Tuesday, 5 July 2011

High Speed Rail - Green? - Good for Manchester?

There's been a lot of propaganda around recently in support of the Government's High Speed Rail plan (HS2) for London to Birmingham, and subsequently to Manchester and Leeds.  A couple of weeks ago I saw a group of people with balloons and leaflets in Piccadilly Gardens, seeking to convince passers by to sign up to  the scheme.  Adverts can also be seen on the local buses.  Is it the boon its supporters claim?  Is it green?  is it worth the cost? 
Supporters claim that it will replace air travel with more environmentally friendly rail, and that the reduced journey times will benefit Manchester and the North.  However...
The economic case for HS2 depends on a massive expansion in air and road travel, and the forecast is that it will only achieve an 6% shift from air and 8% from cars; it also assumes that time travelling is automatically time wasted and that a third of passengers will be on incomes of £70,000 or more.     Furthermore it is likely  that by encouraging a culture of high-speed travel, air travel levels will increase between other cities, as has been the case in Germany.
'It will bring jobs' is the cry, but the extension to Manchester is not expected to be in place until around 2032, following a cost of £34 billion, and a Manchester to London journey time of only 45 minutes less than today.   We need appropriate investment in Manchester and the North West now. And the extent to which the present Government cares about jobs in this country can be seen in today's news about the Bombardier plant in Derby .

On the environmental front, one argument is that as the trains will run on electricity this can be 'decarbonised'; a fair point, but the faster a train goes the more energy it requires (in common with transport generally).  I am a big fan of renewables and I believe they can meet our energy needs but not if those 'needs' expand continually.   Slower trains would be 'greener' but don't fit the economic case being presented.  There is also the environmental cost of building the line.  

North-South divide?  - If anything the line will reinforce the role of London as the capital.  The DfT say that more than 7 out of 10 of the jobs created by HS2 around stations will be in London (Clarified by e-mail of 2 March 2011, between Phil Graham, Deputy Director HSR, DfT, and Hilary Wharf, HS2AA).   Various Academics, such as Professor Mackie (ITS Leeds) and Professor Overman (LSE) have stated the line will make little if any difference to the north south divide.
With regard to capacity, I can appreciate this is a concern, but there are various ways of tackling at.  For a start on a typical Manchester to London train there are several underutilised carriages - namely the First Class ones.   Various options for improving capacity have been put forward by the HS2 Action Alliance who have a  number of other similar briefing papers.

Even if all of these are felt to be insufficient, and additional rail lines are deemed essential, then the argument that they reduce road capacity should be invoked, and the lines should replace part of the existing motorway space between the cities.  

We need significant investment in our rail network.  The top priority should be the electrification of intra- and inter-regional connections, particularly in the North, e.g. between Liverpool and Newcastle, and in the suburban lines of the major conurbations.   We should also be looking at re-opening some lines, as is happening increasingly in Scotland.  However the huge cost of HS2 is likely to deprive other parts of the country of the investment needed. 

A direct link from the west coast line to the continent is also needed; it's now included in the HS2 plans but could and should be put in place much earlier to facilitate train links to the rest of Europe.  

As it stands the economic case for HS2 is already dependent on a level of transport growth which is at odds with a sustainable society, and is likely to be delivered at a price which is at odds with with an equitable society.   Certainly in its present form it is neither Green nor Good for Manchester.  

Consultation on the London - Birmingham phase is underway; see here,  you have only 24 days left to have your say.


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