A dose of common sense, part 2

(… continued from A dose of common sense, part 1, posted on 19 Oct 2013).

A fundamental weakness in the claim that HS2 will relieve capacity issues on the West Coast Main Line (WCML) is that not one of the new train paths that HS2 will offer is a direct substitute for an existing WCML passenger train path. This is because all current WCML passenger services to and from London that call at Birmingham New Street or Birmingham International also have other stops that would not be served by HS2. All that HS2 would do is to reduce the number of passengers on the trains that arrive at some of these non-HS2 stops. It will only be possible to gain train paths for commuter services and new services by reallocating, or reorganising, the current long-distance train services. In particular, HS2 would allow the frequency of services to be reduced and/or the number of stops increased to take advantage of the lower number of passengers that would be using WCML long-distance services.

We can get an idea of just how much the long-distance passenger flows between Birmingham and London might be reduced by Phase 1 of HS2 from figures that were presented in the March 2010 HS2 Command Paper (see footnote). This document reveals that the number of “long-distance journeys taken each day on the London to the West Midlands section of the West Coast Main Line” at that time was 45,000. The same document estimates that by 2033 HS2 could have reduced that by more than half, to 20,000. Definitely not good news for whoever will hold the WCML long-distance passenger franchise in twenty years time, you might think.

So I think that we can be certain that HS2 will, at least, reduce any seat shortages on what are currently called the Intercity services. However, it is possible that some problem peaks could still occur due to “bargain basement” travellers facing restricted travel times. What the timetablers will seek to do is to scale back the service offered to long-distance passengers to free up train paths for commuter services, as the latter would receive no direct relief from HS2.

Currently, as I understand it, there are no plans for freight trains to use the HS2 tracks, and so HS2 will not make any new paths for freight trains directly available. Any new paths for freight trains will have to be found within the new timetabling exercise.

From the evidence that he gave to the Public Bill Committee, Lord Berkeley appears to be acutely aware that, in broad terms, freight will have to compete for new train paths with the other services. He joked with Iain Stewart (MP for Milton Keynes South) that things should be alright, “provided they do not fill it up with lots of high-speed passenger trains for people from Milton Keynes”. Behind this joviality is a very real point though; the demands of commuter services could quickly swallow up any freed train paths that might be gained from timetabling changes once HS2 Phase 1 is operational.

Lord Berkeley identified one particular bottleneck on the WCML track that concerns him. This is brought about by the intention, during the minimum of six or seven years that will elapse between the opening dates of the two phases, to run “classic compatible” HS2 trains on the WCML north of Tamworth, alongside conventional WCML services. He explained:

“More seriously, the problem comes when you get to Nuneaton or Tamworth, because at the start you have got eight high-speed trains an hour coming up HS2; you have got some extra ones that will go on the classic line, we are told, which are passenger trains from places such as Blackpool and Chester, and that is three or four; you may have extra regional passenger trains; and you have the 40% growth in rail freight that I have just mentioned.”

Lord Berkeley’s persistence in this matter – he says that he has “been going on about this for some time” – appears to have paid off. He announced to the Committee that Network Rail will be undertaking a study “to come up with an agreed timetable between the industry, Network Rail and HS2, to demonstrate that it can work”. Now I have considerable doubts that Network Rail can ever take a truly independent stance on HS2, but at least someone is going to undertake this essential task. I hope that this work will be fully comprehensive, encompassing both phases and assessing the projected demand for each service to determine whether the train path allocations are adequate to meet the expected loads.

As his last word to the Committee on this topic, Lord Berkeley issued a warning:

“If it cannot work, somebody has got to come up with some more capacity enhancements beyond the end of HS2.”

Here I am afraid that I have to take issue with Lord Berkeley. In my view, “if it cannot work” then the whole HS2 project needs to be re-evaluated. After all we are being told that the number one reason why we need HS2 is to resolve a “capacity crunch” on the WCML; if HS2 fails in this respect then we need a different solution, not just some patch and mend add on.

Footnote: The data is taken from the document High Speed Rail, Cm 7827, Department for Transport, March 2010. The two figures may be found in paragraphs 5.38 and 5.42 on pages 91 and 92.

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


4 responses to this post.

  1. You are right. The 2010 HS2 command paper says “The most heavily used section of the Japanese Shinkansen is just over 300 miles long including 14 intermediate stations providing high speed connectivity for journeys of all distances”. They then go on to ignore their own advice and concoct,in their own words, “a largely segregated railway”. The current thrust of their spin is how to integrate HS2 into the transport network with more expensive links, having got it wrong in the first place.
    Station stops on the line cause obstruction and a loss of capacity. The answer is for trains to run off a sensibly-routed new line into existing city centre stations to serve all the communities along the route.
    The good news is that there is a much better alternative that will be published shortly, hopefully about the time the government realises the futility of HS2.


  2. Posted by chriseaglen on October 23, 2013 at 12:15 pm

    There will be no point with other plans after early December 2013 because they will not be in the alternative report with no time in the remaining progamme. Adding the east of England deficit due to no HS2 totalled £1.1 Billion per year from the KPMG report. Suggest the east of England is pursued with the political parties to enable a sensible comparision to be made before the end of November 2013.


    • Whilst I don’t think Chris, at this stage of the project, that there is any hope whatsoever of changing the route design that will be enshrined in the hybrid Bill, I still feel that there could be some merit in promoting an alternative plan even while Parliament is deliberating on Route 3. I say this because a viable plan that provides more practicable capacity relief with lower environmental impact would be a valuable counter to the “there is no alternative” argument of the pro-HS2 lobby.


  3. Posted by chriseaglen on October 25, 2013 at 6:16 pm

    Yes there are alternatives. One operator’s representation suggests that should HS2 be built the current Birmingham Euston route WCML will reduce fares and increase not only train length but the number or train/drivers. This seems to undermine the need for the HS2 Birmingham Station. The land take of Route 3 phase 1 and the two phase two legs to the proposed widths are not justified for one track each way. People will challenge the ES and the Hybrid Bill with petitioning. The alternatives are required before the Hybrid Bill petitioning closes and preferably before the Current Alternative Report it deposited.


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