Monthly Archives: August 2013

HS2 and International Connectivity – it needs to be got right at the outset

I believe that the international connectivity of HS2 has the potential to play a highly effective role in the regeneration of the communities in the vicinity of stations and in the wider city regions. A through train from Manchester city centre could arrive in Paris city centre in about three hours, faster than aviation door to door. The location choices of international companies and investors would shift to our advantage, as well as for our tourism, sport and cultural sectors. Offices of international governance could also be attracted. We saw exactly the same modal switch by passengers from air to rail between Manchester and London after the WCML investment, for the same reason.

I fully support the case for HS2 and agree that it is at least as much about increasing capacity as it is about speed.

However, I have been studying HS1 since 2008 and in particular the UK policy failure in the 1990s to deliver HS1 connectivity beyond London. This was not a failure of capital resources, in that two fleets of specially adapted trains were paid for, bespoke designed and built to run on ‘classic’ UK rail such as the West Coast Main Line (110 mph) as well as on HS1 (full speed). The daytime train fleet is still being run by SNCF but wholly within France, and the overnight sleeper train fleet is being run in Canada.

Instead, in my opinion, the policy failure was around not engaging with all the necessary partners at an early stage. This led to certain assumptions being made around border and immigration controls being operated in transit, allowing for a multitude of station stops, whereas policy decisions elsewhere within Government were firmly settled on control points being prior to boarding, including overseas. This remains an issue, for example in Deutsche Bahn’s ambition for Frankfurt – London. The revenue costs of HS1 ‘North of London’ also received less attention at the time than the capital costs.

The one point I would emphasise from these details is that international connectivity must be a design requirement as well as a policy ambition from the outset.

So, for example, it should be understood that HS1 as a technology was essentially built as a French ligne á grande vitesse to be compatible with the first leg of the wider network overseas. Therefore, if HS2 is to ‘fit’ with HS1 then early decisions need to be made on the fundamental technology in order for British firms, and SME supply chains, to gear up to meet the requirements of eventual procurements on a level playing field with others. In my experience, frankly, the UK rail industry has a stubborn tendency to produce sub-optimal ‘solutions’ (such as running Pendolinos at 125 mph instead of 140 mph) despite all the policy efforts and investments made. The point to be watched for with HS2 is that an international connectivity of a sort will be provided, but so degraded as to be in unattractive to investors and customers.

In terms of unlocking investment, and in learning from international experience of driving growth from major infrastructure investments, therefore, it may well be worth introducing strong competitive tension into the UK rail infrastructure sector by not ruling out the option of co-investment by SNCF, DB or others, alongside strong supporting measures for city region SME supply chains, apprenticeships and skills development, and alongside structuring the contracts so that the client maintains choice and control throughout the build phase.

HS2 “will cost £73 billion” scare story quoted in FT today

Today’s Financial Times (21 August 2013) runs with a front page lead story from “sources inside HM Treasury” claiming that the high speed rail project will eventually cost £73 billion. The rest of the media are running with it, being a slow news day in August which can be padded out with archive guff.

Initial responses, apart from the glee of anti-HS2 groups, are comments that HMT have applied contingency costing rules which do not apply to any other major infrastructure projects.

If so, there is irony of the anti-HS2 groups tweeting their delight at a rising cost based on contingencies in more tunnelling to appease anti-groups.

But there is also the shadowy “pro-car anti-rail” lobby and the Institute of Economic Affairs seems to have become their spokesperson. The report below gives a good analysis of the IEA lobby. It’s the same argument and business forces that designed Los Angeles, anti rail and pro car.


Our homes – they are not big and not bright

It is good news that the UK government plans “to consider curbing the building of so-called ‘rabbit hutch’ homes in England”, reportedly by re-introducing internal space standards for new homes.

Of course, one way to do this would be to volunteer to lead the way whenever new social housing is being built. The tried and tested Parker Morris space standards would be a great place to start.

Window sizes should also be looked at.

A BBC Radio 4 interview on 20 August 2013 09:00 BST gave a good insight into how we humans need strong daylight to regulate our body clock, including many ‘visually blind’ people who can detect daylight cycles without vision. This synchronisation has strong health benefits. Too many house builders try to save a few pennies by using small window frames, building dismal cells rather than bright, airy rooms. Triple glazed windows will let the light flood in without winter heat losses.

BBC Radio 4, The Life Scientific. Interview with Prof Russell Foster, zoologist, on circadian rhythms.

Is London making the UK unsustainable?

London is a world city, and for centuries has had a cost of living differential. However, unsustainable rising property prices and ever-increasing levels of income inequality are beginning the change the very fabric of the city.

“Dr Rowland Atkinson, an urban studies expert at York University, says it is no longer fanciful to equate London with Paris, with the poor banished to distant suburbs, or subsisting in the centre.”

There is a way out of this problem, but it requires a belief in rebalancing public and private rights. For public rights and the public good to become strong social forces again, there needs to be a limit to private rights, and especially to private property rights. In practice this means a strong programme of building social housing, taking on nimbyism and anti-Keynsian vested interests, and a town planning system that has been given back its teeth and muscle.

This is not just a ‘London issue’. A disfunctional, unequal, unsustainable London is bad for the UK in many ways.

For example, the scale of public money in transport infrastructure spending in and around London bleeds billions away from the rest of the UK, to prop up a system where working people commute two hours each way because they cannot afford to live closer, passing empty homes which are ‘investments’ for rich people around the world. Close down the North East and build another CrossRail? We need to insist on buying and building social housing at the scale of genuine social impact, even in Westminster.