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.

 
 
 
 

Where did London’s parakeets come from?

Parakeets in the skies above Wormwood Scrubs, west London. Image: Getty.

Visitors to London’s many green spaces would have to be stubbornly looking at their feet to not see one of the UK’s most exotic birds.  Dubbed “posh pigeons” by unimaginative Londoners, these brilliant green parakeets stand out among the fauna of Northern Europe’s mostly grey cities.

‘Parakeets’ is actually an umbrella term referring to the multiple species, which can now be found in London, Amsterdam, Brussels, Paris and various German cities. By far the most common is the Indian ring-necked parakeet, easily recognisable by the stylish red ring around their neck, a matching red beak and, of course, the loud squawking.

In the last 50 years these migrants from South Asia have arrived and thrived, settling into their own ecological niche. In the UK, London is a particular stronghold, but although they may have originally settled in the leafy streets of Twickenham, the birds can now be found in cities as far north as Glasgow.

The story of how they ended up in London is a matter of some discussion and plenty of myth. One often reported theory is that the capitals’ current population are the descendants of birds that escaped from Shepperton Studios during filming of The African Queen, starring Humphrey Bogart and Katharine Hepburn. Others would tell you that they escaped from Syon Park in the early 1970s, when a piece of debris from a passing plane damaged the aviary and allowed them to escape. This chimes with their original concentration in South West London.
My favourite story by far is that they were released by Jimi Hendrix on Carnaby Street in the late 60s. Bored of London’s grey skyline, he set the little fellas free to liven up the place.

However they got here, from 1970 onwards their numbers boomed. In 1992, 700 birds were recorded in London Bird Report. By 1998, 2,845 were seen in the London Area, and by 2006 the ring-neck parakeet was 15th most sighted bird in London.


Darwin would be proud at how well they adapted to the new environment. Toughened up by the hard Himalayan climate, they handle the cold northern European winters better than most locals. Global warming is often brought up in discussions of the parakeets, but it is certainly only part of the story.
It helps, too, that the birds have a 35 year lifespan and few local predators, enabling them to breed freely.

As with any new species, the debate has raged about whether they are harmful to the ecosystem. Strangely reminiscent of the debate over human migrants, often the birds have often been accused of stealing the homes of the natives. The parakeets do nest in tree cavities also used by jackdaws, owls and woodpeckers – but there is little evidence that native species are being muscled out. 

The also provide a food source for Britain's embattled birds of prey. Owls and peregrine falcons have been know to eat them. Charlie and Tom, two city dwelling falcons monitored by Nathalie Mahieu, often bring back parakeets as food.
Of more concern is the new arrivals’ effect on plants and trees. By 2009 their numbers in the UK had grown so much that they were added to the “general licence” of species, which can be killed without individual permission if they are causing damage.

And Parrotnet, am EU funded research project studying the development of parakeet populations across Europe, has warned of the risk they pose to agriculture. In their native India, the parakeets are known to cause widespread damage to crops. As agriculture develops in the UK in line with warmer climates, crops such as maize, grapes and sunflower will become more popular. In India the birds have been documented as reducing maize crops by 81 per cent.

So the parakeets remain divisive. Environmentalist Tony Juniper has disparagingly described them as “the grey squirrel of the skies”. By contrast, the University of York biologist Chris D. Thomas has argued that the parakeets should be left free to move and breed. He sees those wary of the parakeet boom of “irrational persecution” of the bird.

For good or ill the parakeets are here to stay. As so often with migrants of all kinds, there has been some unease about the impact they have had – but the birds, popular amongst Londoners, certainly add colour to the city. Thriving in the urban environment thousands of miles from their natural habitat, they are a metropolitan bird for Europe’s metropolitan cities. 

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