UK trains, HS2 and the failure of ambition and vision

So, after years of discussing and debating the obvious – that the UK needs a 21st Century train network – the Government has decided that the first phase of this should go ahead. Assuming that it gets built on time and anywhere near the budget, both of which are highly unlikely (given the traditional overruns of Government projects) I’m sure the children and grandchildren of those in the South who need to get to and from Birmingham and London quickly will be happy.


But perhaps not.

Our children may also be furious because we have left them with a huge bill of £33Bn to fund a dated technology solution that no longer addresses their problems. We have a few hundred years of history to give us confidence that London will remain the capital city, but I doubt whether our children want to commit to the same lifestyles that we have today – wasting time unpleasantly squashed inside overpriced metal boxes, fighting for personal space, moving from home to whatever work is in 2026 unnecessarily when technology could remove much of the burden.

And the worse part is that technology could remove much of that burden today.

I’m not against infrastructure investment, in fact if we had invested in our transport as other countries have over recent decades then we wouldn’t be in dire need for investment now, but focusing on one line which connects two cities whilst ignoring all others is a questionable strategy at best.

What HS2 represents is an abject failure of both ambition and vision.

A failure of ambition 

It is a failure of ambition, because it is an expensive single route based on an old idea of travel. Nothing more. There is no evidence of thinking any deeper than the infrastructure itself. When the Chinese already have trains that are faster, more advanced, and run on longer lines, with cheaper prices and a vision to connect cities across their country, then as a country that has and continues to produce world class engineers and architects we should be ashamed by the lack of ambition with this. Just to repeat that. China has faster, longer, cheaper trains now, and we will need to wait at least 14 years. Pathetic. And for those that didn’t know, Britain was one of the pioneers of magnetic levitation trains.

We know the problems we face, we know about overcrowding, expensive trains, poor stations, no coordination, a lack of commitment to next generation working, and our best solution is HS2? This does nothing to solve the immediate challenges facing the UK  and the working and commuting population and will if anything cause more problems in the short-medium term as the disruption of the build inconveniences thousands of people.

It will create some much needed employment, but hardly enough to make any noticeable impact on the worsening employment statistics. Add to that many of the jobs will be years away, with no guarantee that the manufacturing will even involve British manufacturing or British skills.

Hardly an infrastructure strategy to be applauded. It is unambitious and inadequate for the challenges we are facing.

A failure of vision

The failure of ambition is very closely related to the failure of vision.

Whereas I have defined ambition as the willingness to push the boundaries on what we do and how we do it, vision is the willingness to push completely past and outside of the boundaries; this is the why are we doing it; it is the ability to rethink our problem, to innovate and to challenge ourselves to find a better solution.

It is in this regard we have failed even more spectacularly.

To understand why this is, we need to appreciate that the success of any solution can only be judged when we view this in the context of the problem. A good solution has to solve a problem. The better it solves the problem, the better the solution. Without a problem, it cannot be a solution.

So what was the problem?
If the problem was slow trains between Birmingham and London, the need to halve journey times and little consideration for the timescale, then it could be argued that HS2 was reasonably successful.
BUT, if you have to travel on trains today and …
– suffer the indignity and discomfort of over-crowding;
– try and actually work on a train (with a tiny amount of space assuming you do get a seat)
– experience the regular delays, cancelations and poor punctuation;
– endure the highest prices in Europe (and highest fare increases too);
– wait in outdated disfunctional stations;
– fear before using public station conveniences;
– dispair at the lack of seating, heating or working space in stations
– or live in any city other than London or Birmingham …
Then you may be questioning the strategy, the logic of the investment and the ability of the solution to solve the problems that you see and experience on a daily basis.
It is not HS2 doesn’t solve some of the problem – it does … if you live in Birmingham and need to travel to London, it does. The problem is that if you are living with any of the above list of problems today, day in, day out, then HS2 does NOTHING; absolutely nothing to help solve this.
And this is why HS2 is a poor solution, and a failure of vision.
It is a failure because it doesn’t effectively address the problem we are facing and propose a solution to these.

How did this happen?

The central issue was that we had a solution before we adequately defined the problem. By not questioning, challenging and exploring the problem adequately we have failed to find or investigate alternatives.
Of course, this is not accident. It was intentional.

This approach is exactly what the HS2 lobby wanted of course; a polarised debate into a yes or no choice; an improvement or status quo decision.

It is not surprising that the decision was a yes. Who was going to argue no? Who wants all the problems that we have today and no improvement?

I know that people argued for a wider discussion about alternative approaches, about green issues, about the route. All this did was fracture the oppositions influence.

All HS2 had to do was to point to a bigger bogeyman (i.e. flight), propose last minute changes for the environmental protesters (more tunnels, some rerouting) and job done.

This was a classic political game being played out exactly as the instructions suggest.

A game whose players included a government who could trumpet change whilst doing little (whilst actually decreasing rail funding), a construction industry that could eye lucrative government contracts, and a rail industry that continued to avoid any serious examination of the systemic failures we see today (and more importantly any discussion of alternatives). Don’t think the review of alternatives was ever serious. None of the players wanted this to happen. That would mean complexity, an opening up of the problem and no shiny thing.

Anyone who has ever worked in government knows the value of shiny things to distract a populus, and this was one of the biggest shiny things you could imagine. Government, construction companies and the rail industry all relax. Job done. Vision defined, budgets approved and shiny new thing to point to sometime in the future in place to avoid discussion of the failures today. Everyone involved assured of a secure retirement long before being held to account for any delays.

And everyone is happy.

Unfortunately not.

Certainly not me. And certainly not the majority of other train users, because what this means is that we face another generation of failed rail transport. All of the problems detailed above with trains today are still there, all of the problems still exist and any serious potential investment available is now committed to HS2.

This is a failure of vision, because this was not the only option.

There were hundreds of ideas and initiatives that could have improved our rail experiences, and more importantly provided benefit within months and years, rather than decades. They were not all pretty, some were purely functional, they cost money now, and didn’t have the benefit of a big shiny thing, but they would have produced real benefits for those using rail services. They would have helped the UK close the gap with Europe, and provided improvements to help UK businesses and families.

Examples include:

  • Longer trains and platforms (see Japanese trains … many of 16+ carriages long)
  • More trains!!!
  • More spacious carriages, better designed for working people, families, recognising the need for social spaces (e.g. family carriages)
  • Power, (free or affordable) connectivity and space on trains and in stations to work at
  • Public spaces in stations, that were pleasant rather than uncomfortable interview rooms, surrounded by surveillance that makes the Stasi look like amateurs, relaxing secure comfortable places to wait and talk
  • Respectable food services at a fair price … support for local suppliers and the end of rip-off pricing (hello WHSmith)
  • Establishment of food services that encourage you to eat there by offering healthy food, freshly made
  • Clean public conveniences (without charging extra for them)
  • Affordable trains, and sensible fare increases
  • Secure, affordable parking at stations
  • Integrated local transport services
  • … and so the list goes on

None of this is rocket science.

And more importantly, none of this, NONE of this would take anywhere near 14 years to arrive. Some changes could be here in weeks, months and a maximum of 3 years, at a fraction of the cost of HS2. Changes could be distributed nationally, so at least bore some relationship towards being fair to the people across the UK who will be paying for HS2.

None of these will significantly speed up the trains, but with a more functional enjoyable train to sit on, journey time is less important. With reliable trains that you can work on, socialise on and afford to travel on, journey time is less of an issue. The train operators understood this years ago. Premium services do today.

So why was this not an option

All of the items on the above list cost money. Varying amounts of money, but money nonetheless. Money that train companies do not want to invest. Most of these things do not generate revenue. Most cost money, which train operators do not want to spend.

What train companies like is raising income, without spending.

They do this by not spending on stations, repainting rather than purchasing new rolling stock (hello East Coast), not investing in platforms (when did you last see a platform extended), and generally leveraging every ounce of use out of what they have. For example, putting in as many seats as possible, allowing overcrowding and raising fares as much as possible. They restrict seating on standard services to incentivise upgrades, oversell on busy services and cancel unprofitable routes when they can. They don’t build great spaces, they build functional unpleasant stations at the lowest cost. They frighten people with cameras to avoid employing staff. They charge the maximum they can for parking, sell concession space at a price no local business can afford and avoid any form of benefit without charge (e.g. wi-fi, lounge access, power access).

Anyone see a problem here?

Of course, according to traditional business theory, this is how firms are supposed to behave (thank you Mr Coase). They are there to maximise profits for shareholders. Recent writers such as Porter and others have challenged the validity of this, but in rail in the UK, the model remains.

And this is where the failure of vision comes in.

The problems of the rail industry are well known and well documented.

We know how train companies operate. We may not like it, but they are a known entity.

But, with no vision to show what could be, to energise people, to raise the bar on imagination, train companies are left to continue business as usual. Without a vision, the default at best is incremental improvement. That is at best – the most likely outcome in a monopoly business is rising prices for a reducing quality of service. In short, everything that the population don’t want.

So, HS2 is not necessarily bad. It is that it doesn’t address the problems that we face in rail. It provides an expensive solution that benefits a small subset of the UK population. Even when extended to Leeds and Manchester (which is not guaranteed to happen) it is not a national strategy or solution.

But was this the only option?

Releasing imagination and driving a strategic vision

There is another of solving a challenge like this. Design thinking.

I won’t cover the details of what this is, as a quick search on Google will provide more value than I ever could, but I will briefly cover how this could have led to a different outcome. TIP: Search for writings by David M. Kelley, John Thackara or Roger Martin – or read Thomas Lockwood’s excellent book on this subject.

What design thinking would have done at the start is encouraged a more creative approach that not only defined the problem, its urgency and audience, but also who the key stakeholders were. One key difference is that the traveller as the end-user would have been at the heart of this. Research would have been comprehensive, but would critically have looked at other attempts to solve similar problems. The whole point is that you DO NOT assume that you know what the solution is when starting. Research seeks to understand the problem, not validate the solution. Not yet.

It is at the next stages that we see more diversity. Unlike traditional design methods, the next stage of designing thinking seeks to encourage ideation – to generate and capture ideas about how to solve the problem(s), to maximise possibilities rather than limit thinking. After this we see prototyping, not in darkened secure facilities or exclusive foreign study trips, but active open processes involving users. Iterative, rapid prototyping is used to validate assumptions, test ideas and investigate ‘what ifs’. At this stage judgement is still reserved. The decision is based on working prototypes and evaluation of a number of proposals and ideas. The process is free to change the order in which steps are completed, to repeat previous activities and to iterate ideas until there is a high level of confidence across stakeholders.

Of course, there is a risk of delays, but this is counterbalanced by making mistakes early and quickly correcting these at the design and prototyping stage, rather than committing to a solution that cannot be easily changed. Research has shown the problems identified at the design stage can cost 1/100th of the cost of fixing these once into production.

Was another option possible?

Looking at France, Germany and Japan, it is easy to assume (and this may be correct) that investment in new high speed lines was the only option. It works for these countries, why not for the UK? Certainly every country and rail manufacturer seeking to win business would be telling you that.

Of course we are decades behind these countries in rail investment, but surely the strategy is right?

Isn’t it?

It works for them, why not us?

For France and Germany, and Japan it may be right. This was a strategy that they all committed to decades ago, but that does not guarantee that it is right for the UK today. In a densely populated country such as the UK, where innovation, creative industries and financial services are key sources of income we could have reached a different conclusion.

Of course we need to improve rail, but there are lots of ways of doing this (see above) in a quicker, more cost effective way.

If we were serious about rail infrastructure, we would have realised that the true cost of bringing our transport network up to the level of France and Germany would be over £100bn, perhaps much much more, so this is hardly a solution to allow us to compete with them.

Instead, perhaps we could have really looked much deeper and sought to develop solutions that recognised our challenges, our problems, but looked at a more imaginative approach, a solution … that was appropriate for the UK.

One that …

  • That invested in communications infrastructure to reduce the need to physically travel
  • That distributed key functions around the UK, and avoided centralising services in two mega-cities
  • That incentivised local and regional investment
  • That forced all government services to be truly online
  • That published all lectures online to reduce travel for learning
  • That removes the restrictions on the local loop and encouraged competition
  • That changed the working practices of all public servants who could work remotely to have that option
  • That legislated flexible working options where possible
  • That opened up public buildings such as Universities more to local businesses and shared resources
  • That focused not on UK infrastructure alone, but as part of a global vision
  • That committed to short term transport improvements and big IMPACT quickly
  • That supported iterative changes and quick and ongoing improvements
  • That made trams a first class form of transport
  • That adopted a strategy that regional integration of travel
  • That incentivised sharing and not travelling as options
  • That funded intelligence in cars
  • That rewarded the end of the 9.00-5.00
  • That forced out of town areas to fund public transport options
  • That changes funding models to reward customer satisfaction and penalised service failures heavily
  • That connected our key strategic centres in wave 1, such high speed from Leeds to Manchester to Liverpool to create regional efficiency
  • That shifted transport to slow rail through the night to reduce road traffic
  • That sought global expertise to propose imaginative solutions to our challenges

And so on …

What this process would have done above anything is show the flaw in looking for shiny things as the solution.

It may have been that the end result was that HS2 was identified as the best solution.

But, as I look forward to an overpriced, overcrowded train tomorrow, with expensive wi-fi, and no real sign of this improving for many years, I don’t think so.


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