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).

No comments:

Post a Comment