I am a great admirer of Christian Wolmar. His copy is always readable, and often informative, even to someone who keeps track of what many people might consider the geekier end of rail travel. But on the HS2 project, his latest essay opposing the scheme, published by the London Review of Books (LRB), just will not do: the succession of strawmen and omissions merits a response.
May look like this. Possibly
It is inferred early on that those opposing HS2 are at some kind of disadvantage due to a lack of funding: Wolmar somehow misses all the Astroturf lobby groups lining up against it, perhaps because the agenda of the likes of the so-called Taxpayers’ Alliance (TPA), IEA, Adam Smith Institute and CPS are not merely anti-high speed rail, but a forthright opposition to anything marked “Government”.
The so-called HS2 Action Alliance, so named as it would rather there be no action at all, is allied directly with the TPA. Wolmar mentions former rail manager Chris Stokes as if he were some disinterested party, but he is not: Stokes has been retained by both the HS2 Action Alliance and TPA. And he has not been a rail manager of any kind for several years – he is a freelance consultant.
Because it is a publicly funded project, HS2’s business case is painted as inherently suspect: “almost limitless public money is made available”. He is not known to have talked of Crossrail in the same way. The case for HS2 is said to have been down significantly to environmental considerations. It was not: as he reports Jim Steer telling, it was always about capacity.
Rail freight future demand. This chart cannot be wheeled out often enough (from RFG)
So then the capacity argument is dismissed by saying Inter-City trains out of Euston are not full during the evening peak. This could be easily changed by changing or abandoning Virgin Trains’ demand management policy, but as Wolmar knows, the current arrangements deliver more fare revenue. Meanwhile, the London Midland (regional and commuter) services certainly are full at that time.
Plus, of course, many off-peak trains load to well above their seating capacity. Then readers are told “CBT wants to see more rail freight, but there is no guarantee that the freed capacity will be available or needed for goods trains”. Three more paths each way an hour are on the cards, and that is why the Rail Freight Group supports HS2. There is hardly any more freight capacity available on the existing route.
It is inferred that the HS2 business case has been shunted into the background, but again, it has not. The line of route via Old Oak Common is alleged to be a Heathrow connectivity hangover. It isn’t: it’s around 500 metres from the West Coast Main Line approach to Euston and with the space to interchange with Crossrail. There are, moreover, many more points with which one could take issue.
I respect Christian Wolmar’s decision to oppose HS2. If only he’d stuck to the facts.
Utterly agree with all of the above.
He also mentions the (at least) £9 billion spent on the WCML upgrade, which missed all it's targets: cost, time, and functionality.
Upgrading working lines that are already very efficient can be very costly. The cheap things to increase capacity such as electrification have already been done on the WCML, small improvements such as Norton Bridge aside.
He also does not give an answer to the problem: what would he do to increase capacity?
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