Railways for the many, not high speed rail for the few

January 28, 2012 4:08 pm

Labour will be travelling on the wrong line if it gives its wholehearted support for the proposed HS2. This is one infrastructure scheme that deserves to hit the buffers.

Labour absolutely must support a better rail network, but what we really need is an excellent railway for the many, not a high speed line for the few.

Readers who have not yet made up their minds about whether the scheme is positive, with huge potential benefits, or whether it will be a £32 billion mistake, could do a lot worse than to read the High Speed Two (HS2) Commons Library Research Paper , which looks at the proposed scheme from quite a neutral angle.

Very briefly, the arguments in favour of HS2 are that substantial additional rail capacity is required, that a new high-speed rail network is the best way to provide it and that this will bring substantial economic and environmental benefits. Of all the justifications for HS2 advanced by the Government – transport, economic and environmental – former transport Secretary Philip Hammond said that he “start[s] with capacity.”

So, the main justification for HS2 is not just about the need for speed but about spending billions on increasing capacity. The trouble is, Phase 1 of HS2 on its own – the London to Birmingham line – will cost £17 billion, but will deliver no benefits until 2026 and then, after that, every minute saved in journey time will have cost half a billion pounds.

Richard Robinson argued on this site recently that, “these times call for a healthy dose of hope and ambition to go with the grinding realism of financial vigilance”, and that HS2 offers this hope.

But the proposed benefits of HS2 are vague in the extreme, and largely consist of estimated time savings as people use the new line instead of their cars or the old lines. Indeed, a large proportion of the estimated £32 billion economic benefit comes from increased productivity because people spend less time travelling and rest on the ridiculous assumption  that business travellers do no work on their journeys at all.

Rather than spending £32 billion on a project which won’t deliver its dubious benefits for decades, there are a number of viable, effective and significantly cheaper alternatives. Labour finally made a commitment to electrify more main lines far too late in its dying days, but at least it was a step in the right direction. By committing to electrifying and upgrading the Midland Main Line beyond Bedford to Nottingham Derby and Sheffield, and by electrifying and further upgrading the much improved Chiltern Line – where journey times to Birmingham are already only about 10 minutes less than on the West Coast Main Line (WCML), there would be viable alternative routes to Birmingham and further north.

For a fraction of the cost of HS2 Pendolino trains could be converted to carry more standard class passengers. Indeed, train lengths are already being extended. The capacity argument is over exaggerated. At present, trains run with four first class carriages which are usually about one fifth full. Turning these empty carriages into standard class and ensuring that the commitment to increase train lengths to 10 or even 11 carriages is fulfilled.

Of course, it would help if we still had a train building capacity in the UK, but that was almost killed off by rail privatisation and Labour’s failure in government to support manufacturing (as opposed to financial engineering).

To further increase capacity, for very little cost (apart from Virgin’s bloated coffers), Labour should make a commitment to end the excessively blunt instrument of airline style demand management systems for ticketing on the railways. Virgin trains might boast of three trains per hour between London and Birmingham but, if advance fares are restricted to one train per day, with penalty fares in the stratosphere if you take the wrong train, then frequency is irrelevant.

HS2 will not deliver its dubious benefits until 2026. What happens in the meantime?. In particular, Milton Keynes and Northampton peak overcrowding is a problem now. I do not think that that waiting until 2026 is realistic. Increasing train lengths, making more standard class seating available and making tickets more flexible, together with some infrastructure improvements are solutions that can be implemented very quickly and for much less money.

Looking at the environmental impact, it is also worth noting that HS2 will not just be damaging to the Chilterns. As Euston Station will be rebuilt over eight years, HS2’s own submission said that they would expect to maintain at least the off-peak level of service in the worst case. In the “worst case” that is a 40% reduction in commuter peak capacity into Euston. This is likely to cause outrage when the full impact is made clear.

If readers are still unconvinced, lets look at what has already happened Britain’s only high speed railway –HS1 in Kent. Passengers have been pushed onto a high-speed service that most cannot afford and do not want to use.

The line charges premium fares, about 20% above those on the “classic” lines, and runs at about a third of predicted capacity. Fares for every passenger in Kent – even if they never step on the high-speed trains – have risen for several years by three percent above inflation, the highest in Britain, to pay for the line.

Before HS1, the journey time on the traditional line from Victoria to Faversham was 66 minutes, with six stops, two minutes faster than the high-speed service is now. So, to make the high-speed trains look better, South Eastern slowed down the “classic” trains, and also cut their frequency. And performance on the “Cinderella” lines has decayed as resources are concentrated on high-speed.

Is there any reason to believe that train operators will not perform the same trick if HS2 is built? Transport writer Christian Wolmar has pointed out that, “most of the benefits [of HS2] will accrue to private individuals and companies, whereas most of the cost will fall on the taxpayer.” The costs – financial and environmental – will be socialised in aid of what is already a “rich man’s railway” as Philip Hammond put it.

A well thought out transport policy would recognise that it is not created in isolation. Better rail links between Northern towns and cities, again, involving the electrification of the trans Pennine route from Hull to Liverpool for example (and as George Osborne has promised), would be far better value for money. Genuine regional policy would mean that getting to London 15 minutes quicker would no longer be as important.

What we should be looking at, frankly, is also to renationalise the railways. This is not a side issue; neither is it a fantasy policy that is unaffordable. (Reintegration and some form of public ownership can be done and it would save money).

This is crucial to the debate. It is not possible to make any sensible long term decisions about the future of the railways when you have track operation separated from rolling stock, when there are dozens of train operating companies running franchises, and myriad other companies involved the (lack of) decision making process. The fact that the current privatised railway costs five times more to run than British Rail did must make Labour choose a radical, but popular option. As Tony Balir said, “do what works”. And the current set up emphatically does not work.

When you further consider the number of marginal seats in the South East commuter belt, London and along the West Coast Main Line, which will suffer higher fares to pay for upgrades that never happen, there is a strong political logic, as well as common sense transport logic, to doing what Labour promised before the 1997 election.

Maria Eagle would find many sympathetic ears across the country if she pledged drop HS2, and to take back the railways and create an integrated socially beneficial network once again.

  • Anonymous

    Much better to invest the money in the proposed Boris Island airport.   That would improve our international competitiveness

    • Anonymous

      So long as it’s London Money

  • happy.fish

    A good piece, I should say that as it seems to expand on and better communicates the points i made in response to the piece supporting HS2.

  • jaime taurosangastre candelas

    I am not a transport expert, but I believe there are transport “pinch points” or under-capacity to serve existing users of transport all around the country.  I therefore wonder if £32 billion on one single project is the best use of money.  I know my own region of East Anglia has all sorts of capacity issues for road, rail and freight, both getting people into London and getting freight from the coastal ports to the Midlands and to the north.  There are no 3 lane motorways, no east-west rail links.  The local paper in Cambridge pointed out that £3 billion on an upgrade to motorway status of the A14 from Harwich to near to Coventry could take much of the freight traffic off the northern section of the M25, and a proper rail/road interchange at the junction with the A1 and East Coast Mainline at Alconbury where there is a disused airfield (brown field site) could take a lot of traffic and lorries off the road system altogether.

    The south coast should have a motorway and rail line between Kent and Devon.  The north east needs more capacity for north-south driving.  I’m sure there are many other deserving cases for both roads and rail, but my knowledge is limited.Why £32 billion into one project, when I have read that the benefits will be meagre and paid only over many years?  That £32 billion could make a lot of difference if spread around, and I suspect the benefits would not only be for the whole country, but also payable rather sooner.

  • Dual Citizen

    Oh great! As a Tory supporter (and so frequenter of ConHome), I now come over here and see almost the same silly arguments against speeding up the most convenient way from getting from A to B in the UK.

    The biggest flaw in your case is your headline” Railways for the many, not high speed for the few”. We’re talking about a railway LINE, not trains and prices. Who says trains operating that line have to charge prices “for the few”? And who cares if they do, if it means fares on the existing lines come DOWN to compete?

    It was your government that introduced the bill for HS2. I think it was in many ways  flawed, and I think the (my Tory) current government was wrong to give it the go ahead as is. But I support it in principle.

    When Labour introduced HS2, Lord Adonis (is he still acceptable to you) said he wanted to see easyJet like prices by allowing “easyTrain” operators to use the line. What’s wrong with that?

    • Anonymous


      . Who says trains operating that line have to charge prices “for the few”? And who cares if they do, if it means fares on the existing lines come DOWN to compete?”

      Cast your mind back to 1995, when John Major, an otherwise fairly safe pair of hands and a man I always felt a bit sorry for, since his own party displayed their more snobbish tendancies by sniggering at his background, suddenly got a rush of blood to his head and had an obsession with privatising the railways. Two of his partners in crime, Brian McWhinney and John McGregor always used the “private will mean cheaper fares” canard when dealing with their own backbenchers concerns (remember the late Robert Adley?)

      Well, they didn’t and I don’t think fares will come DOWN, or even down, when and if this ridiculous waste of money goes through – £32 billion (to start with but I am certain the final figure will be greater than that) to save 30 minutes?: that’s no bargain.

    • happy.fish

      Not sure how he is going to squeeze easy train operators onto the line. Unless they get some kind of unsociable hours service. Alternatively they might run a line that terminates at London (Milton Keynes) with connecting coach!

    • happy.fish

      If people can’t afford the even more expensive HS2 services why would the TOCs need to reduce their own prices, this would only happen if HS2 had comparative fares. 

  • Anonymous

    Labour ought to be coming up with a policy on how it would raise productivity in the railway industry – the comparisons in the McNulty report showed UK railways coming out pretty poorly compared to other European operations, operating costs of 30-40% higher in some cases.

    Getting efficiency upto the level of our peers would release funds for a combination of lower fares and better services.

    It fits in quite nicely with the cost of living/squeezed middle agenda.

    Renationalisation doesn’t look realistic but some structural reforms to reduce the fragmentation and associated inefficiencies and disincentives would be a good start.

  • John Ruddy

    Well, firstly, the Virgin Pendolino’s are already being lengthened from 9 coaches to 11, but capacity isnt just about how many passengers use the line. We need to increase freight traffic massively, yet this is already constrained by the intensive passenger service.

    Yes, there are costs, but the alternative would cost in the region of £8-10bn, and wouldnt provide the necessary increases in capapcity – its already been studied by Network Rail.

  • Steve Barber

    At least the article aknowledges there is a capacity problem. Let’s compare where we are now with where we were in 1959 after the first High Speed Road was built:

    In 1959 the motor car was seen as the future. Roads were predominantly built for traffic based on horses or primative cars with speeds of around 20mph (50 year old technology). There had been some improvements to roads but this was an expensive way forward for the small benefits and wouldn’t produce sufficient capacity for the next 50 years.

    The solution then – to start a program of building High speed large capacity roads, the first ones to by pass various bottlenecks. Ultimately this would produce a Y network to Newcastle and Glasgow. At first the cars of 1959 were able to travel on these but new generation vehicles became more suitable for sustained high speed travel.

    Wind the clock on 50 years and it becomes clear road solutions no longer apply so what do we do……..

  • Davidbrede

    Perhaps the notion from the Co-operative Party for a mutually run railway should be revisited?

    I am happy with the Midland Mainline having diesels as they were far more reliable than the electrics in the last 2 winters!

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