“Vanity of vanities; all is vanity” – Bishop of Chester asks pointed questions about HS2

On 16th September 2015 the Bishop of Chester, the Rt Revd Peter Forster, spoke in a debate on the HS2 project. The Bishop questioned the business case and the impact assessment, particularly for the area covered by Chester Diocese.

14.03 Bishop of ChesterThe Lord Bishop of Chester: My Lords, HS2 will pass through my diocese from south of Crewe until it reaches Manchester Airport. I read the committee’s report with great interest and was struck, above all, by the levels of uncertainty which evidently still exist around the project.

The response of the Government to the EAC’s report seems to contain little direct analysis of the pros and cons of the arguments advanced by the committee but simply restates previous positions. It is the rather poor level of evidence and analysis offered in support of HS2 which concerns me most. Perhaps I should be in favour of acts of faith, as the noble Lord, Lord Hollick, suggested. However, there is a huge investment of public funds dedicated to this project, unlike the 19th-century railways.

The strongest aspect of the case seems to be on the grounds of capacity, relating not so much to inter-city capacity—as we have heard—but rather to the congested commuter routes in north London. The problems around London look set to grow, since economic success breeds more economic success, with consequent population increases. I would be interested in the assumptions made by the Government about population increases through this century. All the indications are that the population will grow rather more than previously estimated. If so, the arguments on the basis of capacity gain even more traction, especially in relation to commuter capacity.

However, to argue for HS2 on the grounds of commuter capacity around London is a little like the tail wagging the dog: it seems a very indirect and expensive argument as presently put. Perhaps the case for major infrastructure improvements often has a speculative aspect—a long-term character—and a judgment has to be made. HS2 has clearly caught the imagination in many quarters. I am among those, however, who have major questions about the scheme as presently designed. I rather favour a new north-to-south railway, but one that would not be so expensive.

Will the Minister comment on two aspects of the proposals? The first aspect—to which reference has already been made—concerns the proposed speed of the trains of up to 400 kilometres per hour, which is 250 miles per hour. We are a much smaller country than most of those which have high-speed rail lines. What is the real basis for wanting the fastest trains in the world? Bishops are rather coy about quoting the Bible in this Chamber, but the noble Baroness, Lady Blackstone, encourages me to do so: “vanity of vanities; all is vanity”, from the Book of Ecclesiastes.

The business case is largely built—as we have heard—on the assumption that travel time is largely wasted time, so the shorter the journey the greater the saving. I travel regularly on the present west coast main line and I observe a great deal of work being done during the journey. So what is the real basis for the assumption that the journey time is wasted time? With better broadband connection even more work would be done.

There is also the impact on the design of the railway if you want to go at 250 miles per hour: lots of tunnels, cuttings and embankments to make sure that the line is as straight and level as possible. You need that for very high speeds. A slower railway—quite fast, but slower—would have much more flexibility in its possible route. In relation to speed—I have not heard this commented on—my reflections from a previous incarnation as a scientist tell me that the kinetic energy of the moving object is proportional to the square of its speed. That means that if you double the speed of something you quadruple the energy required to get it to that speed. So going from 125 miles per hour to 250 miles per hour does not require twice the energy to get it that fast: it is four times, unless my A-level physics was just too long ago to get that right. I would, however, like to know what assessment has been done of the energy consumption relating to different speeds. As we look to a more energy-conscious world we ought to ask these questions rather carefully.

Finally, I ask the Minister about the impact of HS2 on Chester and north Wales. Table 18 in the EAC report—reproduced from the Government’s own strategic case—claims that there will be faster journeys to Chester and north Wales. However, no actual savings are listed. I assume that there would need to be a change of train at Crewe, from electric on HS2 to diesel, since the Chester line is not electrified beyond Crewe or into north Wales. At present Chester and north Wales are well served by 125-miles-per-hour diesel units in a direct service which runs hourly to and from Chester. What assurance can the Minister give me and the people of my diocese, and beyond in north Wales, that journey times from London will be much faster than now? Do the Government have any figures for what will become an indirect, rather than a direct, service, if I have understood correctly? I would be grateful if the Minister elucidated and illuminated that for me.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department for Transport and Home Office (Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon): [extract] ……. The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Chester, the noble Lord, Lord Desai, and my noble friend Lord Caithness, among others, raised the issue of the economic case, and clearly the committee was looking at HS2 on that basis. Our appraisal techniques are regarded by the DFT as being world class, and a number of experts provided evidence to the Lords committee that showed that the economic case was robust. Some have been mentioned already but, for example, Professor Venables noted that our quantification of user benefits and wider economic impacts was, “done very well and very professionally”, and Professor Graham, who is a transport economist, also commended our use of sensitivity testing.

…The right reverend Prelate raised the issue of the impact of HS2 on Chester. Phase 1 of HS2 generates significant journey-time savings to the north-west of the country and Network Rail estimates that up to 100 cities could benefit. I assure the right reverend Prelate that no decisions have yet been taken on rail services that will run when HS2 is complete, but the Government aim to ensure that those currently served by direct services will continue to be so.

..I shall seek to answer some of the other questions raised by noble Lords. The right reverend prelate the Bishop of Chester raised the issue of wanting the fastest railway in the world. Sir David Higgins has been clear that we must build a railway that stands the test of time. We have undertaken extensive assessment of alternatives including slower speeds, but none of them offers the same scale of benefits as HS2…….

(Via Parliament.UK)