Brian Monteith: Another transport plan that simply won’t start

Would high speed trains like the Deutsche Bahn ICE3 work in Scotland?
Would high speed trains like the Deutsche Bahn ICE3 work in Scotland?
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SCOTTISH Government support for high-speed trains lacks sense and any sort of plan.

I never have understood the SNP policy towards high-speed rail. At face value, the beating of the patriotic chest by Scottish transport ministers demanding that any rail investment that is good enough to serve the Birmingham to London main line should be matched with an extension north to Edinburgh and Glasgow, plays well to the public gallery – but that approach is riddled with weaknesses, and, more oddly, provides a counter-argument to the goal of independence.

It may be that with the delivery of the proposed High Speed 
Rail 2 (HS2) taking a generation – construction will not be completed to Birmingham until 2026, and if progressed to Manchester and Leeds, until 2033 – the SNP has calculated rather cynically that it can say what it likes and manage the un-met public expectations later.

Even so, the Scottish Government’s support for HS2 serving Scotland is not built upon any business case, rather it is a “keep up with the Joneses” approach – the same sentiment that landed Edinburgh with a tram system that was overpriced and far worse than other solutions.

Although David Cameron’s Conservatives have always had a sympathetic leaning towards HS2, the future of the high speed rail proposal in England is already looking precarious with reports surfacing regularly of the government preparing to shelve the project, including another just yesterday.

It was originally thought that any opposition would come from objectors in the Tory shires expressing their consternation that large new civil engineering works would cut through their precious leafy countryside. While such objections have naturally been heard (and with some justification) the opponents have cleverly promoted the less self-interested arguments of economics and the cost-benefits of HS2 compared to investment in other track and rolling stock.

The result has been a hardening of opposition among Conservative backbenchers who take the view HS2 is nothing more than another grandiose monument to political vanity that the nation cannot afford – and that investing in local services with proven and available technology will release far more people from poor congested services than HS2 ever can.

Examples of how high speed rail systems are losing money hand over fist across the Continent are also casting doubt in MP’s minds. Likewise the environmental arguments look decidedly weak as the Birmingham HS2 cannot take people off air routes, as there are no longer any flights from Birmingham to London Heathrow. The benefit of reducing air travel only begins to kick-in if HS2 is extended to Manchester and Leeds and possibly then Scotland, but to make sense it requires a stop at London Heathrow which again adds to journey times.

If the economics are causing the government to have second thoughts about reaching even Birmingham, Manchester and Leeds then they are pure fantasy in terms of reaching Glasgow and Edinburgh – and indeed no substantial business case has yet been unveiled, although there are enough consultants queuing up waiting to produce them.

Surprisingly, it is in the politics that the SNP argument falls apart, for while no-one is arguing that an independent Scotland would not be able to afford to build its share of HS2 from Edinburgh and Glasgow to the English border, it has yet to explain why the rest of the UK would want to pay for the link between Leeds or Manchester to the Scottish section. The attraction for Westminster politicians and Whitehall mandarins is in bringing people to London, not in taking people to cities in Scotland that would no longer be paying British taxes.

To try to counter this fundamental flaw, the argument is put that the British government should commit to building HS2 at both ends, starting in Scotland and London and meeting in Manchester. This too is, however, completely unrealistic for the critical mass of potential passengers is greater the farther south the line goes so it make sense to extend it out from London so that revenue generation can begin at the earliest opportunity.

Even if this Walter Mitty idea was taken up, thanks to the necessary consultations, planning laws, compulsory purchases and tendering processes, construction could still not begin until after independence, if Scotland were to make that choice in 2014. The idea of HS2 being anything like a transport scheme that the SNP can deliver without unionist support is frankly risible.

How then does the SNP get itself out of this elephant trap that it has dug for itself? Fortunately an answer has just appeared on the horizon and it is one that the SNP should warm to.

Alstom, the manufacturers of the Pendelino trains, have conducted trials on the West Coast Main Line and are now suggesting that with some suitable adaptation full length Pendelino units could be used on the East Coast main line. The tests, held between Crewe and Carlisle used two nine-car Class 390s running as a pair, using their tilt mechanism and travelling at 125 mph. Alstom believes that if the East Coast main line were to introduce European Rail Traffic Management System (ERSTMS) the Pendelinos could travel at 140mph and achieve the drop in passenger journey times that would make HS2 unnecessary.

The idea is that by investing in existing technology it would be possible to cut the shortest journey time between Edinburgh Waverley and London Kings Cross of just over four hours by 50 minutes making the need for and HS2 extension to Scotland unnecessary. Better still, Alstom reckons Pendelinos could be introduced within five years, in other words it would be harder for a UK government to reject the idea because the project would be too far in the future that it cannot be certain about its ownership.

In its rush to support the uncosted demand of high speed rail the SNP has set itself up for a fall. Will it have the nerve to recognise there is a better alternative waiting in the sidings that could put Westminster under real pressure and deliver real benefits that it could claim as its own?

Alex Salmond has made many u-turns lately. Rail policy is another one he should reconsider.
• Brian Monteith is policy director of ThinkScotland.org