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High Speed 2: an engineering project?

4 September 2012
High speed train

High Speed 2 is a national project with national ramifications - if we get the details right then we can ensure the best railway is built reports principal policy advisor, Chris Richards.

High speed rail, undertaken correctly, is an excellent way to accomplish modal shift and the decarbonisation of long distance travel. It was unfortunate that the Department for Transport decided to conflate the issues of ‘high speed rail’ as a concept and the route from London to Birmingham in one consultation, ignoring latter parts of the scheme.

As an independent and impartial engineering institution the IET, along with the Royal Academy of Engineering, submitted a response which assessed whether or not Government plans for high speed rail met the objectives they had set out. The IET’s multi-disciplinary approach allowed us to assess the project from every engineering point of view, be it civil, mechanical or communications engineering and to respond with an assessment.

That assessment highlighted key parts of the high speed rail proposals which lacked robust evidence or detailed analysis. As was noted in the IET’s response at the time, while there is no doubt expert engineers worked on the detail of the project, the final decision is ultimately a political one. The IET’s concerns fall into four broad categories of the environment, engineering, economic and business justifications. Two sections, on the environment and business case are highlighted below.

Define green

High Speed 2 could lead to an increase and not a reduction in carbon emissions if viewed in isolation. The evidence presented in the consultation documents was not comprehensive enough for the IET to make a full assessment and seemed somewhat deceptive in its presentation.

As an example a graph was presented which showed emissions per passenger mile for different modes of transport. Eurostar was shown to have a significantly lower figure than Intercity UK rail, why? Eurostar trains are built to UK loading gauge restrictions, similar to UK domestic rolling stock, so the number of passengers in each train is comparable. The IET therefore surmised that the Eurostar figure was based on French ‘nuclear’ electricity while Intercity rail was based on the current UK electricity energy mix. In the IET’s view, this is inappropriate given the date High Speed 2 will commence and the expected change in the UK electricity generating mix by this date.

Secondly, ‘green tunnels’ are anything but. Tunnels increase the aerodynamic drag of trains thus increasing their energy consumption, the carbon cost of tunnel excavation and construction is also locked in to the overall CO2 burden of the project. In addition to this hard environmental cost, the cost of maintaining High Speed 2 is higher the more tunnels are introduced. In the latest announcements more and more tunnels are used.

Twiddling thumbs

Part of the economic case for High Speed 2 is based on the assumption that time spent on trains is wasted, no evidence was presented to back up this claim. In the last decade we have witnessed a significant change in communication with the rise of modern portable ICT devices such as laptops, smart phones and now tablets, with on-board wireless Internet available for their continuous use throughout the journey.

Train travel is no longer about waiting and twiddling thumbs; significant business activity is now done while travelling by intercity rail. High Speed 2 will begin operating in 2026, given what we have witnessed in the last ten years, how can we predict that in another 14 years we will witness no improvement in modern ICT devices?

Value of business time savings is a significant component of the benefits associated with High Speed 2 and we would have expected more evidence of its genuine value to be presented. If this component of the benefit-cost ratio is incorrect this would undermine the case for investment in High Speed 2.

Connect the dots

Over the last 18 months there have been a number of rail transport announcements, but with little joined up strategy between them. What is now needed is such a strategy that connects the dots between electrification, rolling stock procurement, new rail lines, signalling and other upgrades. A piecemeal approach does nothing to help reduce the 40 per cent efficiency gap in UK rail, identified by the McNulty Rail Value for Money study.

This strategy would also help to develop appropriate plans for UK-based skills development (the tunnelling academy for Crossrail is an excellent example) and present opportunities for small and medium-sized businesses in the UK to gear up, knowing what contracts will be coming down the supply chain.

Next steps

Over the coming weeks the IET will be studying in-depth the updated documents published by HS2 Ltd and the Department for Transport, to see what new evidence has been presented. In addition, it will provide, where appropriate, additional recommendations and lines of query.

It is in the UK’s interest that such a large rail project is constructed based on the soundest evidence, or we may come to regret it in years to come.

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