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 Z├╝rich. 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.

Sunday, 8 January 2012

HS2: are ‘seats’ and ‘rail capacity’ really the same thing?

How important is seat occupancy if this train doesn't stop at your station? Photo: C McKenna
In my last post, I outlined the various compromises and shortcomings that had arisen from the £9bn effort to modernise the West Coast Main Line from London to Glasgow, Europe's busiest mixed-use railway. Several long-standing inter-city journeys were severed, and a number of local stations faced permanent closure in what amounted to a chilly swish of Dr Beeching's axe four decades late. But in the eyes of the High Speed Action Alliance and other anti-HS2 campaigners, none of that counts under the heading 'rail capacity'.


The only definition of ‘capacity’ they want to use is ‘proportion of occupied seats on trains out of London Euston’. The latest salvo in this direction is a research note insisting that only 56% of seats on peak time inter-city trains on the WCML are taken, ergo the need for HS2 is spurious.

HS2AA does however acknowledge, rightly, that the market for inter-city rail travel between London, Birmingham and the North is distorted by fares policy. Confirming former Transport Secretary Philip Hammond’s comments that at peak times the WCML was ‘a rich man’s toy’, a return ticket from London to Manchester leaving a weekday afternoon at 3.20pm routinely comes in at more than £200, even when specifying certain trains on both legs (note that advance purchase train-specific tickets enable the operator to keep 100% of the revenue, rather than sharing it with other potential providers under the ORCATS system, which applies to flexible fares). Little wonder then that occupancy is of secondary importance to yield in the business market; it is equally noticeable that yield is being maximised through ever-tightening restrictions on when cheaper tickets can be used (which is why 3.20pm counts as the ‘evening peak’).


Arguably a more valid assessment of capacity available versus potential demand would be to look at Sunday evenings, where (in my experience) many trains in both directions are very full indeed, with no peak fares to distort the picture. Indeed, based unscientifically on my own recent trips, I reckon there are plenty of business travellers on Sunday afternoon and evening services too as working patterns change. (As a further aside, on a recent Sunday journey from Liverpool to London, I found every first class seat was taken, with the exception of the Quiet Zone, reflecting that yield management can fill premium seats too).


Note also that HS2AA does not appear to want to draw the obvious conclusion from this bout of clipboard-wielding: ditch some trains. Because it is the number of trains, not seats, on the WCML that is causing both a capacity crunch and mounting unreliability. So if HS2AA believes that loadings on inter-city services are so weak, why not suggest that, for example, the thrice-hourly London – Birmingham/Manchester trains be reduced to half-hourly? The answer, of course, is that HS2 opponents do not wish to be seen as advocates of reduced regional rail services, even though (as I am sure many are aware), this was one of the consequences of the most recent 'incremental upgrading' of the WCML.


Similarly, they could argue for the inclusion of more intermediate stops on these lightly-loaded trains, for example at Watford or Rugby, which would partially restore some lost journey opportunities. So why don’t they? Could it be because this would entail longer journey times, thus threatening revenues and potentially leading to greater taxpayer support (anathema to HS2’s many critics on the doctrinaire right), or because the extra patronage would mean these trains weren’t so quiet anymore?


One last point on capacity: Virgin’s WCML services from London to Glasgow are relatively sparsely loaded north of Preston (I’ve seen this for myself on several occasions, and seen it corroborated by reports in the trade press). Surprisingly this phenomenon does not merit any analysis from the HS2 doomsayers: again, we can but speculate as to why…perhaps because 30 years of experience in high speed rail travel in Europe shows rail only gains share from airlines once journey times dip below the 4 h mark. Currently a typical Euston – Glasgow Central journey takes 4 h 31 min, with little realistic prospect of the existing line being able to trim those extra 31 min on a regular-pattern timetable on a reliable, long-term basis.


Indeed, it is hard to see rail gaining much more share on Anglo-Scottish journeys without using a new-build high speed line for at least part of the journey (and the Scottish Government tends to agree).

Tuesday, 3 January 2012

HS2 alternatives: tried and failed

We have been wrestling with WCML capacity for more than 30 years, despite the 'communications revolution' which has also occurred in that period. Photo: M Addison

Later this month, UK Secretary of State for Transport Justine Greening is expected to announce whether the government intends to proceed with the first phase of High Speed Two between London and the West Midlands. A cabal of local campaign groups and predominantly right-wing think tanks have joined forces to oppose the project, and they will doubtless be hoping that Ms Greening tells Parliament that she is ditching the project in favour of upgrading existing north-south rail axes.

Perhaps she might say something like this:

‘I commend to the House our strategy to turn our backs on international best practice for inter-city rail routes, proven by the 13 000 km operating successfully around the globe. I propose instead to launch a further incremental upgrade of the West Coast Main Line between London and Glasgow, even though I know we’ve tried this approach three times before and at no point have the rail capacity objectives originally set out been fully accomplished.’

Opposition to HS2 has been led by the High Speed Action Alliance (HS2AA), aided by former Deputy Rail Franchising Director Chris Stokes, and AGHAST (Action Groups Against High Speed Rail), chaired by the erudite entrepreneur Jerry Marshall. Together they believe that the capacity crunch on the inter-city rail network can be overcome easily by what they term ‘incremental upgrades’, starting with longer trains on the West Coast route, the main artery that would be relieved by HS2.

As I’ve already alluded to, this is not a new strategy – transport planners have insisted since the
heady days of the Advanced Passenger Train in the 1970s that the WCML, largely built in the first half of the 19th century, can be brought to heel to provide modern quasi-high speed rail services on a par with the TGV, AVE or Shinkansen. Three principal efforts were launched in the intervening four decades, the most complete, ambitious and arguably misguided, being the West Coast Route Modernisation of 1998-2009.

This ‘saga of greed, incompetence and delusion’ was
described in forensic detail by The Guardian in 2004, but back then it was still believed that, once complete, the railway could be left for many decades to come, market demand being met comfortably by a mix of high-frequency local, regional and express trains. That new dawn quickly faded. Fast forward five years and it was already clear that the £9bn price tag had delivered a fast but fragile service on core city-to-city routes, but a vastly worse service for most intermediate markets, as I pointed out earlier this year.

The examples of service deterioration are legion, and can broadly be split into two categories: unreliable inter-city services caused by overuse of old infrastructure, and the loss of through journey opportunities caused by prioritisation of fast trains to and from London. It must be stressed that these side-effects are visible today, this is not some nihilistic portrayal of the future:
  • Virgin Trains, the main long-distance operator on the WCML, is at present the least punctual rail operator in the UK, and has struggled to escape the bottom three places in the league table since the ‘upgrading’ was completed;
  • Intermediate WCML stations like Watford and Nuneaton used to enjoy regular direct trains to northwest destinations like Liverpool and Manchester, now they have none; there is a mere 13 h gap in direct trains between Milton Keynes and Wolverhampton;
  • Regional routes connecting with the WCML have in many cases been radically altered to fit in more fast London trains. The worst examples include the axing of some morning commuter trains from Northwich and Knutsford to Manchester, and the loss of regular-pattern frequency between Birmingham and Coventry;
  • Potential new direct services from London to the regions are either denied outright (Blackpool, Huddersfield, Rochdale), or forced to take a circuitous route that fails to attract sufficient passengers (Shrewsbury, Wrexham);
  • Some local stations have faced closure, depriving smaller communities of valuable low-carbon transport (Barlaston and Wedgwood on Staffordshire both lost their rail services in 2003 on the grounds that there was no capacity left to stop trains there. Nearby Stone lost its trains for a mere five years). 
So, with benefits like those, why wouldn’t we try it all over again?