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.

 
 
 
 

Here’s how Henry Ford and IKEA could provide the key to solving the housing crisis

A flatpack house designed by architectural firm Rogers Stirk Harbour and Partners, on display at the Royal Academy, London, in 2013. Image: Getty.

For many people, the housing market is not a welcoming place. The rungs of the property ladder seem to get further and further out of reach. There are loud calls to build hundreds of thousands of new homes (and equally loud demands that they’re not built in anyone’s back yard).

If there was ever a time to introduce mass-produced affordable housing, surely that time is now.

The benefits of mass production have been well known since Henry Ford’s car factories made the Model T back in 1908. It was only made in one colour, black, for economic reasons. Not because it was the cheapest colour of paint, but because it was the colour that dried the quickest.

This allowed the production line to operate at faster, more cost effective, speeds. And ultimately, it meant the product could be sold at a more attractive cost to the customer.

This approach, where processes are tested to achieve increasingly efficient production costs, is yet to filter properly into the construction of houses. This makes sense in a way, as not everybody wants exactly the same type of house.

Historically, affordable mass-produced housing removed a large amount of customisations, to ensure final costs were controlled. But there is another way. Builders and architects have the ability to create housing that allows a level of flexibility and customisation, yet also achieves the goal of affordability.


Back in 2006, the “BoKlok” approach to affordable housing was launched to great acclaim in the UK. Literally translated from Swedish, the term means “live smart”. Originally created from a collaboration between flat-pack favourite IKEA and Swedish construction giant Skanska, the BoKlok housing approach was to allow for selected customisation to maximise individuality and choice for the customers. But at the same time, it ensured that larger house building components were duplicated or mass-produced, to bring down the overall costs.

Standard elements – wall panels, doors, windows – were made in large numbers to bring the elemental costs down. This approach ensured the costs were controlled from the initial sketch ideas through to the final design choices offered to the customers. The kitchens and bathrooms were designed to be flexible in terms of adding additional units. Draw and cupboard fronts interchangeable. Small options that provided flexibility, but did not impact on overall affordability.

It’s a simple approach that has worked very well. More than 10,000 BoKlok houses have now been built, mainly in Norway, Sweden and Denmark, with a small number in the UK.

But it is only part of the architectural equation. The affordable housing market is vital, but the cost of making these homes more adaptable is rarely considered.

Flexibility is key. The needs of a house’s inhabitants change. Families can grow (and shrink) and require more room, so the costs of moving house reappear. One clever response to this, in BoKlok homes, has been to allow “built in” flexibility.

Loft living

This flexibility could include a loft space that already has flooring and a built in cupboard on a lower floor which can be simply dismantled and replaced with a “flat-pack style” staircase that can be purchased and installed with minimal disruption to the existing fabric.

Weeks of builders removing walls, plastering and upheaval are replaced by a trip to the IKEA store to purchase the staircase and the booking of a subcontractor to fit it. The original design accounted for this “future option” and is built into the core of the house.

The best approach to new affordable housing should consider combinations of factors that look at design, materials and processes that have yet to be widely used in the affordable housing market.

And the construction sector needs to look over its shoulder at other market places – especially the one that Henry Ford dominated over a century ago. Today’s car manufacturers offer customised options in everything from colour to wheel size, interior gadgets to different kinds of headlamp. These options have all been accounted for in the construction and costing of each model.

The ConversationThey share a similar design “platform”, and by doing so, considerably reduce the overall cost of the base model. The benefit is quicker production with the added benefit of a cost model that allows for customisation to be included. It is a method the construction sector should adopt to produce housing where quality and affordability live happily together.

David Morton, Associate Professor in Architecture and Built Environment, Northumbria University, Newcastle.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.