At its April 2017 meeting, the board of the West Midlands Combined Authority approved a public consultation on its draft 2026 ‘Delivery Plan for Transport’ running until Friday 9 June 2017.
The consultation invites comments on TfWM’s proposals for spending hundreds of millions of pounds on schemes such as expanding light rail, and very light rail. But what it does not offer are any details on the economic, financial, and environmental effects of the proposals.
In fact, TfWM is refusing to release these details.
On 26 May 2016 BBC News reported that Birmingham’s existing Midland Metro tramway had never made a profit in the 17 years since it opened.
National Express, which runs the Midland Metro, has lost about £34m on the route since 1999.
Actually, the amount National Express has lost on Midland Metro is not clear, because the tramway north of Snow Hill was built and originally operated by a consortium known as Altram, under a 23-year design – build – operate – maintain concession.
‘Profits’ were to have been shared between the consortium members Ansaldo, Laing, and Travel West Midlands (NX), but A and L walked not long after the tramway opened in 1999. It soon became clear that the whole system had been shoddily built and the ridership forecasts were completely wrong. NX threatened to hand back the keys if Centro (now TfWM) did not help it out, but the details of what agreement was struck have never been made public.
On 22 March 2017, the West Midlands Combined Authority announced that it would take ‘direct control’ of the Midland Metro tram service when the National Express concession finishes in October 2018. This means that future losses would have to be met from public funds. Obviously, every pound spent paying for Midland Metro losses is a pound not spent on libraries, social services, or fixing potholes.
The move will enable TfWM, which is the transport arm of the West Midlands Combined Authority (WMCA), to plough millions of pounds of future profits back into expanding the network.
Existing National Express staff will be transferred over to a new subsidiary company – Midland Metro Ltd – which will be wholly owned by the WMCA.
The combined authority is set to start a number of extensions which will see the network triple in size over the next decade, with passenger numbers forecast to increase from around 6.5 million at present to more than 30 million.
That is expected to generate profits of around £50 million over the first 11 years which the WMCA will be able to channel back into the network for the benefit of passengers and the local economy.
[Councillor] Roger Lawrence, WMCA lead for transport, said: “Metro is a fundamental part of our future plans not only for transport but for the West Midlands economy as a whole.
“It is a proven catalyst for economic growth and is critical to best connect and feed into HS2 so we can reap the maximum economic benefits possible from the high speed rail line.
“The move will enable TfWM, which is the transport arm of the West Midlands Combined Authority (WMCA), to plough millions of pounds of future profits back into expanding the network.”
Given that the existing Metro has lost tens of millions of pounds, and only carries a fraction of the passenger volume originally forecast, what evidence is there to support TfWM claims that it is a ‘catalyst for economic growth‘, and would make profits in the future?
[TfWM response to FoI request, April 2016]
Q1. Requested data: the year-by-year cost and income forecasts for the Metro network in the future.
Answer: An assessment of the commercial model using benchmark data showing revenue and costs generated from the Metro operations has been carried out, to gain an initial indication of the financial performance of Metro. This information held is commercially confidential.
Q2. Requested data: the reports and analyses showing Metro has been a proven catalyst for economic growth (compared to other corridors not served by Metro).
Answer: This matter is addressed in extension Business cases which will be available on our website as and when they are approved.
Q3. Requested data: what information is held on the outsourcing process and the decision (e.g. who told the WMCA board that if it decided to continue outsourcing tram services it would cost taxpayers several million pounds).
Answer: The information held is commercially confidential and most of the information obtained was benchmarking data on other light rail schemes.
Q4. Requested data: information on the difficulty of defining the scope of services required from the operator.
Answer: The scope of services required will change as the Tram network develops and forecasting requirements at this stage is therefore difficult to predict. This approach provides the opportunity for WMCA to amend the fares which will impact the revenue growth and the business model and to work flexibly with the Midland Metro Alliance to adjust operational service requirements to match the emerging investment programme delivery, without being constrained by a fixed contract specification and performance regime.
Q5. Requested data: the assessment of the risks and advantages of bringing operations in house.
Answer: The information held is commercially confidential and most of the information obtained was benchmarking data on other light rail schemes.
On 20 April an OJEU tender notice was issued for the ‘£2.75 billion, 60-train’ HS2 phase one rolling stock procurement. HS2 Ltd’s Pre-Qualification Technical Summary states its intention to procure “a single fleet of rolling stock that will be capable of operating on the HS2Network and the Conventional Rail Network (CRN), referred to as the ‘Conventional Compatible’ or ‘CC’ fleet”.
A perusal of the PQTS seems to confirm the view that the rolling stock specifications are as muddled as the rest of the project, but HS2 Ltd do not intend to change them in any substantive way.
This PQTS is a precursor to the full Train Technical Specification (TTS) which will be provided with the Invitation to Tender. The requirements of this PQTS will be incorporated into the TTS along with other more detailed performance and functional requirements. Note that the TTS will supersede and replace the PQTS. HS2 Ltd does not intend to change in any substantive way the requirements set out in this PQTS. However, HS2 Ltd reserves its right to do so and will identify any such changes in the TTS in due course.
Contrary to all the accessibility hype, the PQTS suggests that there is little to no intention to provide ‘step free access’ between all stations served by HS2 trains. Even on the handful of stations on the captive network (“HS2 Platforms”), ‘step free’ access would involve negotiating, er, steps.
The maximum vertical step between the deployed Moveable Step and an HS2 Platform shall be +20/-0mm except under Exceptional PTI Conditions.
Rationale: The maximum single step negotiable, unaided, by 98% of wheelchair users is +20mm; higher steps are negotiable but with decreasing success rates.
[…] The maximum vertical step between the deployed Moveable Step and an HS2 Platform shall be +30/-10mm under all conditions including Exceptional PTI Conditions. The TMM and HS2 will agree the Exceptional PTI Conditions, which are expected to include rarely-experienced vehicle conditions such as deflated suspension or Exceptional Payload.
[…] The maximum horizontal gap between the deployed Moveable Step and an HS2 Platform shall be 30mm.
[…] When deployed, the Moveable Step shall have a minimum horizontal surface depth (perpendicular to the bodyside) of 240mm
[…] The maximum vertical distance between the Moveable Step and the floor of the vestibule shall be 30mm.
Wouldn’t vertical discontinuities of those sizes, on a pavement of the public highway, be considered as “trip hazards”?
The technical standards which HS2 is being designed to are obsolescent and inappropriate. For example, the train crashworthiness is based on a low-speed ‘level crossing’ collision with a heavy goods vehicle (which would be much lighter than the train), yet there would be no level crossings on HS2.
Survivability in realistic crash scenarios at actual HS2 operating speeds, is not considered at all.
On 19 April, the House of Commons transport select committee questioned HS2 chairman David Higgins and transport secretary Chris Grayling about ‘the circumstances behind CH2M’s withdrawal from the HS2 phase 2b development partnership contract’ and the ‘lessons to be learnt’. As the government had announced a general election the day before, only a few members of the committee turned up, and mainstream media coverage was minimal.
Acording to committee ‘chair’ Louise Ellman MP, ‘Given the sums at money at stake’ in HS2, it is ‘essential’ for the public to have ‘full confidence in the processes’. But judging by what Mr Grayling and Mr Higgins said, there seems to be little reason to have confidence in the way HS2 has been, and is being, run.
Chris Grayling told the demi-committee that CH2M had “lost a very substantial piece of business as a result of a breach in the rules”, that had “come to our attention because somebody inside the organisation told one of the other bidders.”
Despite that ‘breach’ only having come to light as a result of the actions of a whistleblower, Mr Grayling seemed to suggest that there was actually nothing very much wrong with HS2’s bidding process. He appeared to have no problem with CH2M’s Mark Thurston having being appointed as HS2 Ltd chief executive, or David Higgins’ tacit admission that there was not a level playing field for bidders (the scope of CH2M’s earlier work on HS2 having given it an advantage).
Mr Higgins stated he ‘did not know’ why CH2M had withdrawn from the phase 2b contract, but if they had not, they would have been sacked. (?)
[‘HS2 boss admits failures over conflict of interest’, Robert Lea, The Times, 20 April 2017]
The head of High Speed Two told MPs that he and his executives had done no checks and had not monitored a former HS2 chief of staff at the centre of a conflict of interest fiasco with its key contractor on the £55 billion London – Birmingham rail line.
Revelations that HS2 Ltd had been unaware that a former executive was playing a senior role at his subsequent employer CH2M — project manager of the first phase and named this year as the preferred bidder for the same job on the second phase of the controversial high-speed lines — have led to promises of new “intrusive” investigations of personnel involved in bids for the billions of pounds’ worth of contracts coming up for tender.
Mr Higgins also said that Bechtel would be awarded the contract after its bid came in ‘15% cheaper’ than third placed Mace. (HS2 Ltd has never published details of bid cash values, or their technical scoring, so there is an almost-total lack of transparency.)
[‘HS2 to make firms name all people involved in bids’, Aaron Morby, Construction Enquirer, 20 April, 2016]
Sir David Higgins, HS2 chairman, said the body would now tighten up disclosure procedures after US consultant CH2M withdrew from a preferred development partner role on the second phase of HS2.
He revealed the move to tighten up bid requirements as he was quizzed by the Transport Select Committee about events leading up to CH2M being selected as preferred contractor.
CH2M had faced conflict of interest allegations from rival bidder Mace, after HS2’s former chief of staff Christopher Reynolds produced lessons learnt documents from phase one to inform the second phase development partner tender process.
After leaving HS2 last June, Reynolds went to work for CH2M in September.
Higgins said that HS2 had no evidence that Reynolds had influenced CH2M’s bid. But despite this CH2M withdrew “for their own reasons”, revealed Higgins.
In a statement after the hearing, a Mace spokespersons said: “As the Transport Select Committee has shown there are a lot of serious questions to be answered around HS2’s procurement process.
“If we hadn’t raised these concerns, these serious issues would never have come out.
“David Higgins admitted that HS2 needs to tighten up their process is an admission that the procurement was seriously flawed.
“It’s remarkable that he also admitted that if CH2M hadn’t withdrawn, they would have been sacked – which is a clear admission that their procurement process was riddled with errors.”
A contract to build cutting-edge HS2 trains ‘could be on its way to England’s north east’ (reported Consett Magazine in November 2016).
[‘North East Could Land £7.5 Billion High-Speed Train Contract’, David Sunderland, Consett Magazine, November 19, 2016]
The government has implied that it will try to make sure the trains are built in Britain. Chris Grayling, the transport secretary, said, “We will not simply bring trains in on a ship with no benefit for engineering skills or apprenticeships in this country. I want a genuine process that leaves behind a skills footprint.”
If the trains really are to be manufactured in the UK, it would be great news for the north east. The region has a high-tech train factory in Newton Aycliffe, owned by the Japanese company Hitachi.
The factory is already making Intercity Express Programme trains. These trains will start replacing existing stock on the Great Western Main Line at the end of 2017 and on the East Coast Main Line from 2018.
But surely “bringing in trains on a ship with no benefit for engineering skills” is pretty much how GB train procurement has been carried out for many years. For example, as should be clear from the Asahi Shimbun article below, the Class 800 IEP trains for the Great Western and East Coast lines are manufactured in Japan, not at the Hitachi ‘potemkin factory’ in Newton Aycliffe.
Apparently, it was only recently that Network Rail and freight train operators identified that 50 per cent of the slots reserved for freight on Britain’s railway were not being used, and “could potentially be given up for thousands of new passenger and [other] freight services”.
[‘Rail freight industry and Network Rail collaborate to increase railway capacity’, Network Rail, apparently undated]
Per week, 4,702 allocated ‘paths’ – the slots a freight train has on the railway and in the timetable – have been relinquished, freeing-up much needed capacity on the rail network. They could become available for all train operators to run additional services on a daily basis or re-time existing services to reduce congestion and improve reliability.
[…] This additional capacity has been created at zero cost and has not led to any reductions in the number of freight trains running on the network. It represents a huge opportunity for both freight and passenger operators to increase traffic on the network without the need for expensive infrastructure enhancement schemes.
Much-improved capacity utilisation and allocation could follow if GB rail access charging were reformed to better reflect path scarcity on different routes. For this to work properly, Network Rail would need to be extensively reorganised, but not in the way proposed in the Shaw report.
On 5 April the Office of Rail and Road published the ‘high level principles’ it expects train companies ‘to follow when rolling out and managing Driver Controlled Operation of trains’.
[‘Rail Regulator publishes principles for driver controlled operation’,
5 April 2017, ORR]
Six high level principles have been drawn up in consultation with industry and the trade unions. They are designed as a framework for train companies who are considering introducing, or who are operating, DCO.
The Principles set out that DCO schemes need to be well planned, with appropriate implementation timescales and developed against a shared understanding of how to handle any issues which need to be addressed.
The Principles are part of the rail regulator’s overall approach to railway safety which helps train companies and their staff understand what is needed to comply with health and safety requirements. This is part of our ongoing work with industry to continuously improve the approach to all types of train dispatch.
The six high level principles are:
Where driver controlled operation is used or planned to be used:
Trains need to be compatible with the platforms that they use and the method of operation at these platforms.
Station platforms need to be compatible with the trains using them and they must support the methods of operation.
The nature of the operation with the train and platform need to be assessed.
This includes consideration of passenger needs and behaviour.
Staff should be trained and competent
The implementation should be planned
The system should be managed through its whole life, with improvements adopted
“Staff should be trained and competent.”
“Trains need to be compatible with the platforms that they use and the method of operation at these platforms.”
How revelatory are these principles? They seem to be on much the same advice level as “Don’t drive a car with a blanket over your head.”
Construction of the HS2 Y network would result in a migration of corporate decision-making away from the north of England, and increased concentration of managerial jobs in London, if French microeconomic research is to be believed. The findings, by Pauline Charnoz, Claire Lelarge and Corentin Trevien, are to be presented at the Royal Economic Society’s annual conference in Bristol in April 2017.