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Scrutiny is the enemy

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In Britain, democratic scrutiny of projects like the Oxford to Cambridge expressway is almost non-existent by intent and decisions are made behind closed doors, wrote Guardian columnist George Monbiot.

[This disastrous new project will change the face of Britain, yet no debate is allowed, George Monbiot, The Guardian, 22 Aug 2018]

Where democracy counts most, it is nowhere to be seen. The decisions that shape the life of a nation are taken behind our backs. With occasional exceptions, public choice is reserved for trivia. The most consequential choices, as they are the longest lasting, arguably involve major infrastructure. The number of disasters in this field is remarkable. A classic paper by the economic geographer Bent Flyvbjerg, Survival of the Unfittest, explains that there is an innate tendency on the part of policymakers to choose the worst possible projects, as a result of the lock-in of fixed ideas at an early stage. This is caused, his evidence shows, not by accidental error or even delusional optimism, but by “strategic misrepresentation”. Advisers become advocates, and advocates become hucksters boosting their favoured projects.

The schemes that look best on paper, and therefore are most likely to be adopted, are those that have been scrutinised the least. Democratic debate would reveal their flaws. This is why planners who wish to leave their mark treat it as a threat. To the megalomaniacs who draw lines on maps, public opinion is like landscape features: it must be cleared out of the way.

A striking example is the government’s plan for an Oxford-to-Cambridge expressway. A decision to which we have not been party, which will irrevocably change the region it affects, is imminent. The new road, says the plan, will support the construction of a million homes.

To give you some sense of the scale of this scheme, consider that Oxfordshire will have to provide 300,000 of them. It currently contains 280,000 homes.
All the tendencies Flyvbjerg warned against are evident. Instead of asking “Do we need this scheme?”, the government agency Highways England, which is supposed to offer objective advice, opens its webpage with the heading “Why we need this scheme”.

Mr Monbiot’s article did not mention the Heathrow third runway, Hinkley Point C, HS2, Northern Powerhouse Rail, and Crossrail 2, but these are all instances of megaprojects where information is mostly withheld from the public, and continuous attempts are made to shut down debate.

Written by beleben

August 23, 2018 at 9:21 am

Posted in Great Britain, Politics

From social security to social precarity

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After eight years of budget cutting, Britain is looking less like the rest of [western] Europe and more like the United States, with a shrinking welfare state and spreading poverty, observed Peter S Goodman, in an exposition of the precaritisation of British society.

[In Britain, Austerity Is Changing Everything, Peter S Goodman, The New York Times, 28 May 2018]

[…] The National Health Service has supposedly been spared from budget cuts. But spending has been frozen in many areas, resulting in cuts per patient. At public hospitals, people have grown resigned to waiting for hours for emergency care, and weeks for referrals to specialists.

“I think the government wants to run it down so the whole thing crumbles and they don’t have to worry about it anymore,” says Kenneth Buckle, a retired postal worker who has been waiting three months for a referral for a double knee replacement. “Everything takes forever now.”

[…] Whatever the operative thinking, austerity’s manifestations are palpable and omnipresent. It has refashioned British society, making it less like the rest of Western Europe, with its generous social safety nets and egalitarian ethos, and more like the United States, where millions lack health care and job loss can set off a precipitous plunge in fortunes.

Written by beleben

May 29, 2018 at 2:15 pm

Posted in Great Britain, Politics

Add nearly thirty

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Liverpool Lime Street by el pollock (CC-BY-SA-2.0)

‘Cancelling electrification projects around the country will add nearly 30 minutes to journeys between Manchester and Liverpool’ (Labour press)

Cancelling electrification works will lengthen journey times, increase carbon emissions and raise the cost of running Britain’s rail network, the Labour party warned on 2 August.

Labour press release on rail electrification, 02 Aug 2017

[Labour press release, 2 Aug 2017]

Cancelling electrification projects around the country will add significantly to journey times:

* Journeys between Manchester and Liverpool will add nearly 30 minutes

* Journeys between Leeds and Newcastle will add over 20 minutes.

* Cancelling the electrification of the Cardiff to Swansea section of the Great Western Mainline puts at risk the estimated journey time saving between Swansea and London with Super Express trains of 19 minutes.

Labour has made a £10 billion commitment to “Crossrail for the North” to reverse decades of underinvestment in Northern transport infrastructure that has undermined the economic potential of the north of England and help deliver 850,000 new jobs by 2050.

Network Rail estimates that electrification and the running of electric vehicles can help to reduce CO2 emissions by an average of 20 to 30 per cent compared to their diesel counterparts and the maintenance costs for electric trains are 33 per cent lower than for diesel.

Unfortunately, the press release has a fairly tenuous relationship with the actuality. For example, the Liverpool to Manchester ‘Chat Moss’ electrification has already been completed, so it is hard to see how “Journeys between Manchester and Liverpool will add nearly 30 minutes”.

Again, with the Swansea – Cardiff cancellation, it is difficult to understand how “the estimated journey time saving between Swansea and London with Super Express trains of 19 minutes” is put at risk.

As the new intercity trains for the Swansea – London service are all being fitted with underfloor diesel engines, the Beleben blog cannot understand how their maintenance costs “are 33% lower” than diesels.

Because they are diesels. Electro-diesels.

Electro-diesel (bi-mode) trains were part of the project from the outset. The Great Western electrification shows what can happen when a scheme is poorly specified and designed. It went wrong from the word go, and as the transport secretary at the time, Andrew Adonis must be largely responsible.

Written by beleben

August 3, 2017 at 9:06 am

Vanity rail projects take funding away from existing railways

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Railways in the north of England have a high cost base, and a low user base. They tend not to provide satisfactory connectivity. But PR-led initiatives like replacing ‘Pacer’ trains are unlikely to change the fundamentals.

Could HS2 or HS3 fix rail travel in the north of England?

Could HS2 or HS3 really fix rail travel in the north of England?

The scale of change required is much greater, but government does not seem to have a plan, or funding, in place. ‘Transport for the North’ seems to be away with the fairies.

Outdated and uncompetitive rail transport in the North: Kirkby station, Merseyside, by Raymond Knapman (Creative Commons)

SDG gave Leeds to Manchester as an example of an existing 'quick, frequent, and comfortable rail journey experience'  but that corridor is the linchpin of the proposed 'HS3' vanity project

SDG gave Leeds to Manchester as an example of an existing ‘quick, frequent, and comfortable rail journey experience’ – but that corridor is the linchpin of the ‘HS3’ vanity project

Written by beleben

October 30, 2016 at 2:30 pm

The next fastest train

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The next fastest train display at Birmingham New Street At Birmingham’s refurbished New Street railway station, there is a screen which displays the next fastest train to various destinations.

The next fastest train.” What does that mean?

Presumably, it is not intended to mean, “the second fastest train”.

So why isn’t the screen just labelled “Next fast train”?

On the west side of the station, near the main taxi rank, Network Rail provided a “Dog Spend”. It turns out that “Dog Spend” is Network Railspeak for a canine toilet.

As well as bizarre and bombastic terms such as “Dog Spend”, “conditional outputs”, and “High Level Output Specification”, Network Railspeak also features the use of the word “route” to denote a geographical operating area. In other words, a Network Rail “route” is what most other railway administrations would call a ‘region’.

Written by beleben

April 15, 2016 at 8:30 am

A clever supply model

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HS2 Ltd “have insisted whoever is granted the £4bn contract to build superfast trains for the HS2 rail line should hold a strong UK presence to boost domestic jobs”. Politics Home reported.

And Terence Watson, the Alstom UK chief and Rail Supply Group ‘co-chair’, has ‘laid out the case for bolstering Britain’s rail exports’. Alstom’s ‘hiatus from train making in Britain was ended after the company filed a planning application worth between £80m and £100m for a technology facility in Widnes’.

[‘High-speed technology is our DNA: Alstom plans to resume train building in the UK after a near 15 year hiatus. Country president Terence Watson talks to Sebastian Whale about what drew the company back to Britain.’ Politics Home, 3 March 2016]

The rail transportation heavyweight closed its UK train building operations at the completion of its contract building Pendolino tilting trains for Virgin Rail 15 years ago. The previous “fit and start” nature of the rail industry in Britain, reliant on short-term contracts, meant cashflow was an omnipresent concern, [Mr Watson] says.

The construction would be built in three phases, the first a near 28,000 sq m facility fit with car parking, service yards, rail sidings, landscaping and associated engineering operations. The later phases have the potential to include a new British factory, which would build HS2 trains if Alstom were to win that order.

[…] “We reached a point around a year ago where a clever supply model, assembling in Britain, roughly matches the price of a product shipped in from, for example, India in total. In other words we’ve reached that point of inflection. It is now, again, a reasonable proposition to make things in Britain competitively,” he says.

In fact, the hiatus hasn’t ended. Alstom isn’t making trains in Britain. It seems to be offering to assemble HS2 trains in Britain in the future, if it won the order, because of the government requirement to demonstrate some domestic employment benefit, no matter how minimal.

That requirement does not exist for other GB train orders — such as the Merseyrail fleet replacement, where Alstom has teamed up with Japan’s Mitsui and J-Trec to bid against Siemens, CAF, Bombardier, and Stadler.

If Alstom UK  was ‘too reliant’ on the “fit and start” nature of the rail industry in Britain, one might well ask why it didn’t try to seek out export business, instead of closing its factory.

Written by beleben

March 14, 2016 at 12:46 pm

Posted in Great Britain, Industry

Tagged with

HS2 and population

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Britain’s fastest growing cities are all in the south, and its shrinking ones all in the north, wrote Citymetric’s Jonn Elledge (14 Aug 2015).


The main point to notice is that only one of Britain’s boom towns is above the line from the Bristol Channel to the Wash: that’s Telford, in the Midlands. All of the others are pretty comfortably within London’s orbit.

And as can be seen from SLC Rail’s regional population trends table (below), population growth in London and the South East is expected to be considerably higher than in the West Midlands and North West.

SLC Rail: UK regional population trends

SLC Rail: UK regional population trends

Contrary to the impression given by HS2 ‘blobbyists’, the primary need for additional rail capacity is going to be in the south east of England. Spending £56+ billion on 560-odd kilometres of HS2 track to Manchester and Leeds makes no sense in capacity terms, and is bound to crowd out improvements for places where capacity is actually needed.

Written by beleben

August 17, 2015 at 10:24 am

Developing Great Central connectivity

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Calvert interchange concept (Beleben)

Indicative Calvert GC / Varsity interchange station concept (Beleben)

One of the many shortcomings of HS2 is the lack of connectivity benefits for places between Birmingham and London. If the Great Central route between Calvert and Leicester were reactivated, it would be possible to provide connectivity for points such as Woodford, Brackley, and Calvert.

Indicative WCML - Great Central East of Rugby interconnection concept (Beleben)

Indicative WCML – Great Central East of Rugby interconnection concept (Beleben)

Interconnection of the Great Central with the West Coast Coast Main Line could be implemented by a chord running to the east, or west, of Rugby.

Written by beleben

December 7, 2014 at 4:21 pm

Posted in Great Britain, HS2, Planning

The legend of extra capacity

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From 2017, Intercity Express Programme trains built in Japan and fitted out in Newton Aycliffe, county Durham, are scheduled to replace most of the InterCity 125 and 225 formations operating on the Great Western and East Coast routes. Hitachi invited the British press to Japan to see the Class 800 IEP roll-out on 13 November.

Hitachi IEP roll-out

Hitachi IEP roll-out

The IEP’s thinner seats and longer carriages allow it to carry more people per unit length than current GB intercity trains. A ten-carriage train with the IEP layout could seat 715 people between London and Birmingham without any need to lengthen platforms (the tilt feature of Pendolinos is of limited value on the West Coast Main Line south of Birmingham).

West Coast Main Line, efficient use, no-resignal scenario

West Coast Main Line, efficient use, no-resignal scenario

As can be seen from the example above, a wider process of rolling stock optimisation on the West Coast Fast Lines would allow a passenger capacity increase of around 40%, with few infrastructure changes, and every fifth path unused, to allow recovery. In the example presented, ‘Ledburn’ suburban capacity would be doubled, with small trade-offs (affecting Watford, Milton Keynes and North Wales intercity). Various permutations are possible; much larger increases could be achieved by wider infrastructure upgrades.

(Legend for diagram above)

Green  – IEP type intercity train, 225 km/h, ~715 seats

Orange – New generation commuter train, capable of 225 km/h, 830 seats (Desiro replacement)

Dark red – Pendular 265-metre intercity train (Pendolino type, 11 car)

Blue – Pendular 290-metre intercity train (Pendolino type, 12 car – would potentially require platform lengthening at up to 5 stations)

Brown – Pendular 145-metre intercity train  (Pendolino type, 6 car – would potentially require platform lengthening at up to 5 stations for paired portion working)

Written by beleben

November 13, 2014 at 9:36 pm

Train à grande incohérence

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Since 2008, the commercial situation of France’s TGV high-speed railways has deteriorated. On 23 October 2014, the Cour des comptes (court of auditors) published a report which noted that the preference for TGV development over classic rail had resulted in an ‘incoherent, disconnected and inefficient system’. On 27 October, Economie Matin reported that train operator SNCF was planning “drastic measures” to reverse the decline.

TGV on classic track, Viaduc de Cize - Bolozon

TGV on classic track at the Viaduc de Cize – Bolozon (Kabelleger / David Gubler, Creative Commons)

[Extract from ‘La grande vitesse ferroviaire : un modèle porté au-delà de sa pertinence’, La Cour des comptes, 23 October][…]

Le développement du TGV s’est opéré en substitution des trains à grande distance classiques Intercités. La préférence française avérée pour la grande vitesse a abouti à un système peu cohérent, où les rames de TGV desservent 230 destinations et passent 40 % de leur temps en moyenne sur les lignes classiques, ce qui nécessite en outre un parc important de rames.

Sur certaines liaisons, les principales conditions de pertinence d’une ligne à grande vitesse (LGV) ne sont pas remplies, à savoir : connexion de bassins de population importants, durée de trajet à grande vitesse comprise entre 1h30 et 3h, peu ou pas d’arrêts intermédiaires, grande fréquence de circulation, taux d’occupation des rames élevé et bonne articulation avec les autres modes de transports.



La Cour formule huit recommandations visant notamment à:

1. mieux intégrer la grande vitesse aux choix de mobilité des Français, en insérant le TGV dans une offre tirant parti de l’ensemble des moyens de transport et en levant les restrictions à la concurrence des modes de transport longues distances routiers;

2. restreindre progressivement le nombre d’arrêts sur les tronçons de LGV et de dessertes des TGV sur voies classiques et extrémités de lignes, en ne conservant que celles justifiées par un large bassin de population;

3. assurer la transparence des données de la SNCF, en particulier la fréquentation par ligne;

4. faire prévaloir l’évaluation socio-économique des projets de LGV annoncés;

5. ne décider du lancement des études préliminaires qu’après:

– la définition d’un plan d’affaires pour la ligne, associant le gestionnaire d’infrastructure et le ou les opérateurs ferroviaires ;

– la prise en compte par une décision interministérielle formelle des perspectives de financement du projet d’infrastructure et la répartition entre les acteurs (État, RFF, éventuellement collectivités territoriales);

6. veiller au paiement par l’Afitf de ses engagements financiers vis-à-vis de RFF et clarifier rapidement la question des ressources de cette agence;

7. concentrer en priorité les moyens financiers sur l’entretien du réseau par rapport aux projets de développement et améliorer le pilotage de la prestation d’entretien du réseau ferroviaire par le gestionnaire d’infrastructure;

8. veiller à ce que la définition des futurs ratios d’endettement du gestionnaire d’infrastructure conduise effectivement à ne pas financer des projets non rentables.

It is interesting to note that the Cour des comptes recommended an optimal in-vehicle time for TGV journeys (given as 90-to-180 minutes). All the main flows in Britain’s proposed HS2 network would fall below the lower bound mentioned by the Cour des comptes, making Euston to Birmingham, and Euston to Manchester, Grandes Lignes (not TGV), territory.

Written by beleben

October 30, 2014 at 11:05 am