Wednesday, 28 January 2009

BAA stooge to control the fate of British high-speed rail

If there's some government corruption going on, it's reassuring to know that Private Eye will be on the case. The most recent issue contains an article about the high-speed rail link announced by Geoff Hoon as part of the third runway "decision". I scanned in the article below, but if you don't have time to read it, here's the takeaway:
  • No high speed link was officially announced, a company called High Speed Two has been established "to help consider the case".
  • Any studies into big rail projects will now have to assume there'll be ample airline capacity on corridors such as London-Manchester, so spending billions on intercity railways will be hard to justify
  • Oh, and David Rowlands, the guy who will chair High Speed Two and therefore control the fate of British high-speed rail, was offered a BAA directorship last year!
As Private Eye would say - "Just Fancy That!"

Heathrow hot air
(Private Eye - No. 1228, 23 Jan-5 Feb 2009, Page 10)

THE government's mention of high-speed rail in its decision to press ahead with Heathrow airport expansion was a clumsy fig leaf but it fooled some people, including BBC transport correspondent Tom Symonds, who reported: "The government also announced a new high-speed rail line will be built." The official Passenger Focus watchdog meekly "welcomed" the announcement.

What was actually announced was High Speed Two, a new company "to help consider the case" for a high-speed line (HSL). So we're no further ahead than when the Strategic Rail Authority commissioned a report in 2001 which concluded that "in economic, safety and accessibility terms. HSL performs better than the alternative interventions considered" and "has the potential to reduce some of the forecast growth in domestic air travel within the UK".

High Speed Two will be limited initially to developing a proposal for a new London-West Midlands line by the end of the year, after which the government will "assess the options". Labour's pals in the air lobby will be happy with that, as it's such a paltry distance for a highspeed railway that the economics may not look great; massive overheads, including design and purchase of 200mph trains, won't be balanced by the big revenue that would come from a longer new line.

More importantly for ministers, even if that line is built it won't harm aviation because London and Birmingham are too close together for flying between them to be worthwhile. Labour's objective is to ensure that lucrative London-Manchester and London-Scotland flights aren't undermined by fast trams (which have hammered continental air routes). Even Virgin's Pendolino service (top speed: 125mph) has done more than enough damage to Manchester flights.

The Department tor Transport (DafT) briefing acknowledged that most major countries had domestic high-speed lines, saying: "In [sic] would be perverse to ignore developments in Europe and the rest of the world." In the preceding paragraph, it noted that Japan started bullet trains in 1964. So that's 45 years of British perversion, and we're still at it

DafT ministers can't even decide to electrify more railways, a simple procedure carried out by most European countries long ago for its huge financial and environmental advantages. Transport secretary Geoff Hoon said: "We are well advanced in procuring replacement trains for the intercity routes, but before we finalise our plans we need to decide whether new parts of the network should be electrified." Only Britain could spend shedloads on procuring intercity trains (which would last 30 or 40 years) before deciding on the trains' power source.

The decision on Heathrow's third runway shows that DafT can be quick and decisive when it wants to be. It was crucial for Heathrow to jump the queue; any studies into big rail projects will now have to assume there'll be ample airline capacity on corridors such as London-Manchester, so spending billions on intercity railways will be even harder to justify.

PS: The government's choice of former civil servant David Rowlands as chairman for High Speed Two speaks volumes. While he was DafT permanent secretary, high-speed rail went nowhere as further Heathrow expansion was fast-tracked. Last year the Sunday Telegraph reported than Heathrow's owner, BAA, offered Rowlands directorship, which the government blocked. The air lobby must be delighted that Rowlands now controls the fate of British high-speed rail, one a its biggest potential rivals.
'Dr B Ching'

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