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Can we afford the extravagance of HS2?

Trains and railways have fascinated me since boyhood and I have always supported their usage whenever I could.

However, the recent enthusiasm from government and the railway media for a new high speed line across the UK is very worrying to many engineers, because no one has mentioned the huge increases in energy consumption and CO2 emissions that are inevitable.

Whenever politicians get involved in projected major construction projects like HS2, I always smell a rat and it is usually a vested interest one. From a government that claims to be reducing carbon emissions on future projects, the concept of high speed rail is certainly contradictory to a green Britain.

As a retired railway testing engineer, I still closely follow technical developments in mass transport and suspect that the railway industry, along with those politically promoting this very expensive endeavour, are presenting a very biased and distorted picture to the British public.

My argument with this project covers three areas which Lord Adonis and his sympathisers have failed to clearly address in their feasibility report.

Firstly – Energy Requirement

Very High Speed Trains like the TGVs use electric power to travel at speeds of around 200 mph. Because there is a large increase in air resistance at this speed (even with streamlining), a lot of energy is required – in fact over twice that of a British Intercity Express travelling at 125 mph.

Giving an energy comparison we can all understand – if both trains were diesel powered and full of passengers – the TGV would be giving an economy of 40 miles per passenger per litre and the IC125 around 93 miles per passenger per litre.

People think that electric traction is environmentally clean and efficient – in fact in reality it is just the opposite, especially when one looks at the power station generating the electric power in the first place – which leads me to the second problem – power generation.

Secondly – Electricity Generation

Unlike France, Britain's power stations are mainly fossil fuel based. Around 80% of our generating stations rely on coal, oil and gas. And with our recent self inflicted energy shortfall this situation is unlikely to change within the next 20 yrs, as increasing usage will have to be made of coal.

Power Station Generation efficiency has improved very little since the 1900s with maximum thermal efficiencies of around 33%. This means two thirds of the fuel is still wasted heating up and polluting our atmosphere. Nuclear Power stations are cleaner, but little better in efficiency at 38% TE and problematic in the long term with costly waste disposal problems. Uranium ore is also becoming increasingly scarce as world supplies are depleted.

New dual cycle gas turbines can achieve 48% – but there are a limited number of power stations with these machines and unlikely to be more in the future, due to limited resources.
Don't forget that electric traction is only 26% thermally efficient at the rail because of power transmission losses and cannot be significantly improved without improving power station generator efficiency. World wide, fossilised fuel electricity generation is rapidly becoming a bigger polluter than the internal combustion engine, which is now significantly improving.

Operating trains at 200 mph plus in Britain will massively increase energy consumption and with it carbon emissions from our fossil fuelled power stations. Super trains are definitely not "Green" and their infrastructure is as expensive and disruptive per mile as a motorway, which leads me to the third problem – cost.

Thirdly – High Speed Infrastructure Cost

Before any future government embarks on a £30 billion extravagance with private and hard earned taxpayer's money, let us examine the facts regarding high speed rail networks:-
Taking the French high speed network as a prime example – the TGV concept was originally conceived to compete with the French intercity air network. The development and construction costs were under-estimated and presented an enormous bill to the French taxpayer, the bulk of which has never been recuperated. The massive SNCF debt surrounding the project was eventually written off by the socialist Mitterrand government in the 1980s, completely hiding the true cost of the super train network.

Although the network has expanded, these heavily subsidised trains (65% in France) have only marginally reduced European air traffic, which still carries 60% of intercity passengers.

The same financial vacuum also applies to the channel tunnel, which is a huge loss maker. Note that its financial status is being deliberately kept from the public limelight whilst HS2 is being propagated.

In the real world, the general public require affordable reliable transport, with adequate access, seating and luggage capacity, not expensive super trains promoting a reduction in journey time for the benefit of the wealthier minority (mainly business personnel and government officials on expense accounts). None of us are prepared to give up our private cars. The motor vehicle is here to stay and we all use it, because it is highly cost effective and convenient, even with huge over-taxing by government. Much of the recent rise in intercity rail passenger revenue has been politically generated by city access/congestion charges and parking costs, particularly in London.

Rail has a future – in serving the general public and getting freight off our roads, not in 200mph super trains. It would be far more cost effective and logical to improve our present rail network (particularly with freight – which is increasing) by reinstating some of the old routes depots and stations that were unfortunately condemned in the "short sighted" Beeching era. Integrated transport utilising the benefits of road and rail, was always beyond the limited imagination of those in ivory towers of Westminster.

I'm sure we can all remember the story of the emperor's invisible new suit – as taxpayers the British public have a right to know the true facts surrounding all transport costs, before our untrustworthy politicians lead us into another Millennium Dome with HS2.

by Brian Beer (Ex BR Research Vehicle Testing Engineer)