched, but it’s not. It’s hard not to draw the conclusion that he’s done no research at all.