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‘HS2 versus upgrades’ cost dissemblance

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West Coast Main Line

On 1 March 2011 the Financial Times published a letter from Andrew Adonis, claiming that ‘High Speed 2 costs less than main line upgrades’.

March 1, 2011

Sir, Despite your hesitant editorial “The high cost of high-speed rail” (February 28), the case for High Speed 2 remains very strong. Capacity constraints on the West Coast main line, already serious, become acute in the 2020s. If HS2 is not ultimately built through to Manchester and Leeds, all four existing main lines going north – not only the West Coast main line, but also the Chiltern line, the Midland main line and the East Coast main line – will need to be upgraded over coming decades, at a cumulative cost far greater than HS2.

No crystal ball is required. About £10bn has just been spent on a hugely disruptive 10-year upgrade of the West Coast line. Analysis for the Department for Transport shows that to upgrade existing lines to provide barely two-thirds of the extra capacity provided by the initial section of HS2 from London to Birmingham will cost more (£20bn against £17bn) than the high-speed alternative.

This is without pricing either the further disruption of the conventional line upgrades or the wider benefits of HS2, which include time savings and radically improved connectivity. For example, the proposed interchange with the new £16bn Crossrail east-west line in London will provide direct and rapid connections from HS2 to London’s West End, the City, Docklands and Heathrow.

As you say, the benefits of the high-speed line increase as it extends north of Birmingham. But since London to the West Midlands is by far the busiest section of the West Coast route, it is right to start there.

As for “tough choices” amid current spending cuts, a decision this year to proceed will not involve major capital expenditure until 2016 at the earliest. Remember, this is Britain.

Andrew Adonis,
House of Lords
Former Secretary of State for Transport

£10 billion has not ‘been spent on a hugely disruptive 10-year upgrade of the West Coast line’. As its name implies, the West Coast Route Modernisation was a (part-)modernisation, not an upgrade programme.

Certainly, there was an upgrade component, but most of the WCRM was concerned with replacement of worn-out assets. How much was actually spent on upgrades? Well, as is usual in Britain’s railway industry, there is no detailed breakdown of cost in the public domain. But, according to Richard Branson,

Of the £9bn spent on the line, only £2bn was for upgrade work. The remaining £7bn was spent to renew a railway that had no investment since the 1960s […]

All railways need to be maintained and modernised from time to time. That does necessitate spending money, and it does result in disruption. Building HS2 does not make the costs of periodic modernisation of other lines avoidable.

The claim that upgrading existing lines would cost more than building HS2, flies in the face of reality. Upgrading is the normal way to expand capacity, because it is better value. Thameslink, Great Western Electrification, Midland Main Line Electrification, and Transport for London’s Sub Surface Lines capacity expansion are all upgrade (rather than new-build) programmes.

The better value for money of rail upgrades was also identified in a 2007 report, ‘Transport Capacity Research Paper: A comparison of the costs of different methods of increasing capacity in road & rail environments’, published by Invensys Rail Group and Credo.

[Original link is now broken: currently at ]

Written by beleben

July 5, 2013 at 3:09 pm

Posted in High speed rail, HS2

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  1. Clearly, being a mainly greenfield development, HS2 will cause limited disruption to WCML in Phase 1 – limited to 10yrs at Eustion, cross-over points and the Lichfield junction to allow classic compatibles to join WCML – and therefore still significant. It will not help should there be any major work required on WCML, apart from transporting all the passengers syphoned off it, because classic trains cannot use it. In years to come, should there be major work on HS2 between Birmingham and London, there will be a much reduced classic train availability to help out on WCML and half the HS2 trains cannot use WCML.


    July 6, 2013 at 3:39 pm

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