Over-egging the pudding

In this blog I will continue my dissection of Justine Greening’s statement on HS2 to the House of Commons on Tuesday 10th January 2012. I intend to look further at the second sentence of the quote that I previously examined in my blog Economical with the truth? (posted 28 Jan 2012). This sentence is:

“In truth, they could add only limited further capacity; they could not offer the step change in performance that passengers wish and need to see.”

So what is this “step change” that we can look forward to if HS2 becomes a reality?

Well HS2 will certainly offer a step change in capacity. In my blog Too much of a good thing?, which was posted on the Stop HS2 website on 27 October 2011 (here) I calculated that the number of seats available on HS2 trains between London and Birmingham and in the reverse direction would be nearly 27 million a year when it opens in 2026 (or whenever).

This looks an awful lot when compared with current passenger demand. In the survey year 2009/10 the number of passengers using either Birmingham New Street or Birmingham International for journeys to or from London Euston was around 3.1 million. So the operator of HS2 will need to persuade all of these passengers to transfer to its trains and then find another ten million souls willing to use it in order to get HS2 even half full.

Not a very feasible proposition is it? It looks like HS2 trains will be HS1 déjà vu with substantially empty carriages with the odd passengers dotted about.

Now Birmingham Airport may be able to help, if it can secure the role of an extra London airport that it appears to be seeking – sorry did somebody at the back mention Boris Island? However for Birmingham Airport’s master plan to really have legs it is surely essential for Heathrow also to be connected to HS2, to allow rapid inter-airport transfers, and the Heathrow high speed spur does not appear to be high on the priority list at present. Even if some passengers can be persuaded to use Birmingham rather than Heathrow for long-haul flights, will this really significantly contribute to the extra ten million passengers that HS2 will be looking for?

The other “step change” that the Transport Secretary may have been referring to is the reduction in journey time that HS2 will offer. How important a commodity is this?

A study of published rail timetables carried out by the HS2 Action Alliance and reported in Appendix 1.2 to its response to the HS2 public consultation (here) reveals that the average of the fastest timetabled journey times between Berlin and Germany’s five next biggest cities is 4hrs 04m (over a mixture of high speed, upgraded and some conventional lines). The equivalent time for France is 3hrs 41m (all over high speed lines, except the sector Marseille-Nice) and for Italy it is 3hrs 04m (all over high speed lines except the last sector to Genoa). The comparable time for the UK’s InterCity network is 2hrs 25m.

Only Spain, with an average journey time of 2hrs 31m, on a virtually all high speed network except for some short sections to Valencia, approaches the performance of the UK’s existing rail network.

So the UK’s high speed network is already top of the European Premier League, and the journey time reductions that high speed rail can offer are, accordingly, less significant here than in other parts of Europe.

There is also the inconvenient suspicion, for the Government that is, that passengers do not rate journey time as a very important consideration. A survey carried out by the independent watchdog Passenger Focus during September and October 2009, and reported in Passenger Priorities for Improvements in Rail Services (here), asked rail passengers to rate their priorities for improvements to the service. The results of this survey, tabulated on page 9 of the report, show that, for the respondents as a whole, the most important service enhancement would be improving value for money followed, in second place, by better punctuality; improving the speed of the journey only rates 21st in the list of priorities.

Now I would be guilty of deception if I didn’t reveal to you that another Passenger Focus survey rates speed of journey higher. This survey was carried out on the West Coast Main Line (WCML) only during the months of January and February 2011 and was reported by Passenger Focus in its evidence to the Commons Transport Select Committee for that committee’s investigation into high speed rail. In Table 4 of document reference HSR136 (here) “length of time the journey was scheduled to take (speed)” has risen to fourth in the list of priorities.

Now we may all have views on which of the surveys, if either, gives a true representation and why the results are different. My own view, for what it is worth, is that WCML passengers may be responding to the publicity about high speed rail and that this has stimulated interest in faster journey times.

However there is one important point on which both surveys agree; overwhelmingly the number one priority for passengers is the cost of their tickets. Now is there anybody out there who thinks that spending billions on HS2 will contribute in any way to reducing the price of train tickets?

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