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.