A dose of common sense, part 1

In my blog Do you agree with me? (posted 5 Sep 2013) I promised that I would scrutinise a selection of the topics that the Public Bill Committee of MPs set up to carry out the Committee stage of the High Speed Rail (Preparation) Bill and its witnesses examined during the oral evidence sessions that were conducted in early July 2013; this posting is the first such blog.

Amongst the flow of unsubstantiated pro-HS2 claptrap that assailed the apparently willing ears of the Members of the Committee, one witness, for me, stood out as a beacon of intelligence and common sense. Surprisingly, that witness is an eminent figure within the rail industry. I am talking about the Chairman of the Rail Freight Group, Lord Anthony Fitzhardinge Gueterbock OBE, 18th Baron Berkeley, or Tony Berkeley as he appears to prefer to be known. I like to think that his training as a civil engineer – he is a Chartered Engineer and worked for Eurotunnel for many years – accounts for the quality of his evidence, but then, being an engineer myself, I would think that.

Whilst I would definitely classify Lord Berkeley as a friend of HS2, or at least of the concept of a new north-south high speed line, he does not appear to be willing to swallow, and regurgitate, the standard PR, unlike many of his industry colleagues, and local and national politicians. So it was that, in his evidence, he queried the accepted pro-HS2 wisdom that HS2 will “free up capacity”.

The problem for Lord Berkeley is that he doesn’t appear to want to follow the accepted pro-HS2 wisdom without testing the evidence. He set out his stall on the capacity issue right at the start of his appearance before the Committee (Q243):

“Freight volumes will probably grow about 40% in the next 10 years and it is mostly intermodal, which is containers on trains. Much of that growth will be on the main routes between centres of population or consumption, or ports. Of course, the main one is the west coast main line.”

So Lord Berkeley is looking for HS2 to “release” train paths on the West Coast Main Line (WCML) to be used for freight trains. The problem is that the way that HS2 might do this is far from clear, or certain. The conventional way of dealing with transport link capacity issues is to provide for a greater flow along that link. So in the case of a motorway the carriageway is widened, and if the transport link is a railway line, an additional pair of tracks, one for each direction, is built alongside the existing lines. Adding new tracks to railway lines provides extra train paths directly and has the additional benefit that it allows for trains to be segregated, so that trains running simultaneously on each track have similar speeds and/or stopping patterns – keeping train transit times as similar as possible allows the throughput, in train paths per hour, to be maximised.

The HS2 proposal does not employ this method; instead, it provides what can best be described as a by-pass. This approach mirrors the way that the M6 Toll was designed to relieve congestion on the M6 around the West Midlands conurbation, and we know what a success that has been! HS2 will do nothing to increase the train path capacity of the WCML directly; it will work, in so far as it can work, by taking passengers off the existing WCML services. The problem with this strategy is that HS2 will not be a particularly efficient way of relieving passenger load on the WCML.

Network Rail’s own published passenger statistics illustrate this (see footnote):

WCML_RUS_July2011_Table3-9This table identifies, in the left-hand column of figures, the number of passenger journeys of over 50 miles (in thousands) that started or ended at London Euston in the survey year 2009/10. For those of us who live in the Midlands, Phase 1 of HS2 would serve two of our stations identified in this table, these being the two Birmingham Stations. Of course, when I say “serve” the HS2 stations will be some distance from the WCML counterparts, but let that small matter pass. HS2 however would not serve the stations at Northampton, Coventry and Rugby. This means that, on 2009/10 figures, HS2 can only serve 3,120,000 of the 5,810,000 long-distance travellers leaving from or arriving at stations in the Midlands.

Even at Phase 1 HS2 will serve the five remaining stations that are listed in the table, with “classic compatible” trains. This opens up a further 5,490,000 long-distance journeys to the HS2 market, but requires the WCML tracks to carry these passengers for at least a part of the journey.

This situation becomes worse when the equivalent table for passenger journeys of less than 50 miles is considered:

WCML_RUS_July2011_Table3-10None of the stations in this table would be served by HS2, amounting to 10,480,000 journeys.

I should point out that the Network Rail tables only give figures for the ten most used long-distance stations and the ten most used short-distance stations, and so my totals do not include all passengers on the WCML. However, I feel that it is safe to regard the calculation that I have made as representative.

So, even if we ignore the need for classic compatible trains to use a part of the WCML, the HS2 Phase 1 by-pass can only relieve the WCML by an absolute maximum of around 40% of passenger journeys {(3,120+5,490)x100/(5,810+5,490+10,480)}. To achieve this figure would require all passengers that have access to HS2 services to take advantage of the offering.

If the WCML is really as congested as the pro-HS2 lobby is making out, will reducing the passenger demand by around 40% by 2026, at best, really make enough of a difference? Will it free up sufficient train paths to introduce new services, to augment commuter services and to cater for the foreseen expansion in freight?

I have to say that I have yet to find any documentation that explains clearly and decisively how this will work, so I have to declare myself a sceptic. To me, HS2 looks like a sticking plaster that is being applied to someone’s leg to treat a cut on their arm. It appears, from his evidence to the Public Bill Committee, that Lord Berkeley is not totally convinced either, but that will have to wait until my next posting.

(To be continued …)

Footnote: Table 3.9 and Table 3.10 on page 47 of the document West Coast Main Line Route Utilisation Strategy, Network Rail, July 2011.

PS: Lord Berkeley’s evidence session starts at approximately 1hr 39mins into the video or at Q243 in the Hansard record.

PPS: A dramatic illustration of just how much of the WCML south of Stafford is by-passed by HS2 has been conveniently provided by the pro-HS2 lobby in the schematic HS2 Phase One illustrating the blog Towns and cities north of Birmingham will benefit right from the start (HS2 The People’s Railway blogsite). Of course, there is already a WCML by-pass railway that connects Birmingham to London, called the Chiltern Line, and it carries freight; a fact that is studiously ignored by the pro-HS2 lobby.


6 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by chriseaglen on October 19, 2013 at 9:16 am

    network rails access planning and toc foc train lengths are key to path Allocation and productive uses of passengers or tonnage carried per hour/train. The building of hs2 will put more diesel freight onto the Chiltern and wcml choking some of the capacity and night time engineering. Berkeley knows where the bread is buttered and some of the approach was spun and respun later. Why phase 1 is on route 3 is the issue also not just this bypass explanation.


    • No Chris you are wrong. The real issue is whether HS2 should be built at all. If it is ditched then the route chosen becomes irrelevant. I also take issue with your assertion that the building of HS2 will cause the freight on the Chiltern Line and WCML to increase. Any increase in freight that occurs on these lines will be a result of higher demand. My point is that HS2, being solely a passenger railway, will have little impact on freight and, reading between the lines, Lord Berkeley appears to fear that this could be the case also.


  2. HS2 speak with forked tongue. On one hand their estimates include the saving by reducing services on the existing network, then they claim we can have better services using the “released paths”. They can’t have it both ways.
    Releasing paths is a valid concept for places like Milton Keynes where trains currently rush through without stopping, but not for places like Coventry where all trains stop but HS2 want to take away two-thirds of the fast Pendolinos to fill up their HS trains.
    Alan Marshall’s enthusiasm for the Euston Cross underground station ignores the fact that it’s not part of HS2 Ltd’s plans and would add yet more cost even if it were viable to build a vast cavern under London.
    We will almost certainly need new tracks north from London, but HS2 isn’t the answer. We wouldn’t build a motorway without junctions would we?
    A new railway must be fully integrated into the network so that all communities along the route share the benefits. Then it really will be worth building.
    As for freight, any HS line needs 4 tracks for the busiest section (as proposed by HS2 in the original 2010 command paper but quietly dropped since then!), so there will be space for freight including the 300km/h trains being developed by Siemens and Alstom.


  3. I hadn’t noticed that you have made a leap of logic with your figures. Cities north of Birmingham would also use HS2 from the day it opened via the link proposed near Lichfield so your 19% should be more like 50%. We agree that HS2 is a dreadful mistake but please let’s keep to the facts to build a convincing case for a better alternative.


    • I totally agree that we should “keep to the facts” Les and was not, I swear, trying to emulate the DfT/HS2 Ltd in the smoke and mirrors department. No, I’m afraid that my apparent duplicity was due to muddled thinking rather than being an unsuccessful attempt to pull the wool over your, and everybody else’s, eyes.
      I have revised the blog and hope that it is now OK.
      Whilst I have to accept that the new 40% figure is not as stark as 20%, I stil feel that the point stands, as the reduction in passenger numbers only works if it can be translated into a sufficient number of freed train paths.


  4. Thanks Peter. Your blogs are well researched, I’ve learned a lot from them and I never doubted your objectivity.

    I read an answer to a parliamentary question given by the new rail minister Robert Goodwill (http://www.theyworkforyou.com/wrans/?id=2013-10-17a.171101.h&s=HS2#g171101.r0) who claimed the rail journey from Nottingham to London would be 36 mins faster by HS2 than it is now. But their figures leave only 2 to 5 minutes to change trains at Toton – a bit tight if you are lucky enough to arrive there just in time to catch an HS2 train.

    He declined to answer how long it would take when the Midland Main Line is electrified shortly, but the answer is well publicised: it will be 8 minutes quicker. So will it be worth Nottingham people using HS2? Well maybe it will because part of the plan is to halve the number of direct trains on Midland Main Line, coercing them to change trains at Toton.

    Toton is one of those parkway stations that make it easier to get out of a city (by car) than it is to get into the city centre, thereby draining commerce out of the city it’s supposed to serve.

    That really is smoke and mirrors.


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