High Speed Rail - Transport Committee Contents

Written evidence from Geoffrey Simms (HSR 06)

1.  A highly topical transport subject at the present time is the Government's proposal to construct a High-Speed railway line (HS2) between London, the West Midlands, and the North, building its case on the prospect of a journey time of 49 minutes (originally 45) between London and Birmingham. In opposition, the Conservative Party declared its opposition to the incumbent's plans for an additional runway at London's Heathrow Airport, promising that: "We will scrap those plans and build instead a high-speed railway line to the Midlands and The North." There has been no explanation forthcoming to link these two quite separate propositions or, how abandoning the one, which the users (the airlines), commerce and industry, and the Government agreed was essential to maintaining the country's position as Europe's leading intercontinental aviation nation (and would be privately funded), and substituting a purely domestic transport facility, whose economic credentials had yet to be properly examined, was justified, and would furthermore call on the public purse at a time when public expenditure has to be drastically reduced. At the present time the only substantial domestic airline routes from London's five airports: London City, Heathrow, Gatwick, Stansted & Luton, are those to Edinburgh, Glasgow and Belfast. Much of the domestic traffic into Heathrow and Gatwick feeds international flights.

2.  England has an established main line railway network linking London with its major towns and cities: Birmingham, Manchester, Liverpool, Leeds and Newcastle. The case for a second railway between London, Birmingham and the North would be based upon two important considerations. The first would ask whether the present West Coast Main Line (WCML) capacity has reached, or is approaching, its limit or, is in need of replacement (through obsolescence or decrepitude) and would furthermore consider whether the current timings and fares are competitive against other forms of surface transport (coaches and private motorcars), and what benefits might accrue to reduced journey times, and how much traffic could be won from the roadborne sector. These I shall examine in some detail.

3.  First of all though, we should be clear what we mean by the term "high-speed rail", because when British Rail launched its high-speed—Inter City 125—services in the mid 70s, although based upon 125mph (200kph) maximum speed, it has yet to deliver a single 100 mph average speed service from London to a major city, mainly, but not exclusively, because the temptation to collect the maximum number of fares has taken precedence over the provision of non-stop services to cities such as: Bristol, Birmingham, Liverpool, Manchester and Leeds. Doncaster, Preston, Stafford, Warrington and York all enjoy 100 mph non-stop services to the Capital, but these are minor cities. Assuming that we wish to advance from our existing 125 mph trains, it is vitally important that in designing the railway of the future the project fulfils our expectation that high-speed means what it says (a high speed journey, rather than a high speed attained). Clear targets must be set so that the result is not simply a highly sophisticated stopping train; always keeping in mind that it is likely to be 15 to 20 years before the first trains could run. The current projection for the electrification of the Great Western main line, and the three years over-run on the WCML refurbishment give the clue. Moreover, those high-speed trains would, unfortunately, have to be imported from France, Germany, Italy, China or Japan.

4.  HS2 would be built at public expense. The actual train services would though be the responsibility of the train operating company submitting the most favourable tender. The question for the Government is does it have the necessary powers to compel the successful operator to provide a reliable and regular 49 minutes non-stop service from London to Birmingham? This is a reasonable point for consideration, because certain train operating companies have recently extended their journey times to reduce the risk of punctuality sanctions. Apparently, voluntarily underperforming avoids statutory underperformance penalties. Should the Government decide that this might be a sagacious precaution to safeguard the viability of the HS2 scheme, might it not be wise to apply those powers now, to direct current operating companies into providing faster, non-stop services on existing lines; if that is in fact what the market is demanding? From my time as a passenger transport regulator, I recall disgruntled bus passengers complaining that what they most wanted was reliability.

5.  Several prominent railway professionals have though questioned whether the choice of a brand new HS2 would offer better value than investing more modest sums in the existing railway infrastructure to achieve similar goals. It is a good point, because the projected journeys for HS2 passengers are not of long duration when compared to existing European services, such as those operated by the French and Spanish high-speed networks. Moreover, the measurement of expeditiousness is surely the elapsed door-to-door time in its entirety, rather than any single component of such a journey.

6.  The suggestion is that a non-stop HS2 service from London to Birmingham could reduce the journey time from 82 minutes to 49 minutes. That though is not comparing like with like. A glance at the current Euston—Birmingham timetable shows a service operating a minimum of three intermediate stops (the lone exception being the 72 minutes non-stop 07.30 New Street—Euston service), which could be consuming 10 to 12 minutes of the overall journey time. A third of those trains ultimately terminate at Wolverhampton. Consequently, on a "like for like" basis, the time-saving offered by a hypothetical service over an established regime is 23 minutes.

7.  Some observers foresee high-speed trains with 1,100 seats, about double the capacity of existing Virgin trains. If capacity is of equal importance to speed, we should perhaps be asking ourselves why we appear content with nine carriage formations. The French TGV, it is true, uses nine vehicle configurations (some of which are double-deck), regularly assembled as 18 carriage trains. The substance of the alternative argument in favour of further investment in the existing rail network to overcome a perceived shortage of capacity, suggests that additional capacity might be provided with longer conventional trains, subject to existing stations' capacity to accommodate them. Besides, we would need to know more of current passenger behaviour, such as—the proportion of existing passengers who travel the entire distance from London to Birmingham, and who might be prepared to pay a premium for a faster service—against those who travel into London and Birmingham from Milton Keynes, Coventry and Wolverhampton for example. And how might those passengers respond to HS2? A slightly reduced version of the present service pattern might be necessary to provide for passengers joining trains at intermediate stations, and travellers to and from Wolverhampton.

8.  Having built HS2, there could well be two London (Euston)—Birmingham rail services (notwithstanding that such a situation already exists with Chiltern Trains services from Marylebone), making it rather important that Wolverhampton, Milton Keynes and Coventry travellers continue to enjoy a good quality train service to London and Birmingham. Otherwise, they are most likely to desert the railways in favour of their cars or long-distance coaches. An interesting prospect arises should the traditional Euston—New Street route be run by a separate company from that which gains the HS2 franchise, leading to a battle for custom. We already know that 72 minutes is possible by omitting intermediate stations. HS2 would provide a tangible incentive to reduce this time below 70 minutes. High-speed lines depend on users paying a premium—a further competitive advantage to the traditional route operator.

9.  The high-speed commuter services over High Speed 1 (HS1) to Kent command a 20% premium over the traditional line's tariff. Whereas the peak hours services offer an attractive reduction in journey times, off-peak trains are actually slower than those operating over the traditional tracks the year previously; summarised by one disgruntled user as an indifferent high-speed service, and a run-down, slowed-down ordinary service.

10.  Expanding on the subject of capacity, perhaps it might be reasonable for Ministers to encourage current train operating companies to fully exploit the existing network by running higher capacity non-stop trains on selected services to enable the Government to make a comprehensive assessment of the case for HS2. Stafford and Stoke-on-Trent (cities far smaller than Birmingham) have regular non-stop trains to London, whereas Birmingham, our Second City has practically none. In the case of Stoke-on-Trent, for example, non-stop journeys to London, at an average of 105 mph, take exactly the same time as those for the three stop London—Birmingham services, although the distance is 33 miles greater. Even at an average speed of 100 mph, a non-stop London-Birmingham conventional train could complete its journey in 69 minutes. There is though a risk that by increasing maximum speeds beyond 125 mph commuter services operating over the same stretch of track might be adversely affected.

11.  The existing rail route from London (Euston) to Birmingham (New Street) is 115 miles. The geographical distance is 105 miles, taking a line through certain conurbations. However, should it not be possible to reduce the existing 115 miles (the recently published plans suggest that the distance may actually be greater), that will require an average start to stop speed of 142 mph, compared to the fastest non-stop TGV services between Paris and both Lille and Lyon of 137 mph. An intermediate stop adds six minutes to the Paris-Lyon journey time, as it does to the London—Paris Eurostar service. Although an intermediate stops adds only four minutes to a Virgin Pendolino, that train is braking from a top speed of 125 mph as opposed to a TGV's 186. Similarly, when accelerating a differential applies. I shall adopt the French experience. The French have not brought their high-speed lines into the heart of their major cities; using the existing tracks for the final stretch into Paris for each and every TGV service that departs from, or terminates at the French capital. We must assume that our extravagant tunnelling proposals justify themselves on a commercial test.

12.  To spend a moment considering how the Government's aspirations compare with current high-speed services elsewhere, we have the practical example of Eurostar trains departing St Pancras on HS1 scheduled at 30 minutes to Ashford—56 miles distant; an average of 112 mph over exclusively high-speed track. The French non-stop TGV service between Paris and Reims takes 45 minutes for 92 miles—an average of 122 mph, and the German high-speed service between Cologne and Frankfurt; at 106 miles—slightly shorter than London to Birmingham—scheduled at 49 minutes—an average of 130 mph. The really spectacular non-stop average speeds, such as Paris—Marseille 151 mph, Madrid—Barcelona 148 mph, are achieved exclusively over those very long distances—469 miles and 388 miles respectively. Otherwise, it can be seen that as the distance falls so too do average speeds.

13.  The SNCF case for the original high-speed Paris and Lyon line was built on the sound projection of halving the journey time from approximately four hours, by existing services, to two hours by TGV, as well as reducing the 512 km of the traditional route via Dijon to just 427 km; a saving of 81 kilometres, just over 50 miles. The crucial attraction was though the two whole hours saved; making a Parisian's business trip to Lyon a comfortable single day outing, removing the cost of an overnight hotel as a bonus. Not only was it a gift to existing rail-users, but an irresistible temptation to habitual motorists to switch their mode of transport to enjoy the time and cost savings promised. In plain terms it has been a triumph. The result of this success though is the cessation of direct through services between Paris and Lyon over the traditional route. The question already posed is will Wolverhampton, Milton Keynes and Coventry lose their direct quality services to Birmingham and London as a consequence of HS2? Another line of argument might reason that if we are prepared to commit billions of pounds to improving and expanding our railways, what beneficial effect might adding to the existing track capacity over congested sections have on conventional London—Birmingham, Manchester services. From what follows there is a strong case for a detailed survey and appraisal of the existing network in the quest for faster journeys.

14.  Applying a similar test to the projected HS2, the maximum time reduction for a non-stop London-Birmingham journey will be 33 minutes—based on the existing pattern of three intermediate stops by a traditional train against a hypothetical average speed of at least 142 mph for a non-stop high speed train. As we have seen, a 72 minutes non-stop journey is possible under the existing regime. Moreover, there must also be some doubts that HS2 could actually deliver a reliable 49 minutes transit time between Euston and Birmingham. As a debating point, I am suggesting that the existing service could be run in about 66 minutes non-stop; a proposition supported by a report—Daily Telegraph 16 August 2010:

"Virgin Trains believes some engineering work around Coventry would, within a couple of years, make it possible for a passenger to get to Euston [from Birmingham International] in about 50 minutes."

15.  We shall hear that Virgin Trains complains that the 140 mph potential of their Pendolini stock is currently restricted to 125 mph, yet a 50 minutes journey over a distance of 105 miles calls for an average speed of 126.5 mph. A more realistic time might be 60 minutes, a figure I shall adopt for the purpose of this paper, treating 50 minutes as lapsus calami. The current timetable sets an average 14 minutes (in the range of 12 to 16 minutes) from Birmingham International to Birmingham New Street for the London (Euston)—Birmingham (New Street) services, whereas in the opposite direction the schedule is 10 minutes. As I have argued, the untested HS2 service might be closer to 50 minutes into Birmingham if it were able to match the Paris-Lille average speed of 137 mph. Even that would be at risk were those trains to make an intermediate stop, which may, by itself, undermine the entire philosophy of high-speed rail travel.

16.  In summary, HS2 is unlikely to reduce the actual distance of the rail route between London and Birmingham. Should the total distance remain at 115 miles that calls for an average speed of 142 mph start to stop to achieve a journey time of 49 minutes—an average speed unmatched by any current high-speed rail operator for journeys up to 270 miles. Projected time savings are, according to the promoters, at best 23 minutes on a direct comparison with a traditional non-stop service. These would be reduced to just 17 minutes (see below) should the vision of Virgin Trains lead to a Euston to Birmingham International journey of 60 minutes.

17.  Virgin suggests that existing rolling-stock could offer a 60 minute non-stop London to Birmingham International journey provided certain works could be undertaken. If that became instead a London to Birmingham New Street non-stop service, a journey time of 66 minutes (60 Euston-Birmingham Int., plus 10 Birmingham Int.—New Street, minus 4—no intermediate stop), could become a possibility within two years. A high-speed service making an intermediate stop would add six minutes to the optimistically projected 49 minutes, making a total journey time of 55 minutes in perhaps 15 years time. Even then care would have to be exercised drafting the terms of the actual franchise requiring the successful operator to schedule its services in accordance with ministerial wishes. Otherwise, there remains the risk of the operator adding a margin as an operational safeguard.

18.  The test that would normally be applied in assessing the benefits and viability of a vast civil engineering project such as HS2 would be to put the current position into perspective, remarking on its deficiencies and how shortcomings identified might be improved upon. Is half an hour (or 23 minutes) saved sufficient to attract the number of new rail users necessary to fill the tripled [source DfT] capacity this ambitious project would create? An intensive survey of those such as coach passengers and motorists who travel between London and Birmingham ought to tell us what the travelling public expects from its railways in assessing the market driver for HS2. Is it price, or is it speed? Otherwise, the question has to be asked from where will the additional passengers come. Moreover, is there in fact sufficient scope for a high speed, high cost, high volume rail service over such relatively short distances?

19.  Long ago there was a popular song whose refrain went along the lines of… "It ain't what you say it's the way that you say it.", which came to mind reading Richard Bowker's (former Chairman & Chief Executive, Strategic Rail Authority) "Everyone's Railway—the wider case for rail—2003" in which he wrote: "Nearly half the population uses a train at least once a year." Put another way, he tells us that most of the population never uses a train.

20.  I have deliberately omitted cost and adverse environmental impact, because the most important issue is to decide what we actually want from HS2, and why these same objectives could not be achieved—perhaps within the lifetime of this Parliament—from improvement, innovation and practical measures being applied to our existing rail network at a tiny fraction of the projected cost of HS2. However, unlike a motorway, HS2 will bring no tangible benefit to those in its path.

21.  Quite recently, HS1, and four substantial railway stations, built at public expense for £5.7 billion, have been sold to Canadian investors for £2.1 billion. Apparently, the wise invest their money in second-hand railways, rather than new ones. So, would it be surprising if Britons resent their precious taxes being used for the enrichment of foreigners? And how might Ministers dissuade them that HS2 is not a similar folly. Besides, we probably need safeguards binding the project itself to ultimately deliver a reliable and regular 49 minutes Euston-Birmingham service.

22.  The initial proposal was a high-speed line to Birmingham and the North. From the most recent ministerial announcement it has become clear that what is actually proposed is a more commendable high-speed network, introducing an interchange between Crossrail & HS2 in West London, combined with substantial tunnelling to bring HS2 into Euston, and a connection to HS1; to be carried out in Phase 1. This supposes that the terms of sale of HS1 permit such a junction. Northwards, Phase1 will link HS2 (which has a spur into Birmingham) to the WCML at Lichfield until its extension northwards. At present we do not know whether the high-speed trains will be limited to 125 mph on entering the WCML. Assuming that 125 mph is to be the maximum (otherwise we have the catching-up problem), the scope for time reduction on Manchester and Liverpool services will probably match the London-Birmingham 23 minutes, giving Mancunians a London service of about 95 minutes, and 98 minutes for Liverpudlians. Because Continental loading gauge HS2 rolling-stock will be incompatible with WCML dimensions north of Lichfield, a supplementary fleet of "hybrid" stock will be necessary. Incidentally, it will not be viable to route London-Leeds services over HS2 until the high-speed route extends beyond Lichfield. This limb would create a route substantially longer than the traditional East Coast Main Line, creating further potential for inter-line competition.

23.  Sadly, we do not, as a nation, have an outstanding record of successfully managing our conventional railways. Nine billion pounds (twice the original estimate) has been spent modernising the WCML, yet the train operating companies still complain of its shortcomings; especially the signalling constraints which deny Virgin the opportunity to exploit the 140 mph capability of its trains; limiting them to a maximum of 125 mph. London, Europe's largest city, is the gateway to our single high-speed line, HS1, eventually built at enormous expense (and sold within five years of completion) to take advantage of a rail served Channel Tunnel linking England with Continental Europe's high-speed rail lines, by which, after 15 years in operation, its single international train operating company, Eurostar, serves but three European destinations: Paris, Brussels & Lille, operating 26 trains per day in each direction. The occasional seasonal services to ski resorts and Avignon satisfy but a handful of travellers. Compare then London's situation to that of Paris, with its direct high-speed rail—TGV—international connections to Brussels, Amsterdam, Luxembourg, Cologne, Frankfurt, Stuttgart, Basel, Zurich, Lausanne, Berne, Geneva, Milan & Turin, besides, of course, London.

24.  Forcing prospective British passengers to change trains in Paris (a change of station at the passenger's expense, too), Brussels and Lille to reach the destinations, to which Parisians have direct access, represents a somewhat unattractive advertisement for high-speed rail. It is probably an unintentional bonus to British-based airlines serving the highly competitive European travel market. Can we imagine how an airline, whose flights from London to Lyon demand a change in Paris, might prosper in today's sophisticated travel market. In fairness to the railways, the fault may lie with the UK Borders Agency. Nevertheless, this defect should have been foreseen.

25.  The nation was committed to building HS1 once the choice of a rail-based Channel Tunnel was taken. This project could quite fairly be viewed as our contribution to Europe's high-speed network, rather than the launch of our own version, for which HS1 represents an isolated limb, until such time as it connects with HS2.

26.  The French and Spanish high-speed railway routes, in the main, pass through rural landscapes whose modest commercial values compare unfavourably with the prosperous pastures of Buckinghamshire, Northamptonshire and Warwickshire. The wider dispersal of centres of population also allows for direct routeing, saving, as we have seen, as much as 50 miles on a traditional route. They have though yet to face the full force of domestic airline competition that deregulation is likely to produce. Easyjet plans to expand within Europe in competition with traditional style domestic airlines currently uncompetitive against SNCF and RENFE. Today, only 24% of French short-haul air travellers use a low-cost airline, in Britain the figure is 48%.

27.  The author of a paper such as mine has to be ever vigilant for changing circumstances. Such an event was a question and answer session at the Conservative Party conference in October 2010, at which the Secretary of State for Transport, Philip Hammond, informed his audience, in response to a question concerning HS2, that an intermediate station at Old Oak Common (West London) with parking facilities was planned to relieve the potential embarrassment to the Underground system of 900 passengers disgorging simultaneously at Euston. It is not reported whether anyone in the audience pointed out to the S of S that the arrival of a Eurostar service at St Pancras currently creates a similar requirement to disperse disembarking passengers. And, if 900 passengers per train are destined for London, then it must be assumed that Birmingham, Manchester, Liverpool, too, have to prepare themselves for the corresponding deluge. More intermediate stations? We must also wonder what is in Ministers' minds when they plan to attract road traffic into the Metropolis, given that Government passenger transport policy favours rail. Besides, we are left to ruminate upon the fortitude of those who might be prepared to tackle the urban congestion of West and North-West London just to make a 49 minutes train journey, when they have an existing hourly service from Watford Junction to Birmingham—offering a journey time of 68 minutes northbound and just 65 minutes southbound.

28.  Now we know of the Crossrail interchange proposal, (and Crossrail, with its direct link with Heathrow, will precede HS2), is there not a strong case for a London Terminus sited at Old Oak Common, or even Paddington, rather than Euston—with its vast tunnelling and station reconstruction expense—since a fair proportion of trains from Birmingham and the North may proceed to Stratford, Ashford and Europe, further reducing the burden on a London terminus?

29.  A typical passenger travelling from the south by train to Birmingham and the North frequently starts his journey at a station other than Euston. The system of through [London] ticketing means that someone in Chelmsford, or Guildford, or Maidstone, who wishes to take the train to Birmingham buys a ticket which includes the connecting Underground service. In fact it is most likely that few passengers boarding a Birmingham-bound train at Euston have walked or cycled from home to that station. Most will arrive by Underground, bus or taxi. Consequently, it must surely follow that the creation of car parking facilities at Old Oak Common is to attract new business of the type that has hitherto favoured out-of-town parkway style stations, with easy motorway, or main road, access. A proper comparison of potential time-savings would usually take account of a passenger's entire door-to-door elapsed time, rather than one component of that journey, even if that be a substantial proportion of the whole.

30.  An intermediate stop on a line routed through Old Oak Common, means that a reduction in the current 115 miles between Euston and Birmingham New Street, appears unlikely. A journey time of 49 minutes from Old Oak Common to Central Birmingham seems feasible. Whereas, from Euston, the intermediate stop presents a serious challenge to the objective. A second stop is risible.

31.  So far, freight has not been mentioned. Bulk commodities: coal, steel, aggregates, motorcars and maritime containers are goods most suited to rail movement. Consequently, do we know what studies have been undertaken to determine whether the construction of a supplement to the WCML might give the traditional route a commercial boost in the freight market.

32.  It is commendable that the Government is actively planning for the future demands of domestic rail travel. Yet, that philosophy does not appear to extend to the pressing requirement to refurbish our rapidly disintegrating A & B Class roads, nor to safeguard Heathrow's position as the world's leading international airline hub. Emerging Asiatic countries (especially China) wish to establish links to this hub. Otherwise, Amsterdam, Frankfurt or Paris may gleefully grab this valuable growing business. Heathrow Airport is privately owned, meaning that risk capital can be raised in the financial markets for the construction of further runway capacity. The provision of the rolling-stock (the planes) lies with the airlines, whereas, not only does the immense cost of building the new high-speed railway burden the public purse, the importation of the rolling-stock will have an aggravating effect upon our unsustainable balance of payments deficit. Our privatised railways receive annual subsidies of £5 billion. In its final years, British Rail received £1 billion. Nobody flies from Birmingham to London. The railways already hold most of the public transport market between London-Birmingham, Leeds, Liverpool and Manchester. The closer we look at the HS2 proposition the more important it becomes to carefully weigh in the balance the perceived advantages against a number of obvious reservations before a decision is made, taking all the project's complexities into consideration.

March 2011

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© Parliamentary copyright 2011
Prepared 8 November 2011