No, High Speed 2 isn’t really about capacity

Some anti-HS2 protesters in 2013. Image: Getty.

By his own admission, this month’ Conservative conference saw transport secretary Chris Grayling again try to sell HS2 to a less than enthusiastic audience. His approach was to chide us all for focusing on the speed of HS2 rather than capacity.

Not that anyone does. And speed is hardly a separate issue: it determines the basic design of HS2. The faster the trains are meant to run, the lower the threshold for any flexibility in choice of route or of station location. The speeds require a route that is as straight as possible. This rigidity, in a country of exceptionally dense settlement, is what makes HS2 the most expensive railway on earth.

To bolster the new narrative Grayling invoked the issue of freight: “Do you want to get more lorries off the roads and on to the railways?” This would be a laudable aim, but sadly the more honest version would be: “We want to get freight off the roads, so we’re building a railway that won’t carry freight.”

HS2 Ltd has admitted that only half the freight paths of the West Coast Mainline are actually used. Last March half of all UK rail freight paths, 4702 of them, were relinquished because they weren’t being used. As Network Rail said at the time: 

“It is important the whole rail industry works together to make best use of existing capacity, to minimise the need for additional expensive capacity enhancement schemes.”

Whilst politicians insist that there is simply no room to fit more trains on the tracks, this freight path release, and the fact that London Midland have twice recently increased the number of trains they run out of Euston simply by changing their timetable, are the reality – as is the fact that Virgin artificially supress Euston's capacity for commercial reasons.

But where the capacity argument really comes unstuck is in passenger statistics. Some 23 per cent of passengers coming into London in the morning peak are standing. But the Virgin West and East Coast franchises, those very services that HS2 is designed to alleviate, are the only ones into the capital with no standing passengers, according to DfT figures.

Proponents of HS2 would of course point to the crowded London Midland services into Euston: if the intercity trains were on different tracks, they’d argue, there would be more room for local services. That’s what ‘freeing up capacity’ means: cutting existing inter-city services which, unlike HS2, have intermediate stops. Bad news for the likes of Coventry, Stoke and many more.

The value of the savings made by cutting these existing rail services crept up to £11bn in the latest HS2 business plan. Spending £56bn to solve the commuting problems of Milton Keynes, through additional price of nationwide service cuts, seems rather disproportionate. 

Grayling also stated passenger growth forecasts dictate the need for HS2. But, wherever Fyou look across the world, high speed rail projects never attract the grossly inflated passenger numbers used to justify their construction.

And what’s more, the forecasts only demonstrate the total incompetence of the Department for Transport. It has predicted that, over the next five years, London would see an increase in passengers of just 0.049 per cent, with other major stations netting a 0.026 per cent: hardly enough to justify building HS2.

But the real world figures for just one year show a 0.5 per cent drop in London passengers, and a 3.8 per cent increase for the rest of the country, the vast majority of which would not benefit from HS2. In other words, the discrepancy between the real-world figures and the DfT forecast is a factor of 726.

Now, Philip Hammond has announced £300m of projects to plumb HS2 into the network, just after Chris Grayling cancelled long awaited electrification programmes. It’s these much needed but non-sexy projects which would alleviate the crush-hour conditions faced by short-distance commuters – and which are the opportunity cost of HS2. 

If HS2 was about capacity it wouldn’t be a dedicated high speed railway. In return for the extra cost, the taxpayers don’t get intermediate stations, don’t get integration with the rest of the network, and don’t get a line with the ability to carry freight. High speed means paying a premium to minimise flexibility and capacity, whilst vastly increasing running costs and not having the budget to spend on anything else for 20 years.

The capacity to see this reality is what we desperately need.

Joe Rukin is campaign manager of StopHS2.

 
 
 
 

Barnet council has decided a name for its new mainline station. Exciting!

Artist's impression of the new Brent Cross. Image: Hammerson.

I’ve ranted before about the horror of naming stations after the lines that they’re served by (screw you, City Thameslink). So, keeping things in perspective as ever, I’ve been quietly dreading the opening of the proposed new station in north London which has been going by the name of Brent Cross Thameslink.

I’ve been cheered, then, by the news that station wouldn’t be called that at all, but will instead go by the much better name Brent Cross West. It’s hardly the cancellation of Brexit, I’ll grant, but in 2017 I’ll take my relief wherever I can find it.

Some background on this. When the Brent Cross shopping centre opened besides the A406 North Circular Road in 1976, it was only the third large shopping mall to arrive in Britain, and the first in London. (The Elephant & Castle one was earlier, but smaller.) Four decades later, though, it’s decidedly titchy compared to newer, shinier malls such as those thrown up by Westfield – so for some years now, its owners, Hammerson, have wanted to extend the place.

That, through the vagaries of the planning process, got folded into a much bigger regeneration scheme, known as Brent Cross Cricklewood (because, basically, it extends that far). A new bigger shopping centre will be connected, via a green bridge over the A406, to another site to the south. There you’ll find a whole new town centre, 200 more shops, four parks, 4m square feet of offices space and 7,500 homes.

This is all obviously tremendously exciting, if you’re into shops and homes and offices and not into depressing, car-based industrial wastelands, which is what the area largely consists of at the moment.

The Brent Cross site. Image: Google.

One element of the new development is the new station, which’ll sit between Hendon and Cricklewood on the Thameslink route. New stations are almost as exciting as new shops/homes/offices, so on balance I'm pro.

What I’ve not been pro is the name. For a long time, the proposed station has been colloquially referred to as Brent Cross Thameslink, which annoys me for two reasons:

1) Route names make rubbish modifiers because what if the route name changes? And:

2) It’s confusing, because it’s nearly a mile from Brent Cross tube station. West Hampstead Thameslink (euch), by contrast, is right next to West Hampstead tube.

Various other names have been proposed for the station. In one newsletter, it was Brent Cross Parkway; on Wikipedia, it’s currently Brent Cross South, apparently through confusion about the name of the new town centre development.

This week, though, Barnet council quietly confirmed it’d be Brent Cross West:

Whilst the marketing and branding of BXS needs to be developed further, all parties agree that the station name should build upon the Brent Cross identity already established. Given the station is located to the west of Brent Cross, it is considered that the station should be named Brent Cross West. Network Rail have confirmed that this name is acceptable for operational purposes. Consequently, the Committee is asked to approve that the new station be named Brent Cross West.

Where the new station will appear on the map, marked by a silly red arrow. Image: TfL.

That will introduce another irritating anomaly to the map, giving the impression that the existing Brent Cross station is somehow more central than the new one, when in fact they’re either side of the development. And so:

Consideration has also been given as to whether to pursue a name change for the tube station from “Brent Cross” to “Brent Cross East”.

Which would sort of make sense, wouldn’t it? But alas:

However owing to the very high cost of changing maps and signage London-wide this is not currently being pursued.

This is probably for the best. Only a handful of tube stations have been renamed since 1950: the last was Shepherd’s Bush Market, which was until 2008 was simply Shepherd's Bush, despite being quite a long way from the Shepherd's Bush station on the Central line. That, to me, suggests that one of the two Bethnal Green stations might be a more plausible candidate for an early rename.


At any rate: it seems unlikely that TfL will be renaming its Brent Cross station to encourage more people to use the new national rail one any time soon. But at least it won’t be Brent Cross Thameslink.

Jonn Elledge is the editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and also has a Facebook page now for some reason. 

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