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.
Nigel Davies said:
Quality analysis again Paul.
Paul Bigland said:
Thanks Nigel. I do get annoyed when obviously intelligent people let themselves down by writing stuff that’s clearly uninformed nonsense.
I remember a documentary on the BBC a few years ago that said we’d all be riding in driver-less cars in 2019. At time of writing it’s September 2019 and we’re still waiting! Tick tock, tick tock – is there going to be a mass roll out in the next two months (and how does it fix transport anyway – they still need road space, somewhere to park in cities and, presently, internal combustion engines.)
I’ve worked in academia for some time, and most academics are perfectly normal rational beings. But there’s a few loons in there too who think their title empowers them to be regarded as sages. It’s a pity there isn’t more rigor amoungst their colleagues and they should be calling out and kicking out the nutters. Unfortunately, it’s a bit of a chumocracy and rather than criticise poor research, they tend to close ranks and protect each other.
Paul Bigland said:
Hi Dave, thanks for the interesting contribution re academics. It’s something I’ve noticed myself. Prof John Whitelegg is another great example.
I was never convinced of the case against the HS1 – HS2 link, yet alone not making provision for it.
The combined air market for Manchester/Birmingham to Paris/Brussels is around 1.5 million pa. There has been a significant increase in Manchester – Paris flights in particular in the last decade. Surely at several trains per day that is significant enough to run trains every couple of hours or more? I don’t buy the lack of paths argument (HS2 will not be full on day 1) and by sticking to those large markets the immigration infrastructure is minimised.
Paul Bigland said:
There were several problems with the HS1-HS2 link. It was an afterthought that was a suboptimal design that was never thought through and caused more problems then it solved. If we’d been in Schengen, it might have made some sense. As it is, the loadings would never have justified the cost and no-one worked out where you’d put the passport & customs checks that would make it an attractive service. The choice of route was poor as it caused problems on the North London Line and also had Camden up in arms in protest. The level of opposition meant that we were in danger of losing the main prize. Phase 1 of HS2 itself. With hindsight I believe that it was the right decision to make, especially now when you look at Brexit.
I went back and looked at Higgin’s report about the link before posting that comment. It seems that several options were on the table – passive, active, all tunnelled, part surface etc.
What I find amazing is they would rule out all of them. I don’t buy the Schengen / loadings thing either. On the inbound all the infrastructure already exists and on the outbound it would require ability to segregate a platform at Birmingham and Manchester on what will be new-build stations. If they can do it at Amsterdam, Rotterdam and Brussels platform 3 then for sure they could do it there too.
As for loadings: That market must be more attractive than Disneyland or the occasional south of France train or even Amsterdam, where they thought 250,000 passengers in one year was worth crowing about (and putting in the facilities for). As I said, the market for potential ~3 hour journeys to eat into is 1.5 million on these routes.
Paul Bigland said:
Like I said, I think it was too much of a distraction and it was risking the main prize. The business case was questionable and if you’d left passive provision (but which passive provision?) you wouldn’t have quelled the vociferous opposition in Camden to HS2. It just didn’t make sense to proceed with it.
By my reckoning that’s a little over 1000 people a day. If you get 100% modal shift you fill one train, but….
*some will travel morning, some evening, some middle of the day. You would need to have at least a morning and evening train
* many will fly to CDG in particular in order to change to a connecting flight. They are never going to switch to rail
* others will have a final destination more convenient to Paris or Brussels airports than to city centre train stations
I think you would be highly unlikely to fill half a train in total. And unless Chunnel regulations change you can’t run 2 sets together that can split in Lille so you would have 2 trains, one to each destination. Which would then sit in Paris / Brussels (or Brum / Manc) doing nothing for several hours before making a return trip.
Don’t see any possible way to make the numbers work
1.5m divided by 365 days is 4100 people a day, 2050 each way.
The running 2 short sets in multiple was already approved for Deutsche Bahn several years ago now.
So even with an 70% modal shift that is enough for 2 double sets each way per day. I dare say the bias in that 1.5m is towards weekdays which would probably enable a 3rd pair too.
The railways are underused comment is an interesting one. I went to Bletchley to try out the 230 units. While waiting I was astonished at the number of Virgin trains passing. I don’t need tables and graphs to know the service is very intensive. Apart from NR’s need to maintain the railway, more trains could be run through the night-Anyone for the 4am Glasgow train from Euston?
Paul Bigland said:
Indeed. The comment about Didcot really did make me laugh!
I also wanted to say that Chiltern managed to improve their capacity by increasing the number of signalling blocks but it was a great deal of disruption and work installing new signals. I feel upgrading an existing line for a nominal capacity increase against building a new line, akin to installing your living room carpet while having a party, rather than doing it while the house is being built.
I think the more understandable analogy is between having roadworks on the motorway for several years as an additional lane is added (and again a few years later) vs building a new road. Although I suspect rail enthusiasts would not like to mention roads at all!
Actually using the motorway example is just what’s needed as for some strange reason most people can wrap their heads around the disruption caused by upgrading a motorway when they can’t for a railway, yet the disruption and engineering challenges are not much different. I often use such an example to make the point.
That is a very good analogy, and the road footprint is so much bigger to start with. A new motorway has a very high internal combustion use from day one, but a new electric railway has none.
Well said. I’ve never seen so much negativity sound a project. Based mostly on people who live in the areas effected. If the trace went through eg Luton we would have started to build it by now
I came across Dieter Helm when I worked for Ofwat, umpteen years ago. He promoted himself as an expert in utility infrastructure and infrastructure accounting. However, even though both railways and utility distribution networks have a lot of similarities, there is a difference between pipes and rails,
“Move electrons, not people” has attractions; but there are a whole pile of reasons connected with working relationships that makes that undesirable as a model for all work situations,
STEWART STRINGER said:
Witty and informative – a perfect read!
To be fair China is a smidgeon larger than the UK as are all the other countries you mention. Why not simply have longer trains? Platforms can be extended relatively cheaply. HS2 will cost a truly ludicrous amount of money on the end. I live near Stafford, presently it is possible to get to Euston in just over an hour. The problem is capacity at peak times. Improve the rolling stock.
Capacity is the key reason for HS2, tinkering with the existing network provides nowhere near the capacity a new line like HS2 does and such tinkering is disruptive and costly for less gain. “Platforms can be extended relatively cheaply” displays a lack of understanding of the real world conditions on our existing Network I’m afraid. Yes building a wall and capping it out is a relatively simple and cheap job, but the issues that cost in both monetary, time and disruption terms are legion, for example moving signals and point work, closing lines for extended periods to allow work to happen, widening approach earthworks, rebuilding bridges that pen in Stations and much much else. Just take Euston as an example, to lengthen all those platforms is very difficult when the Station throat is penned in by a bridge and the concourse at the other end would need to be moved completely. Just adding a couple of coaches length in Glasgow has been a massive and costly undertaking and the doing the same a Waterloo was a very large job requiring a full rebuild of one side of the throat.
Daniel R said:
Regarding autonomous cars both yourself and C Wolmar have fallen into the same filtered thinking trap, throw out some issues with a technology you are not fully versed in without thinking more broadly as to the technologys inherent capabilities.
Maybe it would be better for you to think of them as, rubber wheeled, driverless, signaling network free, battery powered trains. See Elon Musk’s tunnels.
For moving relatively light self loading cargo such as humans heavy rail is too big (500-1000kg per passenger) and the requirement for everything to work with everything else stifles innovation.
Autonomous self driving cars on a grade separated roadway can go much faster door to door than rail with cruising speeds of 150mph easily possible. The infrastructure is a fraction of the cost see Elon Musk’s tunnels and the vehicles would be quite capable of running nose to tail so the capacity of a single lane can exceed that of a high speed line. Essentially 10-15 seat vehicles function as a train which can reorder itself at 150mph.
The key bit though is the speed of innovation, new driverless vehicles work immediately on the infrastructure and volume production means all the systems are a fraction of the price of rail kit.
Paul Bigland said:
“Throw out some issues” In, normal language, “show they don’t work”. This is all unmitigated tosh and the stuff of fantasies without any grasp of practicalities or reality.
Autonomous Car are like any technology, easy to do in the closed environment of design and test, but expose them to real world reality and it’s a whole other story. The real world is a brutal and complicated place that quickly exposes even the most minor of flaws in any such system. One only has to look at the complications at Crossrail with the signalling systems installed and comparatively speaking that’s a simple setup compared to that required for autonomous vehicles to cope with the real world. The current technology in cars whilst in many ways advanced in itself is isolated in its use and has little to do with the natural computer that currently drives the car. In fact the basic functionality of the control systems of a modern car are not as advanced as most people think. Replicating this human computer and its ability to sense and interact with the world around it is a long way down the road so to speak. In fact a fully autonomous road network would require significant technology and infrastructure to be installed at the roadside to assist with safe operation of such a network and such equipment adds significantly to the infrastructure costs and issues.
And don’t even **begin** to think about autonomous lorries; probably great for transferring goods between out-of-town industrial estate sites convenient to motorway junctions, but the first one to try to get through a village to a remote customer will probably be the last.
My village is currently having enough problems with HGVs driven by human beings:
Paul Bigland said:
Very true! You can forget autonomous/electric lorries too. If driverless cars aren’t hard enough…
I think autonomous electric trucks may work, but they would probably need their own dedication roads and travel between a limited number of distribution points where their goods could be delivered to the customer’s door. Then it might be better if more trucks travelled at the same time, so couple them together, and then they would be more efficient if they ran on rails rather than rubber. And you have invented a new transport system-let’s call it a train.
Paul Bigland said:
Indeed Phil. I notice more autonomous car enthusiasts always airily dismiss the practicalities of making such a thing actually work in the real world.