|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.|
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  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.