Commons Gate

Delivering a Sustainable Railway: A 30-year Strategy for the Railways? (HC 219-v)

Transport Committee 19 Mar2008

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Evidence given by
2.45 South West Regional Assembly and South West Regional Development Agency Julian Johnson, Chair of the South West Regional Assembly's Regional Transport Board West Midland Regional Rail Forum Chris Haynes, Head of Transportation Strategy, Birmingham City Council Transport for London Geoff Hobbs, Head of Strategy, London Rail, Transport for London The Northern Way Professor David Begg, Chairman of the Transport Compact, Northern Way
3.30 Minister and Officials Tom Harris MP, Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport Bob Linnard, Director, Rail Strategy and Stakeholder Relations: uploaded on 26 March 2008

Q704 Mr. David Clelland: Just on the high speed rail point, if it is possible to calculate what we call these days agglomeration benefits of high speed rail by saying 40 minutes off a journey will result in X million pounds worth of benefits. What cost benefit analysis has been done on a system, say like Maglev, which could actually halve (or even more than that) the journey times between, say, Newcastle and London?

Professor Begg: That would be factored in if you wanted to look solely at Maglev.

Q705 Mr. David Clelland: Has any cost-benefit study been done?

Professor Begg: No, we have not looked at any specific technology. We have remained technology neutral. We have worked on the assumption that trains would travel at 300 kilometres per hour, Eurostar, high speed rail route one capable speeds, and we have worked on that assumption.

Chairman: Thank you. I think I am going to move on to Mr Scott.


Q810 Mr. David Clelland: Minister, would you accept that were we to build two high speed rail lines on the east and west coast of the UK that would have quantifiable benefits to the economy?

Mr Harris: I know that the answer you want is "Yes", but you would have to put a lot of caveats on that. First of all, you would have to ask which areas would it serve, how much would it cost to build and how long would it take to build, what would be the business case, what would be their projected customer base? It has been actually quite encouraging that ever since the opening of St Pancras and the opening of the second section of HS1 there has been a huge amount of enthusiasm for high speed lines in Britain, and I think that is all to the good and I think people are interested in railways again. But actually the debate has moved on since we published the White Paper and in yesterday's speech by the Secretary of State she alluded to the fact that a lot of the debate on high speed lines is basically saying, "Well, here's a solution. Now let's look for a problem to answer it," and actually what I think we should be doing and what the DfT actually will be doing for the rest of this year is that we are going to say, "Let's identify what the challenges actually are in transport within the country, then let's look at the different options." There will be more than one option for meeting that challenge. "Then let's look at a solution." But at the moment people are saying, "Well, we've got high speed rail as a solution, now let's find the problem."

Q811 Mr. David Clelland: Have you seen the recent Atkins study?

Mr Harris: I confess I have not read it in detail, but I am aware of it and I have read some of it.

Q812 Mr. David Clelland: The conclusion they come to there is that the economic benefit to the UK will be £63 billion, which is more than twice the cost of building the two lines.

Mr Harris: That is right, but I think that is over 60 years.

Q813 Mr. David Clelland: But the fact is that it is economically viable at that rate, is it not?

Mr Harris: I am not saying that the high speed line is not economically viable, but let me say this about the high speed line. I think there is a number of assumptions. First of all, the Atkins Report is a good report from what I have seen. Greengage 21 are also doing some good work and Network Rail are going to contribute to that, and I think that is all to the good and it is all very helpful. But I think a number of assumptions are made about high speed and one of them is that it is environmentally friendly. Another is that it contributes to the economy. Another is that it will result in a certain amount of modal shift from planes to trains. A lot of these assumptions I am not convinced we have the empirical data to support. Take the environment. Not every environmentalist thinks that high speed is a good idea. The reason is - and I am sure you know this already -

Q814 Chairman: Not every environmentalist thinks the world is round! It is not a very good assumption to base transport policy on those views, is it?

Mr Harris: I am sure that is true, Chairman. I am simply making the point that some of the assumptions made to support the case for high speed are not borne out necessarily. It is more a shade of grey than black and white. For example, you need a 90% increase in the amount of energy for a train to push it from 125 miles an hour up to 180 miles an hour, which is where we generally assume high speed to be. You could argue that is not a good use of energy and therefore environmentally the case might not be made. Look at connectivity in Britain. Most of Britain's urban conurbations are actually pretty well connected already. Another argument which is often put to me is that France, Germany and the Continent have these high speed lines, why can we not have them? There may be a case at some point in the future for a high speed line, but it is not going to be justified by saying, "Our neighbours have got it, therefore we should get it."

Q815 Mr. David Clelland: Given what you have said, that a lot has happened since the White Paper and given this latest report with all the caveats you have just mentioned, is the Government now going to review its position on high speed?

Mr Harris: Our position on high speed was not no to high speed. I think what we are trying to develop is this new approach to planning, which as I have said is let us not start with the solution, let us start by identifying where the problems are and then let us look at the mix of solutions and choose the most appropriate solution, which might be high speed, it might be conventional speeds. If it is capacity that is the challenge you want to address, it might actually not be rail at all. But I would rather identify what the problems are.

Q816 Mr. David Clelland: The problem as far as the northern regions are concerned is the North/South divide. It is the old problem. We have not made a great impact on it and one of the solutions, not the only solution, to the North/South divide, it is felt in the regions anyway, is high speed rail. That is the problem. How is the Government identifying that?

Mr Harris: That is one of the issues. You talked about the economic benefits of a high speed line, and that is absolutely something the Government will be taking account of in the months and years ahead, and we should do that. But I simply come back to the point that I do not want to start off with the solution and then look around for a problem to fix.

Q817 Mr. David Clelland: But is the Government's previous view about high speed rail holding despite the fact that things have changed, as you have said, since the White Paper despite this new study?

Mr Harris: It is holding inasmuch as we have not ruled them out. That has not changed.

Q818 Mr. David Clelland: But it is a sceptical view of it at the moment?

Mr Harris: No, I would not say it is sceptical at all. I think the one change - and this might not sound a terrific shift - is that the next time we produce a High Level Output Specification for publication in 2012 it probably will not be accompanied by a white paper on railways, it will probably be accompanied by a white paper on transport, looking at the whole range of transport solutions rather than just rail.

Mr. David Clelland: Thank you.


Q898 Mr. David Clelland: If the Government of Scotland, the cities of Liverpool and Manchester and the conurbations of Tyneside and Teesside can be thinking about the development of Maglev, why is the Department for Transport so dismissive of the system?

Mr Harris: For the record, the Government of Scotland is based here at Westminster. The Scottish Executive I think you are talking about. Mr Clelland and I have had discussions in the past about the various merits of Maglev and I bow to the superior wisdom of Rod Eddington, who did dismiss this in his report. I think Maglev is one of those projects which catches people's imaginations, but we had a discussion earlier on about whether or not high speed conventional rail, as it were, might be appropriate to Britain and that alone provides all sorts of challenges. Maglev is not just an expensive scheme, it is a scheme in which you actually have to have new train stations as well. You cannot actually run a Maglev into a normal train station. So as well as having a new network on stilts for these magnetic trains, you also have to have a brand new network of train stations. That is just the start of the argument against Maglev and I am sorry but I just cannot in all honesty say that I could see any government committing to that.

Q899 Mr. David Clelland: What is the most innovative and exciting idea in the Department at the moment for the future of the rail network?

Mr Harris: That is a very good question! Tram trains, I would say, at the moment.

This is an uncorrected transcript of evidence taken in public and reported to the House. The transcript has been placed on the internet on the authority of the Committee. Neither witnesses nor Members have had the opportunity to correct the record. The transcript is not yet an approved formal record of these proceedings.

The full transcript may be read here.

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