Friday, 15 February 2013

HS2: looking into the Great Beyond

HS2 services are envisaged to use an expanded Manchester Piccadilly station.
Mansfield, Hucknall, Bristol, Barnsley and Leicester: high speed rail is coming your way. All are among the locations cited by name in the government’s Command Paper and related documentation covering Phase II of High Speed 2, issued on January 28. Indeed, the time-consuming task of poring over the reams of paperwork released last month is rewarding, if only for the light it sheds on the thinking behind HS2, as well the many anomalies that the Preferred Route Option has generated.

Whether Transport Secretary Patrick McLoughlin has been stung by repeated assertions that HS2 was designed to get ‘every fool in London’ to Birmingham 15 min faster (as shamefully claimed by Sir Simon Jenkins last December whilst drawing a painful analogy with the 150th anniversary of the Metropolitan Railway) is debatable. But there is no doubt that, in tone at least, HS2 is now looking to much broader horizons. The Command Paper raises the real prospect of a Leicester – Edinburgh service running via HS2 and the East Coast Main Line, and, by tapping into the rolling programme of electrification of the conventional network, a Bristol – northeast England service which would join HS2 at Birmingham.

These aspirations for a substantial non-London market for high speed services have predictably been widely ignored by most reaction to the Phase II announcement, just as the potential to restore lost inter-regional passenger services along our existing main lines has been. Indeed, it is becoming increasingly clear that much of the supposedly informed comment around HS2 in reality responds to a perception of the project, rather than the detailed plans themselves.

The fuss over Parkway stations is a case in point. Just two genuine ‘out-of-town’ stations are proposed under the second stage, joining the Birmingham Airport facility outlined in Phase I (few would claim that the Crossrail interchange at Old Oak Common falls into this category). I concur with those who point to some of France’s out-of-town stations, where trains are few and footfall modest, but to compare these directly to, say, Meadowhall is surely fatuous. The latter is already a busy multimodal hub serving Rotherham, Barnsley and Doncaster as well as Sheffield, while Toton has been explicitly chosen to serve both Derby and Nottingham. Neither bears much resemblance to, say, the spartan and windswept TGV Haute-Picardie.

But far more important is the ineluctable truth that many -- perhaps a substantial majority -- of HS2 passengers will board their trains at exactly the same locations they use today, thanks to the extensive provision of so-called ‘classic compatible’ services. As an example, it is ironic indeed that whilst the planned HS2 terminus at Manchester Piccadilly would form an annexe to the existing trainshed, extra platforms to be built to support the Northern Hub programme will be many minutes’ walk from the concourse and linked by travelator. That isn’t a problem per se, but it highlights how when conventional rail investment includes inevitable design compromises, it does so largely without accompanying howls of invective. Needless to say, the ‘anything but HS2’ brigade revels in such obvious double standards.

That said, HS2 Ltd’s modelling has its own perception issues too. A macro-level service pattern has been drafted to support the revised economic case for the project, which is essential to evidence-based planning, but it does leave the project promoter open to the suggestion that it is defining timetables for 20 years hence. And it is fair to say that the service modelled is, in places, quixotic. A muted reaction to the Phase II plan in Liverpool is understandable; the model gives the city a vastly better service than it could hope to receive under any further ill-starred upgrading of the West Coast Main Line, but the plans still envisage only two trains an hour from London via HS2, one of which makes no use of the Phase II alignment at all. This Liverpool service does however serve Stafford, which no doubt will be welcomed in Stafford. But this in turn raises the huge anomaly of Stoke-on-Trent, which appears to gain an HS2 service under Phase I in 2026 and lose it again a few years later under Phase II. Curious.

HS2 Ltd should state far more robustly in my view that any service pattern offered today is nothing more than the most cursory amuse bouche for a decade of wrangling about who gets what. I am increasingly of the view that the deferral of the Heathrow Airport spur should be made permanent; the Bow Group and others make play of the ‘success’ in Europe of high speed rail interchanges at hub airports, but I suspect the traffic volumes are meagre. To emphasise the point, Scheherazade Zekri-Chevallet, Chief Commercial & Marketing Officer at four-nation TGV operator Thalys International, remarked at a conference late last year that of its near 7 million annual ridership, just 55 000 were using its dedicated interlining tickets via airports in Paris and Brussels.

But while I think the Heathrow paths would be far better utilised for more fast trains to Liverpool and/or a London – Blackpool/Chester/North Wales service running via the Phase I junction at Lichfield, thence Colwich, Stoke and Crewe, my opinion counts for little. HS2 Ltd should consider even at this early stage appointing a Director of Passenger Services in the mould of former Virgin Trains and BR InterCity MD Chris Green to consider these issues in more depth. Currently, the passenger-facing role of developing post-HS2 rail services is being undertaken (if that’s the right word) by Passenger Focus and Network Rail, whereas in (say) France or Germany, this would be the domain of a major operator like DB or SNCF.

It would surely be beneficial to test alternative service options against a set of commercial parameters in a broadly independent fashion, in consultation with business groups in the towns and cities in question, safe in the knowledge that nothing is set in stone. Open-access use of the infrastructure by a new entrant in the style of Italy’s NTV could be considered much closer to opening.

The growth forecasts made by HS2 Ltd are exceptionally cautious; it says that volumes predicted at the outset for 2021 have already been exceeded. Within the envelope of these assumptions, there is substantial room for manoeuvre: a sensible service pattern in 2013 is almost certainly not going to apply so smoothly to 2033. Investment in the conventional network (especially electrification), pressure on pathing at key nodes and broad demographic change could all influence the plan. HS2 should be flexible enough to adapt as the project moves into the implementation phase.