HS2 and the ‘advantage of not working on a live railway’
One of the arguments for building HS2 is that repairing or upgrading an existing operational railway is hard to do. With new-build, the costs are much more predictable.
The reasoning goes something like this: ‘An overnight possession (of an existing railway) might give a working window of only four or five hours to do useful work. The rest of an eight-hour possession might be just spent getting workers, equipment, and materials to the worksite and out again.’
HS2 construction sites would not be ‘live railway’ until a very late stage in the project, so there would be cost advantages:
- work could take place in daytime
- fewer workers would need Personal Track Safety certification.
However, evidence to support these arguments might be charitably described as very thin on the ground.
The 1980s electrification of Britain’s East Coast Main Line — a functioning railway during that process — was completed on time and on budget (and the budget does not appear to have been “reset” during the course of the works). Whereas the Channel Tunnel and the Netherlands’ Betuwe line were not live railways during construction, but both suffered massive cost escalation.
Obviously, the argument against upgrading the West Coast Main Line on the grounds that “nighttime possessions are costly and inefficient” is also an argument against upgrading the Great Western, Midland, and East Coast Main Lines, because nocturnal possessions are routine on those routes.
It is also an argument against railway electrification in general. Diesel trainsets and locos are generally considered to be less reliable and more expensive to maintain. However, with diesels, there is no need to maintain overhead lines. So, in effect, railway electrification trades maintenance in the controlled environment of a depot, for substantially more maintenance on the live railway itself.
It is also worth remembering HS2 construction would require extensive interventions on the existing live railway at numerous points (Euston, Crewe, Meadowhall, Old Oak, etc). And when it was completed, ‘expensive PTS qualified staff’ would be out on HS2 every night, maintaining the track and the overhead line. The likelihood is that a lot of maintenance would be needed, because high speeds mean a great deal of wear and tear.
Perhaps the best way of addressing railway PTS costs would be to get rid of PTS. According to its chief, Mark Carne, Network Rail work accident rates are much higher than those in the oil and gas industry (for example), so PTS doesn’t appear to be particularly effective.