Paxo stuffing, part 2

(… continued from Paxo stuffing, part 1, posted on 11 Jun 2015).

In this second part I will continue my responses to the claims made by Sir David Higgins, Chairman of HS2 Ltd, in his recent letter to the Financial Times, responding to an opinion piece by Jeremy Paxman in that newspaper (see footnote 1).

Sir David says:

“The result [of predicted passenger growth] is a rail network that is so full that incremental improvements, whilst very welcome, will not deliver the step change in capacity that is needed.”

I say:

Again I feel that Sir David should read the Lords Economic Affairs Committee (EAC) report The Economics of High Speed 2. Within a detailed analysis in Chapter 4, Capacity, the EAC takes the essential step of identifying, and considering separately, three constituent parts to the putative capacity problem: overcrowding on long-distance services, overcrowding on commuter services and space for passenger and freight train paths (see footnote 2).

For its analysis of overcrowding on long-distance services, the EAC concentrates on the West Coast Main Line (WCML). The reasons given for this are that the WCML is the one that the Government has identified as the “most under stress” of the three north-south lines, and is also the line that the EAC has “received most evidence on” (paragraph 146 of the EAC report). The report presents data made available to the EAC by the Department for Transport (DfT) that the former says “has not previously been published” (paragraph 153). This data reveals that “long-distance services arriving at and departing from Euston are only 43 per cent full on average over a whole day and between 50 and 60 per cent full at peak times” (paragraph 151). The EAC concludes from this data that “it is clear … that overcrowding is not a problem on today’s West Coast Main Line long-distance services” (paragraph 155).

Whilst bemoaning that the passenger demand statistics for long-distance services are “partial and inconsistent” (paragraph 173), due to at least some extent to the DfT’s claim that it has “a franchise obligation with the train operating companies not to release [more detailed] information as it is commercially sensitive” (paragraph 150), the EAC report also identifies a particular problem with the DfT statistics; this is that they “do not distinguish between local and long-distance traffic” leading the EAC to postulate that “[a]ny future overcrowding problem on long-distance services could be caused by commuter traffic” (paragraph 173).

In the face of this incomplete picture of current usage and future trends, the EAC’s verdict is that, as far as the demand for long-distance services is concerned:

“The Government has not presented a convincing case that there is a long-term overcrowding problem” (paragraph 173).

However, the EAC is more receptive to claims that there is a potential capacity crunch for commuter services on the WCML, describing services into London as “much more of a problem … than [is the case for] long-distance services” (paragraph 175). The EAC also identifies overcrowding as appearing to be “a problem at peak times” for “trains arriving into [other] cities that are planned to have HS2 stations” (paragraph 177). The EAC report points out, however, that the “main beneficiaries of the overcrowding relief provided by HS2 will be London commuters on the West Coast Main Line” (paragraph 181) – I wonder if this is something that Sir Richard Leese has grasped?

Now it is a sad fact of life that, unless you are going to operate your commuter railways in a wildly inefficient manner, the spikey nature of the daily commuter demand/time curve will mean that some degree of overcrowding at peak periods is inevitable. As demand increases though, a stage will be reached when some intervention(s) become necessary. However, the data in tables 12 to 14 in the EAC report appear to indicate that the services are not at this point just yet.

I am, however, quite prepared to accept that, unless there is some appreciable change to the working practices of commuters, overcrowding on commuter trains could reach unacceptable proportions over the coming decade, or so, and something(s) will have to be done to alleviate the problem.

On the third capacity issue – the need for more “space for passenger and freight train paths” – the EAC report concedes that “the West Coast Main Line is nearing full capacity in terms of train paths”, but, at the same time, expresses the view that “[f]uture technological innovations could however release capacity” (paragraph 188).

So on these last two aspects the EAC appears to be giving some support to Sir David Higgins’ scenario of a full network. However, the Committee delivers a very sharp sting in the tail of its comments by concluding at the very end of its analysis of capacity issues in Chapter 4 of its report (paragraph 188):

“We have not seen convincing evidence that the nature of the capacity problem warrants building HS2.”

What is sadly lacking in Sir David’s overly-simple identification of a capacity issue is any attempt to analyse and understand the nature of the problem, if there is one. Only if the problem is correctly and completely described can the most effective and economical intervention(s) be established. After all if you went to a surgeon with a pain in your toe, you would hope that he would diagnose and treat your ingrown toenail, rather than amputate your leg!

In the next part of this blog series I will look at the second element of Sir David’s claim, namely that “incremental improvements, whilst very welcome, will not deliver the step change in capacity that is needed”.

(To be continued …)


  1. The original Financial Times article is behind a paywall, but a free-access copy is available here.
  2. These constituent parts to the capacity problem are identified in paragraph 145 of the EAC’s report.




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