|HS2 is essential to ensure capacity on the existing railway can be used to improve local rail services. Photo: First TransPennine Express|
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.