Friday, 21 December 2012

The real West Coast scandal

The West Coast Main Line: it seems disruption is for life, not just for Christmas. Photo: Network Rail
It wasn’t quite a Mayan prophecy, but no doubt a few pundits were left somewhat disappointed when the rail franchising Armageddon of December 9 failed to materialise. Despite the many column inches devoted to the undoubtedly serious flaws in the Inter-City West Coast refranchising process, there was never any genuine risk that services on a network carrying 30 million passengers per annum would simply cease because of a foul-up of the functionaries.

And so it proved. The trains are still running, and Virgin Rail Group has a short-term deal to continue to operate ICWC services for a further 23 months. Passengers could be forgiven for breathing a sigh of relief as they prepare for the big Christmas getaway...

Or not. Because (and do please forgive the London broadsheet hacks for failing to notice this), ICWC trains do (effectively) stop running on December 23 for five days over the Festive period. Sure, there will be a limited rail service linking London with Nuneaton via a circuitous route along the Chiltern main line, but no direct services will run between Euston, Manchester, Liverpool and stations to Glasgow; ironically Chiltern Railways services between London Marylebone and Birmingham Moor Street may also be affected by the need to share tracks with Virgin.

The reason for the hiatus is, of course, engineering works – all four West Coast Main Line tracks through Bletchley will be closed for resignalling. Infrastructure manager Network Rail’s desire to perform work at Christmas is perhaps understandable, as there is less commuter traffic generally and no trains at all on December 25-26. But the Bletchley blockade lasts much longer, seriously hindering leisure travel at one of the busiest times of year, and it isn’t a ‘bog standard’ track possession, it is one of a panoply of work packages deferred from the infamous West Coast Route Modernisation Programme undertaken between 1998 and 2009.

As regular readers of this blog will already be well aware, the project was effectively halted prematurely to ensure the outturn cost was kept below the symbolic £10bn mark. Nobody now disputes contractor Bechtel’s assessment that the true capital cost of WCRM was in the region of £13bn. Note that this does not include the wider economic disbenefits caused by a decade of disruption; this sum has never been meaningfully assessed. My own view is that the value of leisure travel in a service-dominated economy is seriously underestimated by transport economists.

But on the West Coast Main Line, it seems disruption is for life, not just for Christmas. This blog has remarked many times that the institutional unreliability of Europe’s busiest mixed-use railway utterly undermines the claims by opponents of High Speed 2 that more services could be accommodated on it. Now these concerns have been confirmed in a landmark report authored by Virgin Rail Group COO Chris Gibb and issued on behalf of the operator and Network Rail.

Mr Gibb outlines a series of interrelated challenges which impact on Network Rail’s ability to achieve an acceptable level of reliability on the busiest London – Rugby core. Among the specifics highlighted are the growing incidence of trespass and suicide, where the report points to Réseau Ferré de France data showing that fewer than 3% of suicides on the French network occur on Lignes à Grande Vitesse, where trespass risk can be modelled at the design stage; an unintended benefit of having fewer platform faces of course.

The difficulty in gaining access to the WCML for maintenance is also addressed:

'The section between Watford and Euston is some of the most difficult to maintain and ageing infrastructure, passing through an urban area which limits access to and alongside the railway whilst influencing the railway with earthworks issues, trespass and other ‘neighbour’ issues. The current possession arrangements are barely enough to hold the infrastructure in its current condition, which in turn is not good enough to sustain good performance.'

An examination of overhead power supply equipment revealed a yet more damning indictment of the ‘incremental upgrading’ approach:

'It appears that the West Coast Route Modernisation project team were more focussed on within budget/on time delivery of the project, than the medium/long term component performance, and this approach has clearly cost NR and the industry dearly in terms of poor performance.'

You get the idea.

It is abundantly clear that many millions of pounds will be needed just to keep the southern WCML in a fit state to handle its current workload, let alone the several extra 125 mile/h services per hour envisaged by the 51m Group under its alternative to HS2.

There will inevitably be those who, come what may, will insist that interminable spending on route upgrading is always the right policy. But global best practice suggests otherwise: it is generally under-appreciated that two of the world’s most commercially-successful high speed rail projects, Japan’s pioneering Tokaido Shinkansen between Tokyo and Osaka, and the Paris – Lyon line in France, were both authorised after the respective governments concluded that upgrading the conventional routes in each case would be too costly for the accrued benefits[1].

Closer to home, we can hardly dismiss the south end of the WCML as an obstreperous one-off. As this week’s multiple overhead power failures at Hitchin illustrated, the East Coast Main Line from London King’s Cross is similarly fragile despite a series of infrastructure upgrades over the past three decades, whilst readers of industry newsletter Rail Business Intelligence will already be aware of insiders’ mounting concerns about the costs and benefits of the London – Cardiff route modernisation, now priced at around £7bn.

The interrelated concerns about capacity, reliability and service patterns on the UK’s principal rail axes will not go away, even as memories of ‘Franchisegate’ fade. Over more than four decades, the alternatives to a new line to link the capital with our most important provincial centres — 14 of which would be served by trains using HS2 under current plans — have been tried repeatedly. Thanks to the Gibb report, we now have empirical proof of the limitations of ‘patch and mend’.

The real West Coast scandal is about infrastructure, not franchising.
1. For more details on the early years of high speed rail development, see Hughes M., Rail 300: The World High Speed Train Race, David & Charles, Newton Abbot 1988

Sunday, 18 November 2012

OK, Computer? Infrastructure, technology and clairvoyance

Unsurprisingly, the notion that some extraneous technological development will dramatically reduce the need for travel in years to come has barely featured in the debate over UK aviation strategy. Credit: Heathrow Airports Ltd.
Why didn’t the Romans invent the wheelbarrow? Central heating, aqueducts and racing chariots…but not wheelbarrows. They could have, in theory, but they didn’t. Strange.

And so begins an important lesson in what historians term technological determinism. In short, it’s the idea that just because a particular technology has the potential to fulfil a certain role in society, there is no guarantee that it actually will. The unexpected explosion in SMS text messaging offers an example in the counter sense: a technology largely written off by its developers has achieved mass uptake on a global scale.

How does this affect railway investment? The railway itself is a unusual case: without doubt, the industry has shown remarkable staying power – or even ‘bouncebackability’, to use football manager Iain Dowie’s memorable turn of phrase. By rights, the railway should have been killed off by a multitude of subsequent innovations from the telegraph to the jet aircraft to the internet.

It has not been. Which means it is surprising that, in the UK at least, there is a vocal minority of clairvoyants who liken the modern railway network to the canal system, and insist that a further technological Deus ex-Machina will obviate the need for travel at all. Or at least flatten demand to such an extent that people will stop trying to build railways past the end of their garden....

Because the creed espoused by these techno-zealots requires a very selective interpretation of the notion of ‘travel’. If, for example, you live in a bucolic idyll served by a meandering branch line dating back to Victorian times, your desire to use it will apparently remain undiminished amid the rise of the machines. No, the real targets are the fat cats: the preening executive seeking to shuttle from urban centre to urban centre in pampered luxury. Yes, all 31 million of them (!) who did just that between London, Birmingham and northwest England last year: they must be stopped!

And they shall be: apparently by Skype, with extra 3D twiddly bits. Or, er, something.

Convinced? Me neither. Indeed, I am not sure which aspect of some high speed rail opponents’ cultish devotion to technology I find most disturbing: the blind, unwavering faith that point-to-point travel will diminish in the next 30 years (not ‘could’ or ‘might’), or their unstinting, almost mystical, commitment to the idea even as the burden of evidence to the contrary utterly overwhelms it. Not only has the mass uptake of high-bandwidth internet services coincided with a surge in UK passenger rail ridership, but the adoption of web-enabled devices has democratised access to rail travel. Who now would detour to a station booking office to instruct a clerk to find the cheapest ticket? Fewer and fewer of us of course.

Technology is however changing working habits, and nobody would deny the increased incidence of passengers working onboard inter-city trains. With time, today’s patchy wi-fi functionality should be substantially enhanced, but then capturing the economic benefits of such activity remains exceptionally difficult. Certainly the assumptions about onboard productivity contained in the economic model for High Speed 2 have been widely questioned, but it is telling that HS2 Ltd ascribes no economic benefit to productivity gained by passengers transferring from air or road; this mitigation becomes all the more relevant as HS2 evolves slowly into an Anglo-Scottish rail spine.

But the ‘technology versus travel’ debate has far wider implications than one bog-standard rail project. Indeed, logic dictates that international journeys would be disproportionately affected. How to explain, then, the complete absence of the topic from the terms of reference of the Davies review into UK aviation strategy, the consequences of which are likely to reverberate for many decades to come? The explanation is surely that it’s a weak, weak argument.

Every bit as likely is a partial backlash against our screen-dependent culture, as concern grows about the health and societal impact of too much time spent hiding behind LCDs. Growth in business and leisure travel could plausibly be sustained by a premium attached to ‘real-time’ interaction. Last December I boarded a Deutsche Bahn high speed service from Cologne to Brussels, my €33 fare having afforded me a seat in a first class compartment. I was joined by a German diplomat also heading for Brussels; having reached for my smart phone, I asked in faltering German if she knew whether there was a wi-fi network onboard.

‘No’, she replied, ‘and thank God for that. I am chained to my phone all day, this is the only time I get to gaze out of the window.’

Surely she is not alone in rejecting the tyranny of technology. Time for the web-wonks to ditch the dogma – we’ll need our railways for many a year yet.

Sunday, 21 October 2012

HS2 is not a franchise (thankfully)

On October 12 at 1815, crowds gather at London Euston, defying the so-called 'cliff' effect when off-peak fares become valid at 1900. HS2 Ltd predicts significantly lower volume growth on inter-city servives between London and the northwest than do recent franchise bidders.
Several days on from the storm breaking over the flawed award of the Inter-City West Coast operating contract, it is becoming increasingly apparent that the government’s franchising reforms are in tatters and the very franchising edifice itself is teetering on the brink.

As a regular passenger as well as an industry observer, it does not especially surprise me that the West Coast Main Line should be the straw to break the camel’s back. Although not always recognised as such, the route is arguably Britain’s most strategically important and certainly its most high profile, thanks most recently to Sir Richard Branson’s vituperative criticism of the ICWC bid process. Whilst the government’s decision to halt all live franchising processes clearly indicates the flaws in the system are structural, not route-specific, it is inevitable that the West Coast would be cited as a microcosm of the railway’s wider woes.

The response to the fiasco has in some ways been predictable – widespread calls for renationalisation, and speculative assertions about the implications for High Speed 2. Personally I am not quite sure how alleged errors by civil servants and/or ministers helps the case for renationalisation, but that is no doubt a debate that will run at length elsewhere. But on HS2, the accusation is simple: if the Department for Transport can’t tot up the sums on ICWC, surely the same applies to HS2? According to the Daily Telegraph’s London Editor Andrew Gilligan, ‘some of the same statistical models are being used, in different ways’ to appraise the project, whilst former cabinet minister and Amersham MP Cheryl Gillan claims ‘elements like inflation figures and passenger numbers are common to both’ ICWC and HS2.

Ms Gillan is now leading calls for ‘a root-and-branch re-examination’ of HS2. But why? Whilst the franchising system is no doubt in crisis, it pains me to state the obvious: HS2 is not a franchise, it is an infrastructure project, just like Crossrail or the prospective third runway at London Heathrow. In terms of scrutiny, HS2 could not contrast more starkly with ICWC. Consider the reams of documentation available on the website of project promoter HS2 Ltd and DfT's own site, whilst franchise data is squirreled securely away, notionally on ‘commercial confidentiality’ grounds. Since GNER’s controversial ‘back the bid’ campaign in 2005, DfT has banned bidders even from releasing details of proposed service changes for fear of compromising the byzantine competition.

But on HS2, parliamentary committees, academics and a plethora of dubious think tanks have all had their say. Those parties which strongly disputed HS2 Ltd’s consultation process and economic appraisal have challenged it under judicial review, which inevitably brings further scrutiny. Yet the comparison with ICWC here is perhaps telling: it took Virgin Rail Group’s lawyers barely a week to seize upon DfT’s flawed model for calculating franchise bid guarantees; DfT’s own lawyers then instructed it not to contest the judicial review. However, more than three years since the formal launch of HS2, and no equivalent ‘smoking gun’ appears to exist, and HS2 Ltd insiders confirm that legal advice has been taken at every decision point, for example when whittling down potential London termini from 50 to a single option. Can Mr Gilligan’s ‘it’s the same, but different!’ argument really carry the day?

As for Ms Gillan’s arguments, inflation is straightforward on HS2: inflation is by definition excluded, with all costs cited at ‘Year X’ prices. That is appropriate to make a go/no go decision or choose between options on the basis of a benefit:cost ratio where inflation affects B and C equally and so has a neutral effect. This does not apply to a commercial contract like a franchise where there is revenue and expenditure coming in and going out, as would be the case for any operating concession let for HS2 in the early 2020s.

But the most compelling ‘like for like’ comparison is to read across the volume growth assumptions for both the next West Coast franchise and HS2, noting of course the substantially similar markets that both would serve either side of 2026. So whilst First Group’s now-aborted franchise bid assumed volume growth (ie. passenger numbers irrespective of price point) of 6% per annum, HS2 Ltd's figure would be less than 2.5%, and this includes a premium for new journeys created by the faster journeys and the inevitably-significant reliability gains from brand new infrastructure. (For the record, ICWC volume growth over the past 10 years has been 6.3% per annum). Furthermore, all growth on HS2 is forecast to cease at the ‘cap year’ of 2037, a mere four years after the completion of the Y route to Leeds and Manchester; this is analogous to all traffic growth on the M6 motorway ceasing in 1975!

Indeed, it is ironic that if and when a long-term West Coast franchise is eventually re-let for the years to 2026, its volume growth forecasts may well be more modest, and much closer to the ultra-cautious HS2 assumptions.

Sunday, 12 August 2012

Tilting at windmills

Edinburgh can be reached from London in a fastest time of 4 h 22 min today; HS2 reduces this to 3 h 33 min despite the new-build infrastructure not extending north of York. Substantial capacity would also be released on the congested southern part of the route. Photo: C McKenna
The perennial problem with railway investment — it’s always ‘jam tomorrow’. And the bigger the investment, the longer the wait. Politicians don’t like that, and in truth railway industry suppliers don’t much like it either. What any railway user, manager or investor wants is the maximum benefit for the shortest wait – and, by extension, the least capital outlay.

It’s no surprise then that the industry likes to talk up innovation and technological breakthroughs. Capacity crunch? Pah, a five-letter acronym will fix it. Trains too slow? Make ‘em tilt. Job done. That essentially is the message from top-tier supplier Alstom, which has received plenty of coverage after one of its executives promised that 50 min could be cut from Edinburgh – London journeys if its Pendolino tilting trains were introduced alongside the emerging ERTMS communications-based train control system. Needless to say, such a claim was manna from heaven to organisations such as the High Speed Action Alliance, who predictably leapt on it to insist that High Speed 2 was now even more redundant than it supposedly was before.

Time for a reality check, everyone. I don’t blame Alstom for pushing its case: it is intensely and rightly proud of the Pendolino’s track record in the UK with Virgin Trains (go to any rail trade show anywhere on the planet and you’ll find Alstom promoting its whole-life maintenance skills with lots of photos of its depot at Manchester Longsight). Alstom also supplies onboard and wayside ERTMS kit. And Alstom does not especially want to wait until (say) 2026 to get another bulk order in the UK market. So its position is perfectly understandable, and we should respect its commercial objectives.

But what about everyone else? The campaigners, the columnists, even some politicians? Well one thing is for sure: all have a very short memory. In 1997, Railtrack (and if you can remember them, you’re unlikely to do so fondly) and Virgin Rail Group unveiled their plan to modernise the London – Glasgow West Coast Main Line. Guess what was in it? ERTMS (check), Pendolino tilting trains (check) and whopping time savings between London and Scotland without the pain of building anything much (check). The budget was a mere £1.4bn...

Anyone who’s read this blog before knows what happened next. To Alstom’s credit, its Pendolinos have worked, and indeed they can be regarded as perhaps the world’s most reliable tilting trains. But they do not reach the speeds Railtrack predicted because the infrastructure won’t permit it, and ERTMS…well, in the late 1990s it didn’t really exist outside the laboratory, let alone make it to installation. The out-turn cost? £8.9bn. Oops.

So what’s changed since the late-90s? Not enough to warrant the hype given to Alstom’s statement. Here, briefly, are the catches:

  • Capacity – raising speeds to 140 mile/h might be possible in theory, in some places. But on those sections, you are effectively reducing overall line capacity by introducing a further speed disparity onto what is a mixed-use railway. Local, regional and freight trains will have less railway to use, in effect. In addition, it is very doubtful that tilting rolling stock would offer any significant benefit on the London – Edinburgh route, which is generally less sinuous than the WCML.
  • Infrastructure – the East Coast Main Line is littered with level crossings, especially south of York. Level crossings and vandalism are recognised as the two greatest safety risks on the railway today, and it is extremely unlikely that any safety authority is going to sign off higher speeds on the ECML while crossings are so commonplace.
  • ERTMS – now I could (and at some point maybe I will) blog in great and granular detail about the saga that is ERTMS, by which I am here referring to the ETCS Level 2 train control element specifically. In short, it can provide proven vital signalling and train control functions today, and it does so in some European countries. But the irony is that these are almost exclusively new-build railways, including several dedicated high speed lines a la HS2 (current thinking is that HS2 would also use ETCS Level 2, but for comparison the Milan – Rome – Naples high speed corridor is already fitted and equipped to handle up to 20 trains/h/direction). Where ETCS Level 2 is absolutely unproven (as yet) is in retrofitting onto existing legacy networks. For HSAA and its associates to claim this is an alternative to the 17 000 km of dedicated high speed rail already operating globally is, at best, breathtakingly naïve. Indeed, even a basic review of the state of play in Europe would have revealed that German national operator DB is extremely reluctant to install ETCS Level 2 on its conventional routes because of the huge capital cost and scant evidence of capacity benefits. On technical matters however, we have grown rather accustomed to so-called experts opposed to HS2 telling us that the sky is green and the grass blue.

To be absolutely clear, I am not disagreeing with the view that ERTMS will eventually be fitted to the ECML as it will become the only kit available from signalling suppliers (and the European Commission requires fitment on many trunk railways in any case – UKIP will love that bit). Equally a fleet of Pendolinos is clearly a viable option to replace the IC225 trains in due course.

But without a new line, recent history clearly demonstrates nothing other than a wholesale rebuild of the entire route plus a significant reduction in intermediate stops will deliver a 50 min time saving, and we’d have an even more London-centric railway at the end of it. Time for a dose of realism please.

Monday, 30 July 2012

A Letter from America

Northeast vision: an Acela Express train pauses at the restored Wilmington station in Delaware.
With due apologies for the delay, it’s high time I rounded up some of the most immediate conclusions from the International Union of Railways’ (UIC) global high speed rail congress in Philadelphia on July 10-13. The City of Brotherly Love had a tough act to follow, the previous event having been held in Beijing in December 2010. But rather than an overt celebration of past achievements, this UIC Highspeed – the first I’ve attended as it happens – was more of an attempt to catalyse developments in the US.

News that the Californian senate had passed – by the narrowest of margins – a vote to launch the first phase of the state’s controversial high speed rail programme the preceding Friday was a welcome fillip for delegates. But the fact the venue was a city on the Northeast Corridor, not LA or San Francisco, was telling. And this is especially relevant to British onlookers, as our own High Speed 2 project has an American cousin.

‘HS2 is our reference point’, Stephen Gardner, Northeast Corridor Director at US federal passenger operator Amtrak, told me on July 12, adding that those developing plans for America’s busiest inter-city rail corridor had much to learn from our experience of upgrading legacy main lines and developing an economic and demand model for new projects. Having now had chance to ride the Boston – New York – Washington NEC on several occasions, the parallels with the West Coast Main Line are indeed compelling.

Ageing infrastructure is compromising reliability, yet previous long-term enhancement programmes have not delivered the benefits promised. A varied mix of services, from commuter rail through to the fast Acela business expresses, share the route, meaning that only sub-optimal use can be made of the capacity available. Needless to say, getting a seat on long-distance trains is tough – and I speak from experience.

The importance of NEC is graphically underlined when you consider that of the 30 million passengers who use Amtrak across the US each year, 13 million do so in the northeast. Compare this to California, where, to be frank, inter-city passenger rail is about as familiar as cricket. The greatest challenge facing California’s high speed promoters is to create a market where, effectively, none exists at the moment. And judging by my conversations at UIC Highspeed, quite how they might accomplish this is unclear. Constructing an isolated section of high speed infrastructure in the scarcely-populated Central Valley is a high-risk strategy, but it might just work if the requisite sections of conventional line were electrified and upgraded to offer a ‘one seat ride’ between LA and San Francisco from Day One.

But that does not appear to be the plan – even if the starter section opens in 2023, it seems it would be used not by high speed trainsets sprinting along at 200 mile/h, but by occasional diesel-hauled Amtrak trains struggling to achieve half that speed. California High Speed Rail Authority has at least recognised the importance of the legacy network by pledging $1bn to electrify and modernise the Caltrain and LA Metrolink commuter networks at the northern and southern ends of its route. But connecting these to the starter section needs to expedited as rapidly as possible to avoid a repeat of the problems which have affected the Netherlands, where domestic concessionaire NSHispeed has conspicuously failed to deliver a high speed service despite having the infrastructure to do so[1].

Of course, such project detail might seem unnecessarily punctilious were it not for the fact that when American high speed rail aspirations are mentioned, it is to California, not the northeast, that all eyes turn. And just as the perceived commercial failings of High Speed 1 in the UK have undoubtedly hindered the vastly stronger case for HS2, so California’s controversy could stymie progress between Boston and DC.

That would be a great pity in my view: like HS2, the Northeast Corridor is a prime case where dedicated high speed tracks maximise the potential for inter-city rail travel by tapping into a substantial market which exists today. Of course, constructing such a railway will be a multi-generational project – Amtrak’s six-stage Stair Steps vision would not be completed until 2040 at the earliest, with a price tag of $150bn. That’s a pretty eye-watering sum, although at least a third is allocated to upgrading the existing formation. More importantly there is a real recognition that this must be directly compared to the cost of expanding northeast airport capacity or the interstate highway network.

Whilst the controversy surrounding California’s programme will not subside anytime soon, most facile comparisons from this side of the Pond are an over-simplification. When it comes to US high speed rail, it’s not just California dreaming.

1. The Dutch HSL-Zuid high speed railway is used by two operators, Thalys International and NSHispeed. Only Thalys has yet been able to provide high speed services over the route. A poor choice of rolling stock manufacturer has led domestic operator NSHispeed repeatedly to delay launching its own competing services, instead running ageing conventional speed services whilst its V250 fleet goes through a lengthy approval process. Given NSHispeed charges premium fares for a service which hitherto offers no time advantage over the conventional NS network, it is little surprise that the domestic concessionaire has hit financial trouble. Thalys on the other hand cites the opening of HSL-Zuid for a surge in revenue and ridership.

Sunday, 29 July 2012

HS2 is a Northern railway too

This article originally appeared on The Guardian's Northerner blog on June 26 2012, since when the Northern Hub programme of regional rail enhancements has been fully funded under the 2014-19 railway control period.

HS2 is essential to ensure capacity on the existing railway can be used to improve local rail services. Photo: First TransPennine Express
The Cheshire town of Northwich might seem an odd place to start a discussion about the case for High Speed 2, the government’s proposed fast rail link between London and (eventually) Manchester and Leeds. Between 7am and 8.30am each weekday, three trains leave Northwich to carry commuters the 30 miles or so to Manchester. Trouble is…only one actually gets there, the others unhelpfully decanting their passengers at Stockport. 

As the old adage goes, ‘s…’ sells, but the ‘s’ in question is rarely ‘suburban rail capacity’. Such an apparently mundane topic hardly sells newspapers nor gets the blogosphere a-quiver, but it is front and centre of the issues surrounding HS2’s importance to the North. The Northwich case is just one of many examples of too many trains being squeezed onto too little railway; and the railways around Leeds and Manchester remain a somewhat haphazard web of routes that have developed only piecemeal since the mid-19th century.

Ed Jacobs’ astute investigation on June 22 into the current state of play regarding HS2 suggests that the project does not ‘address the day to day transport problems’ facing travellers across the north. He then poses four questions which the project’s promoters could seek to answer, thereby heightening its relevance. I’ll try to address them, but with the caveat that capacity and overcrowding issues are quite complex and nuanced.

1. What would High Speed Rail to northern England do to ease the UK's unenviable position of having the most expensive rail fares in Europe?

The main reason why Britain has such high rail fares is simple: government policy is that rail users should bear more of the cost of rail travel and taxpayers less; in most European countries, the reverse is true. But HS2’s great advantage is the capacity it brings – and not just for business travellers to London. More capacity means more trains and more seats. But those seats – whether on HS2 or on a more flexible legacy rail network – need to be filled, and pricing should reflect that. As capacity on the West Coast Main Line has grown in the past few years, average price paid per passenger has actually declined, helped by consumers’ increased uptake of buy-ahead tickets. There is no reason why adding substantial extra capacity would not drive prices downwards – after all, this is the lesson from the aviation industry over the past 15 years. But equally we should beware of straw men – HS2 is not primarily designed to affect fares policy, it is about getting more passengers and freight onto the existing rail network.

2. How would the project address the problem of trains persistently running late?

Capacity again: removing some express services from the congested approaches to major rail hubs like Manchester Piccadilly and Leeds minimises the disparity between fast and slow services. There is mounting evidence that the busiest sections of our Victorian railway are struggling to cope: the West Coast Main Line, linking the northwest with London Euston, was the dubious beneficiary of a protracted and profoundly flawed £9.6bn modernisation, completed after 11 long years in 2009 (having run an astonishing 400% over budget). If the project itself demonstrated the spiralling cost of a ‘patch and mend’ policy, at least the route should be fit for modern needs now, right? Wrong. The West Coast is Britain’s least reliable main line by a significant margin – in one week in May, more than a third of Virgin Trains failed to reach their destinations within 10 min of schedule. Contrast that with High Speed 1 from London to the Channel Tunnel, where delays are typically measured in seconds, and the net spend by the taxpayer to build it was less than half that to refurbish the West Coast route.

3. Will HS2 do anything to relieve frequently overcrowded trains?

Yes, indirectly. Between now and HS2’s arrival in Leeds and Manchester (which certainly could and should be earlier than the planned 2033) a significant package of enhancements to the regional rail network is planned under the £560m Northern Hub. These enhancements in the existing network should benefit local and regional users – but the risk is that, without a dedicated line, lucrative long-distance services would take up this extra headroom instead. This has already happened in Leeds, where the city’s main station was substantially rebuilt only a decade ago. As one senior transport official in West Yorkshire told me in April, ‘Pontefract and Knottingley won’t get a proper service into Leeds until we sort out the East Coast bottlenecks using HS2’.

4. Would HS2 do anything about the train fare system which so many people cite as being too confusing?

It is worth noting that, while the ticketing system is indeed devilishly complex in places, passenger journeys across the country have grown by 23% in the past five years, so it can’t be putting that many people off. But equally a better balance needs to be found for would-be HS2 users: many passengers now know to book ahead to get a better deal, but this then ties them to a specific train at a given time. This may not be realistic for a journey of, say, 45 min between Manchester and Birmingham.

Business leaders and local politicians are lobbying hard to secure the final tranche of funding for the Northern Hub programme, with a decision due next month. They are right to do so: it is the short term priority. But it is telling to note that, among the ten ‘economic outputs’ the package is designed to deliver, one is ‘high speed rail to/from the south’. And that does not just mean London: it is widely under-appreciated that HS2 would halve the rail travel time between Leeds and Birmingham, for example. No alternative based on existing routes could match that – and tellingly, nobody has yet suggested one, to my knowledge.

But back to Northwich: it lost those morning commuter trains to Manchester in 2009 when extra fast trains to London were introduced; the town was on the losing side of a £9.6bn gamble (and Northwich commuters weren’t the only losers). Cancellation of HS2 raises the prospect of yet more patch and mend, on all three north-south rail axes that link our northern cities with the capital. Recent history shows that combined this could easily eat up a huge chunk of that oft-quoted £32bn.

We are lucky in the UK that a huge market of more than 30 million passengers per annum already exists, ready to transfer to HS2 when it opens. It is not a ‘white elephant’, nor is it about getting from London to Birmingham ‘a bit faster’, or even a Victorian revival. It is an essential part of delivering international-class infrastructure in the North. Unpopular as it may be in the short term, the government is right to press ahead.

Wednesday, 30 May 2012

HS2 and Public Accounts Committee: big hoops

South Northants District Council is examining the possibility of adding a station to the West Coast Main Line, making use of capacity released by HS2.
At the behest of one of my most febrile Twitter followers, I’ve been watching YouTube. Specifically, a series of short outtakes from a recent parliamentary Public Accounts Committee hearing into High Speed 2. Then, for levity, I watched a video to accompany the release of ‘Big Hoops’, the new single by Canadian-Portuguese singer Nelly Furtado.

Needless to say the videos do not have all that much in common, although it was perhaps telling that neither PAC nor Ms Furtado managed to utter the word ‘railway’, or even ‘transport’. And that is a serious point: whilst last year’s long, forensic investigation by the Transport Select Committee examined HS2 in the round, putting it correctly into context as an ambitious, large-scale, two-decade programme, these clips do precisely the opposite. But maybe ‘context’ is overrated in the YouTube era…

Nevertheless, despite an unnecessarily hectoring tone which appears not to allow for any reply whatever from the interviewee, during the clips the PAC interviewer makes two points. One, that the Cabinet Office has assessed the current HS2 proposal, and given it an ‘amber/red’ rating, indicating doubts about aspects of the proposal in its present form. Second, that ridership data suggests that greater focus should be placed on ‘regional’ transport, although importantly the edit allows for no definition of the term ‘regional’.

The civil servants ascribing the ‘amber/red’ outlook to HS2 do not explain their position, and my understanding is that the related report has not been published. It is therefore unwise to speculate as to what may have triggered such a warning. But let me be clear: such caution is no surprise. I would have been shocked if any assessment of HS2 at this early stage in its gestation had merely waved it through.

The debate which surrounds the project is healthy, searching questions ought to be asked of the project promoters, and the assumptions contained in the many hundreds of official documents HS2 generates should be scrutinised. I hope HS2 Ltd manages to find its own voice away from its political masters in Marsham Street, however, in order that some of the more esoteric aspects of this debate might be addressed head on (including the canard that the UK is ‘too small’ for high speed rail, or the evidence-free, determinist fantasy that ‘the internet’ will somehow supersede travel).

On the ‘regional’ issue, it is a shame PAC Chairman Margaret Hodge offered no elucidation on her choice of term. Perhaps by ‘regional’, she meant the kind of project that would speed journeys between non-London cities, say Birmingham and Leeds for example? Or a project that might permit a radically better service to intermediate towns on our busiest main lines (like, say, Stone in Staffordshire)? Or maybe she meant focusing on the potential for opening railway stations in communities with poor local transport links. Maybe she meant somewhere like South Northants?

Well, she declined to specify so I can only interpret. There can be no doubt that, to paraphrase Ms Furtado, HS2 has some big hoops still to jump through. But with a project of this scale, it is only right that it is seen in context – a transport context, which sees HS2 for what it is: an inter-city axis for sure, but simultaneously a regional railway, and a commuter one, and a freight one too. That is what the phrase ‘released capacity’ means, and those benefits are beyond contention.

We surely need a more informed assessment of the infrastructure we have today, its potential and its limitations, and the transport network we want to see tomorrow.

It will take more than a few 90 sec video clips to obscure that vision.

Wednesday, 25 April 2012

HS2: the world’s busiest high speed railway?

The UK's West Coast Main Line is carrying more passengers than either the Beijing - Tianjin or the Wuhan - Guangzhou high speed corridors in China.
A remarkably diverse set of figures detailing the ridership of high speed rail services across the globe has landed on my desk this week. And compelling reading they make too – not least because they reinforce, to an unexpectedly large degree, the sheer scale of demand for inter-city rail travel here in Britain.

The first surprise is the scale of uptake of services on the much-derided High Speed 1 from London to the Channel Tunnel. Whilst criticised as ‘poor value for money’ under the exceptionally narrow terms of reference set out by the UK’s National Audit Office in a recent report, train operator Southeastern this week confirmed that its Kent domestic services had added 1 million passenger-journeys in the past year, taking ridership to 8 million a year.

Adding the circa 9 million Eurostar passengers takes the tally to a respectable 17 million, set against widely-reported claims that the route was expected to carry 21 million by 2012. However, since that forecast was undertaken by a commercial entity bidding for the right to operate Eurostar services alongside the French and Belgian state railways, it is unclear if allowance was made for other operators using the then Channel Tunnel Rail Link. Progress in launching much-anticipated through trains to the Netherlands and Germany has been glacially slow (for reasons entirely unrelated to HS1 itself), but Eurostar is already seeing strong growth in Amsterdam journeys via Brussels, suggesting a viable market exists. We should expect HS1 to break the 20 million mark by the end of the decade. Then perhaps a more meaningful analysis of the costs and benefits of this 40+ year asset can start to be made.

Second, a landmark study prepared by academics at Cambridge University for the World Bank [1] analyses the first three years of China’s chequered high speed programme. Whilst much has been written (some of it sadly sensationalist) about the very serious problems that have affected both the operational railway and its associated Ministry, this report digs as far as possible into the (admittedly partial) commercial data to attempt to quantify ridership levels.

Whilst the mammoth 1 300 km Passenger-Dedicated Line from Beijing to Shanghai has not been open long enough to warrant inclusion, the 970 km route from Wuhan to Guangzhou saw 22 million passengers in 2011. At the other end of the spectrum, 25 million took the short 117 km dash from Beijing to Tianjin. The report’s authors note significant progress in eliminating domestic flights on services up to 500 km, but a sharply reduced effect beyond that. On the debit side, there has been some contraction in conventional passenger services on parallel routes, although an increase in environmentally-beneficial rail freight services has also been recorded.

And thirdly to Spain, Europe’s most extensive high speed rail network by route length. The Spanish trade magazine Via Libre has produced a celebratory edition marking 20 years since the launch of Madrid – Seville AVE services, and with it, the journal has included graphic showing ridership by route. Surprisingly, Spain’s busiest corridor, the former ‘air bridge’ from Madrid to Barcelona that can be completed in just 2 h 30 min by rail, carries a mere 2.2 million per annum; many of the other high speed and quasi-high speed routes carry far fewer. But such is the mass popular support for high speed rail in Spain, construction continues apace, even to sparsely-populated regions such as Galicia and, in due course, Extremadura.

Clearly Spain has benefited from substantial EU regional development funding and low labour and land acquisition costs in developing the AVE network, yet such comparatively modest ridership implies strongly that the wider social and economic benefits are sufficient to warrant its expansion. (These external benefits are all too often simplistically dismissed, especially by those demagogues who cling to the outdated cant that rail spending is ‘subsidy’ while road or aviation spend is ‘investment’.)

Back to Blighty then for the logical conclusion. Virgin Trains carried 30 million passengers on its fast West Coast Main Line services in 2011, of which the vast, vast majority would transfer to HS2 if it opened tomorrow, let alone in 2026. As I have pointed out already on several occasions, one of the most deleterious aspects of the West Coast Route Modernisation saga was the rampant prioritisation of London at the expense of intermediate markets. Unpleasant though this is, it at least means we can be sure a proven market exists for HS2 now – no crystal ball required, as Andrew Adonis has so often stated.

And in the light of these latest figures, the message is clear: HS2 promises to be among the world’s busiest inter-city rail routes, carrying 15 times as many passengers as Spain’s busiest route, and potentially any other in Europe. On top of that is the suppressed demand from intermediate markets on existing lines. HS2’s opponents wish to strangle these markets further, but as UK rail demand returns to pre-automobile levels, the case to develop better inter-regional connections is compelling on environmental, social and economic grounds.

White elephant? HS2 is anything but.

1. High Speed Rail - The First Three Years: Taking the Pulse of China's Emerging Program was prepared for the World Bank by transport economists Richard Bullock and Andrew Salzburg, and Ying Jin, Deputy Director of the Martin Centre for Architectural & Urban Studies at Cambridge University.

Thursday, 22 March 2012

51M: a cut and shut case?

The 51M Group insists that there are 'no losers' from its HS2 alternative, but its Illustrative WCML Service Pattern suggests otherwise.
When something seems too good to be true, it usually is.

I was reminded of this old adage this week when I stumbled upon the glossy ads the 51M Group has been running in Total Politics magazine criticising the UK government’s decision to press on with HS2. Clearly, I thought to myself, this is nuts: if we can have ALL this extra rail capacity for a mere £2.1bn, versus the purported £17bn for HS2 (Phase I), why wouldn’t we? And if we can extract benefits worth £5.17 for every £1 we spend, surely we should? As the advert says…there are no losers, honest! Every egg a bird.

The slickest of back street car salesmen could hardly have put it better. Yet as readers of this blog will already have noticed, there are plenty of losers from 51M’s attempt to offer a cut-and-shut banger as a stretch limo. Fortunately you don’t have to delve too far to see the rust peek through this ‘Optimised Alternative’. Network Rail was of course absolutely right to point out in its response to the proposal the knock-on effects for regional and commuter services, with some stations in Staffordshire left without rail services and a reduction in capacity on the Northampton – London Euston route. Yet in other respects NR was quite generous in its appraisal – and the TP ads show why.

My previous posts have pointed out the detail of the West Coast Main Line element as submitted to the HS2 consultation last year. Grainy though the image on p30 of 51M’s submission is, this now infamous schematic is the only primary evidence showing exactly what kind of rail service the group actually proposes.

It had struck me immediately that, whilst a two-hourly service to Windermere and Blackpool is included, existing direct trains from London to Wolverhampton and beyond Chester to North Wales and Holyhead are not. NR recognised the Wolverhampton issue and charitably assumed that in practice Wolverhampton would still be served; Holyhead was not mentioned, so we can assume this, like trains to Stone, falls under the category of ‘not 51M’s problem, guv’. I had not given much thought to either element until the TP adverts popped up showing Wolverhampton as a ‘clear beneficiary’ and Holyhead as a ‘potential beneficiary’ of the 51M scheme. Surely some mistake?

Interestingly, Atkins' forensic assessment of alternatives to HS2 may answer the conundrum. The 51M ‘optimised alternative’ builds on a previous alternative scenario known as Rail Package 2, which was among several comparisons of numerous road and rail interventions made since 2009. According to Atkins, RP2 and 51M are in many ways very similar, especially in terms of peak service patterns. But on p22 of its report, the consultants note that 51M requires ‘15% less rolling stock’ than RP2. Tellingly, Atkins warns that this ‘may not be entirely appropriate’ given the lack of differentiation between the two scenarios. So the consultants then refined the assumptions about fleet size, once to bring 51M into line with RP2 and then again to add 10 trainsets for contingency. By the end of this process, 51M’s benefit:cost ratio has collapsed from 5.17:1 to just 1.61:1.

So if varying the amount of rolling stock in a large fleet by even as few as 10 trains drives a coach and horses through these oft-quoted BCRs, could this explain 51M’s reluctance to provide trains along the coast to Holyhead, or to eke out more London –Birmingham cycles in a day with a single trainset by ditching Sandwell and Wolverhampton? We should be told.

Nevertheless if the 51M package really could be implemented for a mere £2bn, then perhaps we should all just grin and bear the station closures in Staffordshire, the limited scope for growth and the potentially dire impact on intermodal freight? Sadly, all that glitters is not gold. The elephant in the room, not acknowledged by Atkins and only delicately raised by NR, is that the West Coast Main Line barely copes with current traffic levels, let alone up to a third more 125 mile/h inter-city services. Virgin Trains has been marooned at the bottom of the monthly national punctuality tables for 12 of the past 13 periods. As one senior Virgin Rail Group executive told me in January:

‘What people don’t realise is that, even after you’ve spent £9bn on it, you still have a fundamentally 1960s railway.’

The reality is, questionably simplistic glossy adverts aside, 51M’s ‘alternative’ risks turning our busiest main line railway into an unusable relic fit for none of the many tasks it is expected to fulfil. It is no surprise that no developed country with a sizeable legacy railway has attempted to shove a quart into a pint pot as we already have with WCML. It is quite astounding that a cabal of local councils and their think-tank acolytes should expect us to repeat the misadventure.

Monday, 5 March 2012

France and Italy ride out the storm

LGV Rhin-Rhone opened in December, France has four other high speed lines now under contract or construction. Credit: Alstom
Outside what the French like to term ‘the Anglo-Saxon world’, high speed rail came of age a long time ago. Now an internationally-proven, increasingly-modular technology, it comes as little surprise to see investment continue even as the austerity agenda bites.

To reinforce this point, two significant growth spurts are expected later this month. On March 23, SNCF plans to introduce a TGV service between Frankfurt and Marseille, a distance of around 1000 km. The route has been launched on the back of the opening in December 2011 of France’s latest high speed line: LGV Rhin-Rhone runs for 140 km across eastern France linking Dijon with Belfort, with extensions planned to reach Lyon and Mulhouse. This axis is profoundly significant because of its pan-European implications: a raft of competing long-distance trains is proposed from Germany to destinations in southern France and into Spain, and vice-versa.

Those ‘Anglo-Saxons’ who maintain the pretence that high speed rail is some kind of economic basket case have taken scant interest in the Rhin-Rhone project for obvious reasons. For a start, the line serves no dominant capital city, meaning by definition that the proven economic benefits of improved regional transport can only accrue to local centres such as Dijon and Besancon. By extension, the notion that high speed rail needs a single dominant economic centre to deliver a viable business case is severely dented. Second, international passenger rail services such as Frankfurt – Marseille cannot be subsidised under the legal terms of the European Commission’s rail market directives. Thirdly, the comparatively short section of new-build infrastructure – designed for 360 km/h with an operating maximum of 320 km/h – illustrates immediately how, in connecting two disparate pre-existing networks; high speed rail is anything but ‘standalone’.

NTV: the red-blooded challenger. Credit: Alstom
In Italy, meanwhile, private ‘open access’ high speed passenger trains are expected to be launched by Nuovo Trasporti Viaggiatori this month. Running from Milan to Naples via Rome on infrastructure manager RFI’s proven Alta Velocita-Alta Capacita network, NTV’s trains will compete head to head with state railway Trenitalia. By definition, NTV will receive no public subsidy, hence the operator – which is headed by Ferrari F1 Chairman Luca di Montezemolo – has spent many months tailoring its offering to market needs. Critical to its success of course will be its novel rolling stock: as has been widely reported, NTV is the launch customer for Alstom’s AGV trainsets; the AGV is also the ‘reference train’ for the HS2 modelling in the UK.

Offering a service that the company promises to be ‘fast, agile and fun’, NTV’s debut may however have to compete for column inches with the salutary stories emerging from the Susa valley on Italy’s northwestern border. A series of occasionally violent skirmishes has broken out amid the so-called ‘No TAV’ protests against planned construction of a new railway between Turin and Lyon in France. Some media reports have asserted that the Susa protestors reflect a rejection of high speed rail by Italians, but – as NTV’s emergence illustrates -- this is palpable nonsense.

Now forming (literally) the spine of the country, the north-south AV-AC route has been more than four decades in the making, as construction of a dedicated fast line between Florence and Rome began in the mid-1960s. Progress was at times glacially slow, but nevertheless the high speed rail programme has survived Italy’s notorious political instability, such that even in the current economic gloom, contracts continue to be let to reshape the ‘spine’ as a ‘T’ by extending the network from Milan towards Genoa and Venice.

The Lyon – Torino Ferroviaire project however is hardly a high speed rail link in the accepted sense of the term, as the railway would primarily be used for transit freight between the two countries. At the heart of the scheme is a vast 57 km Base Tunnel under the Alps: longer than the Channel Tunnel, it is only directly comparable to the equally massive trans-Gotthard programme in Switzerland. Interestingly, the Swiss equivalent has garnered little if any visible objection, perhaps because it is backed by a national referendum which allocates funding to remove trucks from the country’s motorways.

But the Swiss story brings its own lessons for outside observers, and that is another post for another day…

Sunday, 5 February 2012

High speed rail: the quest for context

Deutsche Bahn's long-planned services from Germany and the Netherlands to London will pass through Lille. Photo: DB AG
It is always beneficial every once in a while to step away from the heat and (occasional) light of a local debate and look at the bigger picture. On a personal level, one of the most frustrating aspects of the debate over High Speed 2 in the UK has been the widespread use of international comparisons as a blunt instrument with which to bash one’s opponents.

Most of these benchmarking exercises have simplified global high speed rail experience either to some kind of panacea for economic miracles, or as a massive con trick propagated by the EU, the rail supply industry, the nuclear sector, or Uncle Tom Cobbley.

As an HS2 supporter and an international rail journalist, I am obviously keen to point out where high speed rail has done well and why (and it is worth adding the rider that, as Andrew Adonis has pointed out, no city which has received high speed rail has said it would rather not have it). In May last year, I went to Lille to interview the local business community, and specifically Thierry Mabille de Poncheville, Managing Director of APIM, a promotion agency which sells the city to inward investors. It was heartening to hear that, in preparing its report on HS2, the Commons Transport Select Committee also visited the city.

Mabille and his colleagues were adamant that, of course, the city would be worse off without the LGV Nord high speed line. It was suggested that perhaps 50 000 jobs created since 1993 could be attributed to high speed rail. There are counter-arguments of course – the Nord Pas de Calais region remains an unemployment blackspot and some observers claim that the region is worse off today than prior to the coming of the TGV, relative to the rest of France. (I’d suggest that’s a slightly dodgy argument as France has few other heavily industrialised areas, and perhaps a better comparator might be Belgium, but that’s an aside…)

But these are robust, balanced discussions which will continue for some time yet – indeed, the question of Lille’s experience featured in a wide-ranging webchat on The Guardian’s website this week.

How sad then that the mass media unquestioningly allows high-profile columnists to parrot simplistic scaremongering about ‘bust’ high speed rail without bothering to review the context. The Zelo Street blog did a better job than I could of picking apart Andrew Gilligan’s wayward tirade against high speed rail in the Netherlands, for example. Mr Gilligan's errors were compounded by recent news that Thalys continues to grow revenue and ridership on its Paris - Amsterdam route, the only high speed services which use the Dutch line at present.

But sometimes the most illuminating context can be provided from far afield. I was most impressed by a comparative piece put together by Dan Schned and Petra Todorovich of the America 2050 lobby group reflecting on how the outline approval of HS2 might affect plans to implement true high speed rail in the northeastern USA. I was lucky enough to meet Ms Todorovich at a conference in New York last autumn, and I was immediately impressed by her grasp of the intricacies of the HS2 debate, and her knowledge of the problems encountered during the West Coast Route Modernisation of 1998-2009.

There are compelling similarities between HS2 and the Northeast Corridor high speed programme, yet from the bluster exhaled on this side of the Pond, you’d think the curious Californian project was the only show in town, as the rail pessimists fall over each other to pronounce its supposed imminent demise.

The quest for context continues.

Tuesday, 24 January 2012

The 51M debate: join the dots…

The 51M timetable proposal as developed by Passenger Transport Networks.
Well, it’s no surprise at all that the fur has started to fly in the wake of my blogpost about the risk of 51M’s HS2 counter-proposal closing stations in the Midlands.

Responding via Twitter, Jerry Marshall, arguably the most high profile HS2 opponent and close affiliate of the 51M Group, has accused Network Rail of ‘deception’ and insisted that the 51M proposal would not lead to any such closures, as four-tracking the Rugby – Crewe section of the West Coast Main Line and construction of a flyover at Norton Bridge would provide appropriate capacity. But this argument does not stand up to scrutiny.

In drawing up its ‘optimised alternative’ to HS2, 51M contracted the York-based consultancy Passenger Transport Networks to draft a WCML timetable using the Viriato software developed by the Swiss firm SMA + Partner in conjunction with the Technical University of Zürich. Now I happen to have met both Jonathan Tyler of PTN and the staff at SMA, and I can confirm that Swiss timetabling specialists make Swiss watchmakers look positively casual.

Mr Marshall’s implication that the Atherstone and Rugeley services might be added in afterwards is simply implausible – that’s why Stockport, Long Buckby, Runcorn etc all have dots on the chart, and the threatened stations don’t.

In the case of Stone, I tend to agree with Mr Marshall’s suggestion that the Norton Bridge flyover might make a service from the Birmingham direction – rather than London as now – more viable, and this would probably be good for local passengers. But, as NR points out, it’s still not in the 51M proposal, so basically it becomes ‘somebody else’s problem’ to find capacity through the busy nodes of Wolverhampton and Stafford. And for 51M to even suggest this is risible in itself: one of the key tenets of the group’s campaign against HS2 is the suggestion that HS2 is an ‘all or nothing’ answer when incremental improvements are needed.

Now we discover that not only are these previously little-mentioned incremental improvements well in hand, but the 51M Group is now embracing them wholesale to make a point! I’d laugh if it weren’t such a serious subject.

There is much more to say about the flaws of 51M, not least the sheer fragility of the much-vaunted cost:benefit ratios (subscribers to Rail Business Intelligence will be able to read a bit more on this) and on freight. But I am going to leave you with a little Liverpudlian vignette.

This exchange, between the MP for Southport and Stuart Baker of the Department for Transport, occurred at a Public Accounts Committee hearing in 2007 examining the last West Coast Main Line upgrading. 

Q29 Dr Pugh: I do not know whether my colleagues have noticed that the agenda for today calls the Report that we are examining The Modernisation of the West Coast Main Line. Either that is a Freudian misprint or it shows an unexpected sense of irony from the Clerks. It is only to be expected, considering that the cost of the project has gone from £1.6 billion to £9 billion in relatively few years. May I first ask a series of slightly parochial questions? Lauding the benefits of the modernisation of the West Coast Main Line, the Secretary of State for Scotland said in a recent statement that there will be an hourly service from Liverpool to London. A stock market statement released by the Department for Transport said the same. Surely I cannot be the only one who has noticed that we have had an hourly service from Liverpool to London for some time prior to the modernisation. Is there a commitment to complete all the bits of the West Coast modernisation, specifically those that affect the port of Liverpool, and, if so, within what time scale?

Mr Baker: The stock market statement explains that London to Liverpool will remain an hourly service.

And indeed Liverpool currently has a basic hourly service to London with a couple of extra trains at peak hours, and from the end of next year, most of these trains will be 11-car Pendolinos…exactly the service specified by 51M and the PTN schematic. Indeed, the only additional capacity conferred by the 51M proposal would be a net gain of about 20 seats per train if there is one fewer first class saloon. Compare this with today's all day frequencies on routes from London to Newcastle (2tph), Sheffield (2tph), Leeds (2tph), Manchester (3tph) and Coventry (5tph).

In the wake of the recent controversy about Liverpool’s ‘managed decline’, it’s illuminating to see what a cabal of predominantly southern local councils considers to be future proofing our transport network.

Thursday, 12 January 2012

HS2 alternatives: will your local station end up Stone dead?

Stone station: under threat from alternative proposals to HS2.

I should be happy: we have reached the end of the beginning. UK Transport Secretary Justine Greening has indeed confirmed the government’s commitment to press ahead with construction of a national high speed rail network, starting with the first phase of HS2 between London and the West Midlands.

There certainly won’t be any gloating from those in favour of the project; there is too much work still to do, not least of which is to negotiate the laborious Hybrid Bill process in Parliament. Nevertheless, I’d say there was a ‘better than evens’ chance of HS2 going ahead. But any suggestion that the debate over the merits of the project would subside is misplaced – arguments about the scheme’s benefits will run and run. And to that end, the question of ‘if not HS2…?’ is not going to go away.

My support for HS2 has always been caveated by the need for it to be cheaper, greener and, if possible, sooner. And I think all those points are achievable – but more than anything, we cannot repeat the diabolical blunder that was the £9bn West Coast Route Modernisation. I blogged about this in detail the other week, and – despite it barely meriting a mention in most mass media coverage of yesterday’s announcement – it remains one of the most botched public procurement projects of recent years.

Perhaps the most unpleasant aspect of WCRM for anyone who cares about our rail network was the enforced closure of three stations in Staffordshire on capacity grounds. Barlaston, Wedgwood and Stone stations were closed in 2003 at the height of the mess; the latter reopened in 2008, served by an hourly stopping train from London.

Why does this matter now? Because, appallingly, history might be about to repeat itself, and nobody appears much bothered. Opposition to HS2 is being led by the High Speed Action Alliance of local campaigners and 51M, a group of local authorities opposed to the new line. They have prepared a counter-proposal insisting that the existing rail network can meet projected growth between London and the north for the foreseeable future.

In the lead up to Justine Greening’s announcement, Network Rail and the Department for Transport published a report casting doubt on the benefits of such a strategy. Buried in the report is confirmation that ‘some stations would be left unserved by rail’ under the alternative plans; they are Atherstone and Stone (p6). The report adds that Rugeley would lose its rail service down the Trent Valley line towards Nuneaton, Rugby and London – a(nother) valuable local connection severed.

As if that weren’t enough, the report also confirms proposals for a 21 km Stafford Bypass. This would leave the current WCML at Colwich and head through open countryside at grade to a point north of Norton Bridge; it would provide capacity for just one extra train per hour from London at a projected cost of more than £1bn. Not bad for those who claim to be acting in the best interests of England’s rural idylls…

The village of Colwich, Staffordshire, where the Stafford Bypass would diverge from the West Coast Main Line. Photo: R Kidd

I would be quite cynical about the release of Network Rail’s report if it did not reinforce previously-released assessments of capacity contained in its West Coast Route Utilisation Strategy. And the prior loss of local rail services in Staffordshire confirms that this is no phantom threat.

Principled local opposition to HS2 is understandable and in many ways healthy, but please let us not pretend high speed rail is some superfluous White Elephant: our creaking railway does not exist in the best of all possible worlds, we face some very tough choices about capacity. Greening is right to press on.