West coast mainline franchise bid had to go – it blew the case for HS2 out of the water

Posted on October 4, 2012

The Mandarins in the DfT have egg all over their faces. But some are very relieved. Finally the penny dropped somewhere near the top of the office that they couldn’t be saying both that there was shed loads of unused capacity on the West Coast Mainline (the basis of First Group’s up-till-yesterday successful bid) and that there was an iron-clad economic case for the HS2 high speed rail project whose whole case is based on there being no capacity on the very same line.

I’ve raised this with everybody from The Guardian to the Campaign for Better Transport since mid-August. This is what I wrote to The Guardian’s transport correspondent Gwyn Topham, on 17 August.

‘Sir Peter Hall, leading light in HS2 booster campaign ‘Greenguage’ is always informed and informative. But his recent piece ‘How to save high speed rail two from itself’ has a real problem. Basically his argument and that of other pro HS2 campaigners, is that its construction is necessary because ‘…there is no way that we can wring further serious capacity out of the existing West Coast Main Line….’

I’m not a rail expert, but I can’t fail to notice that the Department for Transport has just let a 14-year contract to First Group to operate that line based on there being a great deal of spare capacity. So much so indeed that their business plan assumes a 10% increase in passengers every year for 10 years.

Either the DfT is right in which case this would seem to fatally undermine the argument for HS2, or they aren’t, which begs questions as to their competence as a Department and suggests that Richard Branson’s complaints about the tendering process are well founded.’

The top mandarins weren’t paying attention. Nor were the politicians. But Virgin knew. Their Judicial Review was bound to be successful. Hence the embarrassing U-turn on Tuesday night. Rumours are circulating that even Justine Greening the recently moved Transport Secretary had rumbled that the Department held two irreconcilable positions at the same time. As well as being correct in its own terms, Virgin’s legal action has provided cover for a tactical retreat by the DfT before the Treasury started asking too many hard questions about the economic case for HS2.

However others have.  Prof Stephen Glaister of Imperial College  has raised it and and Kirsty Wark made the connection on Newsnight on Wednesday evening to the hapless transport Minister Simon Burns and some bod from the CBI. Then she went on to widen it out to take in the procurement process for nuclear power stations. Panic stations all over Whitehall!