High Speed Rail - Transport Committee Contents

Written evidence from Jonathan Tyler, Passenger Transport Networks (HSR 138)


1.  Jonathan Tyler joined British Rail as a Traffic Apprentice in 1962. His career path has been from operations through demand modelling to BR-sponsored university lecturer and then to independent-minded consultancy in a range of transport work. Since 2000 he has specialised in making the case for the importance of integrated strategic timetabling, drawing in particular on Swiss methodology and software for case-studies in Britain. Most recently he was invited by Greengauge 21 to design a joint timetable for HS2 and the West Coast Main Line in order to illustrate the opportunities for new services on the latter that would be afforded by building HS2. He has also contributed to the service-planning aspects of several other HS2 studies. It is this involvement in the technical debate that has prompted the concerns expressed in this submission.

2.  The thrust of the submission is that the planning process for new high-speed railways is too fragmented, based too much on bold assertions and too little on wide-ranging analysis, and too high-level and thus lacking in crucial detail to have yet made a convincing case for building HS2 in the form presently proposed. Attention is drawn to a troubling disconnect between the frequency of services that is being promised and what can credibly be delivered. However this is emphatically not an argument against HS2 in principle, and certainly not an argument against the construction of any new lengths of railway. Rather it is a plea for a more rigorous, extensive and realistic approach, for taking longer to examine the options but in the end reaching sounder decisions, probably including a more even spread of benefits across the regions, cities and towns of Britain. The paper restricts itself to responding to selected questions in the Committee's Inquiry; the author is aware of similar submissions that provide more depth on some of the issues raised here. Full references and additional detail appear in endnotes [p 8].


3.  According to the consultation document the Government's vision is "a truly national high speed rail network for the whole of Britain".1 That is a desirable objective, but no specification of its structure, other than of the "Y" sub-network, has been published. Instead there seem to be unquantified assertions, generalised aspirations, ill-defined commitments and neglected collateral effects. No obvious mechanism exists for resolving the contradictions, and they provide fodder for those who wish to block the proposals for quite other reasons. In particular, no serious timetabling has been undertaken, despite the fact that the timetable is the essential basis on which a railway, of its nature, must be specified and operated.


4.  I take "national network" to mean one that provides every urban centre with a reasonably equal quality of service commensurate with its geography and size, supplemented by suburban railways and bus connections. Only such a network—going beyond a few big-city links—is capable of meeting future demands for travel by a mode that is inherently sustainable in a world where reducing carbon emissions and dependence on increasingly expensive oil is imperative. Britain is some way from that ideal, since service standards vary greatly, rail's modal share varies greatly in consequence and governments, unlike those of some other European countries, have never concerned themselves with defining a programme to improve the situation.2 For the reasons outlined in this paper the adopted scheme for High Speed Rail does not provide a remedy either.


5.  Before discussing the problems it is as well to try to explain how we have got into this situation. The overriding factors appear to be division of responsibility and differing aims.

6.  The Department for Transport [DfT] manages the passenger franchises as largely separate units and with predominantly financial objectives. Improvements to the infrastructure, however welcome, are not explicitly influenced by seeking to meet national standards of service and inter-urban connectivity. The commitment to build new high-speed lines seems instead to be driven by broad assumptions rather than by a detailed analysis of where the country most needs capacity and accelerations. And local governments have only a fragmented and reactive involvement, often, as in the case of HS2, over-influenced by a determination to win a slice of the action.

7.  Responsibility for developing the proposals has been devolved by DfT to High Speed Two Ltd [HS2 Ltd]. That is not in itself an issue, but HS2 Ltd's approach is. It is clear that the company is driven by the prospect of building the world's most advanced high-speed railway, at the cutting edge of technology and with dreams of exports. Whether that is sensible or appropriate in a crowded island with dense development, relatively short distances between urban centres and already-fast timings (at least on London routes) has not been convincingly established.

8.  Network Rail has the herculean task of managing and improving the "classic" network and securing expansion of its capacity. Nonetheless, in public at least, it appears semi-detached from the planning of HS2, despite the substantial implications of future inter-running between HS2 and classic lines. In the same way Crossrail, another distinct entity, does not seem to have had much involvement in HS2's plans for the interchange at Old Oak Common.

9.  Train operating companies mostly have short franchises that render them uninterested in the long-term evolution of services in their territory, and their responses to demand are determined more by the imperative of profit than by any sense of building a public network. They have contributed little to the high-speed debate.

10.  Finally, consultants engaged to develop schemes are obliged to follow the specifications of their clients and to maintain secrecy (out of concern for property values), with the result that no national debate can be held until detailed proposals are ready, by which time it is too late for the community to have a proper conversation about the purposes and characteristics of new railways.


Confused strategies, poor forecasts and muddled economics

11.  Government documents repeatedly emphasise the economic importance of faster inter-city railway services, but it is curious how little analysis is presented of what the real needs are if business travel is the primary motive. Instead, without discussing the mix of business, commuting and leisure generators of travel (the last has sub-categories of varying social benefit), the argument tends to shift to the allegedly serious impending shortfall in capacity.3 However this case is flawed. It pays too little attention to weaknesses in pricing tactics, to the economic implications of the disparity between peak and off-peak volumes and to the scope for relieving the problems (much sooner than HS2 could do) by lengthening and redesigning trains, by comparatively modest infrastructure works and by a thorough review of over-cautious operating practices.4

12.  Three particular features are of concern. One is that classical economic arguments in favour of widening employment markets (to the point, for example, of encouraging mass commuting between Milton Keynes and London and the growth of Birmingham <> London commuting) will increasingly be tempered by resource and carbon constraints. Such travel may even be greatly curtailed. The second is that a significant element of the statistical evidence of overcrowding comes from operating companies who have an interest in talking up the problem and the accuracy of whose data is not publicly tested. And third, the Government's normal economic rigour should be applied to questioning whether the very high cost of alleviating the peak of the peak out of Euston on Friday evenings can be justified.

Maximum speed

13.  HS2 Ltd has specified a railway with a maximum speed of 400 km/h. That is beyond the range of 300 to 360 km/h that is presently typical of new lines and trains. Given the disproportionate increase in energy consumption as speed increases and the effect of very high speed on route geometry one would have expected more open and deliberate analysis of the costs and benefits of options for, say, 300, 350 and 400 km/h. For example, between Birmingham and London running at 300 km/h would add only about five minutes to the 400 km/h schedule of 49 minutes: it is not intuitively obvious that that would make much difference to rail's ability to capture traffic.5

Station location

14.  The consultation paper emphasises the role of the railway in serving city centres.6 This has been a fundamental tenet of the design of railways throughout their history, and it has become normal European practice where high-speed services have been introduced. Moreover, likely trends make central stations critical: the new thinking on place-making clearly indicates this, while building ex-urban stations that principally depend on cars for access would be socially inequitable and (at best) unwise in terms of sustainability.

15.  Yet the present proposals refer imprecisely to what appear to be "parkway" stations for South Yorkshire and the East Midlands. Equally, the service specifications suggest that the preoccupation with fast services between major centres has led to the omission of calls at places such as Carlisle (a railhead serving a huge area) and Stoke-on-Trent (desperately in need of regeneration).

Connections with the "classic" railway

16.  Closely associated with the economic-geography, access, land-use and resource factors in favour of central stations is the question of connections with regional and local public transport networks. These focus on main stations since their own primary function is to serve the concentrated activity of city centres and since that optimises their links with longer-distance services. If the links are broken because high-speed trains serve separate stations then swathes of the population will be denied a share in the benefits from what is likely to be a Government-funded project. A two-tier system of access to fast transits would be economically detrimental.

17.  HS2 Ltd has adopted a seemingly cavalier approach to the impacts of its proposals on some users (notably those from Coventry)7 and on operation of the classic network. For example, just north of the junction between HS2 and the West Coast Main Line [WCML] near Lichfield lies one of the latter's critical constraints, namely the flat junction at Colwich and a two-track section in a four-track railway. It is proposed to add a significant number of extra services, at least during phase one: it is not that they cannot be accommodated, rather that to do so will have a material, yet barely acknowledged,8 effect on the entire WCML (and hence the national) timetable.

18.  Similarly, HS2 Ltd holds out the prospect of connections between its trains and Heathrow Express and long-distance services on the Great Western Main Line [GWML] at a multi-function interchange at Old Oak Common in west London. The Heathrow case derives from the assumed need to include the airport in the high-speed scheme and is more persuasive than the idea of a direct spur [on which see paragraphs 24-25]. The longer-distance case is arguable, since the territory that could benefit is quite limited. GWML is already operating close to its limits, and even when the pending electrification and resignalling add capacity that will quickly be absorbed by indigenous growth. Apparently unaware of this, HS2 does not appreciate that stopping just the Heathrow trains would remove the performance buffer and outer-suburban paths, while the only practicable timetable including stops in GW services would require every train to call (because that, and twin platforms, is the only way to maintain a smooth flow). This would lead to costly works and cause an unacceptable loss of time for GW travellers, relative to marginal gains to interchangers.

Incoherent timetabling of HS2 services

19.  Incoherence in timetabling is also evident in questions about how HS2 itself would work. No evidence has been published about the effect on headways of intermediate stops at Birmingham Interchange and Old Oak Common, apart from unspecific statements about track geometry. Operation of a very frequent service imposes particular requirements on the design of the new Euston, yet turnround and platform-reoccupation times seem optimistic, and it is doubtful whether space exists for the grade-separation that may be essential to avoid conflicts at the "throat". And published summaries of the proposed services are disjointed. We discuss the links to HS1 and Heathrow and the matter of the total number of paths in separate sections below; here we draw attention to issues concerning the pattern of services and the treatment of particular places.

20.  Carlisle and Stoke-on-Trent were mentioned above. The descriptions of the modelling hardly refer to how sub-regional centres will be linked to the core network. No strategy has been set for through running or systematically-planned connections to serve places such as Wakefield, Huddersfield, Rotherham, Chesterfield, Derby, Motherwell, Bolton and Wolverhampton, and no data has been proffered on the share of total demand and potential economic benefits that such places represent or on whether HS2 trains could be adequately loaded without their traffic.

21.  Diagrams outline possible services between provincial centres on the two arms of the "Y" route,9 but those on the eastern arm are meaningless so long as the location of the stations is unknown (greenfield sites would have negligible value for intra-regional journeys) and those on the western arm raise difficulties in serving Macclesfield, Stoke and Wolverhampton which in turn affect the working of WCML in ways that are being ignored. And it is very odd timetabling to suggest that all four Birmingham trains, none of the Manchester trains and one random Leeds train will call at Birmingham Interchange.


22.  The Government believes that HS2 should be connected with HS1 (the line from London St Pancras to the Channel Tunnel and the continental railway network) in order that through trains can operate between British and key European cities. The cost of such a link (including border controls at regional stations) would be considerable, its operation would be extremely difficult (it has not been shown that it is even feasible to timetable HS trains along a section of high-frequency urban line), and it would import into the working of HS2 just the kind of perturbation that HS2 Ltd, when specifying frequencies, has said must be avoided. In any case, the pattern of services could not possibly offer particularly attractive frequencies in competition with direct air services.

23.  The initial evaluation of demand for through services demonstrated that they could not be justified and proposed a local connection between Euston and St Pancras (which would not entail any greater inconvenience than travellers endure at airports). The Government has chosen instead merely to assert the need for the link,10 abetted by parts of the railway promotion lobby that fantasise about romantic international expresses but hardly analyse the market.

24.  A similar situation exists in respect of the proposed link to Heathrow. Several evaluations have found against it on the grounds of demand relative to the cost and to the practical difficulties of securing an effective service without degrading the London offer—the prime purpose of HS2. However the idea of a link is powerful if one buys into belief in an ever-expanding global economy without noting the probability that the very environmental constraints that are used to justify transfers to rail are likely to curtail aviation, especially business trips for which video conferencing is a viable substitute and the marginal leisure trips which cannot conceivably provide an economic rationale for public expenditure on so expensive a new piece of railway.

25.  The plan for an interchange with Crossrail (but not Heathrow Express [see paragraph 18]) is a plausible alternative with other strong arguments in its favour (though it does depend on acceptance of the westerly route though the Chilterns), but this is seen only as an interim measure (at great cost), partly on the basis of the government's visceral objection to interchanging.11 That is not a convincing foundation for serious transport planning.


26.  Given the Government's presentation of HS2 as a national project and given the strong sense in the regions (especially in Scotland and northern England) that they should obtain early and tangible benefits from this huge investment it is entirely understandable that many aspirations are being expressed for inclusion in the pattern of high-speed services. At the same time HS2 Ltd has uncritically bought into the story about capacity promulgated by Network Rail and Virgin Trains and thus extrapolated current WCML services to 2026 and HS2 without sufficient analysis of priorities. The result is an extraordinary muddle that threatens the credibility of the entire scheme. The issues are summarised in the table overleaf (note that the numbers of paths are for the peak period, since that is what matters most when planning the timetable).

27.  A railway has a finite capacity that depends on the layout and speed of the route, the design of signalling, its operational rules, the acceleration, braking capability and stopping patterns of the trains and the mix of these characteristics. As a general rule, the more homogeneous the services the more trains can be operated. High-speed lines tend to have this property, but conversely headways must be wide enough to secure safe separation between trains in the event of a serious incident. At present no high-speed line anywhere in the world runs at more than 14 trains/hour.12 Advances in signalling may raise this to 16 as a peak-period maximum, with some performance risks accepted and if fewer paths are used off-peak to provide a recovery margin.

28.  HS2 Ltd believes that 18 trains/hour may eventually be feasible, but many railway people see this as supremely optimistic, dependent on far-from-proven technology and thus an unsound base for planning: it would be irresponsible to raise expectations and rest calculations of benefit on unachievable scenarios. Moreover, it is expressly admitted that, while 18/hour allows for everyday, unavoidable perturbations within the high-speed system, it would by that same token only be practicable in circumstances where the system has been largely quarantined from the more troubled conditions on the classic railway. The fact that that may not be realised for many years and may be undesirable, for reasons argued earlier, thus strengthens the case for caution.

29.  However HS2 Ltd now envisages 18 for the Y network without explaining why it thinks that will be achievable by the opening of phase 2.13 The proposed distribution of paths is shown in the first column of the table. Broadly the plan is to run four Birmingham services, six on the eastern arm of the Y and eight on the western arm. A strange note is then appended: "Further work is being done to determine which of the above services might serve Heathrow and which might run on to mainland Europe". That is more than a technical matter of "further work"! It is absolutely fundamental to the concept and objectives of HS2.

30.  Column 2 sets out a specification that combines the aspirations expressed around the country with an outline evaluation of the ideal frequencies required to make the services attractive in terms of convenience (assuming continued availability for the majority of travellers of the ever-flexible car). The total is an impossible 27 to 30, including provision for HS1 and Heathrow trains. Something must give, and an optimistic maximum scheme is presented in column 3. This cuts Edinburgh and Glasgow to alternate-hour trains each, removes a Newcastle service, sharply trims the Yorkshire, East Midlands and North West patterns and reduces both HS1 and Heathrow to a thin provision of only two trains/hour each. Column 4 removes two more paths to bring the total to an altogether more rational planning maximum of 16 trains/hour.

31.  At that point it must be asked whether the listed HS1 and Heathrow services would offer sufficient flexibility to attract travellers who have the alternative options of either direct flights or a relatively simple interchange along the Euston Road. Operationally too the need to provide connections would impinge on timetable planning. And above all the frequency could not justify the cost of constructing the two links while the unavoidable loss of Euston services would undermine the economics of HS2, with consequences probably spreading back to the capacity that it was supposed to release on WCML. The inescapable conclusion is that links to HS1 and Heathrow cannot be justified and should be removed from the Government's proposals. They are simply not credible.

32.  The outcome of achieving clarity on this issue is shown in column 5, where the freed paths are redistributed to give a more appropriate domestic network: these are the services timed in detail in the Greengauge exercise in proposals wholly integrated with other services on WCML.14

33.  There is one possible source of relief, but it is another sign of the confusion surrounding pathing that statements differ and practical proposals are absent. HS2 Ltd proposes that the Birmingham <> London trains should be composed of two 200-metre sets, and the stations are to be designed to accommodate 400-metre trains. Yet the trains working through from and to the classic railway would be formed of single 200-metre sets (presumably total separation might allow coupled units for Leeds and Manchester eventually, but not for other places). This would represent substantial under-utilisation of capacity.

34.  The solution of course is to run separate sets between provincial centres and locations in the Midlands where they would couple to run over the core HS2 section - and divide on the return.15 The practice is commonplace with German and French high-speed trains, which seem to manage it effectively. The suspicion must be that HS2 Ltd is so committed to achieving the fastest possible times between major centres that it has lost sight of practical service-planning. Joining and splitting does require time for the technical operation, a performance margin and one or two stations on the existing railway rebuilt to handle 400-metre trains, but it would bring with it great gains in connectivity and frequency and more effective use of the new capacity.

35.  The implications are shown in the last two columns of the table. It could be used to retain two trains/hour for both HS1 and Heathrow, but it would be better (column 7) to maintain a worthwhile frequency on each Y arm and to run only 14 trains/hour. Natural locations for joining and splitting are Derby and Stafford. Crucially, pursuing this concept implies closer integration between the old and the new systems than HS2 Ltd might wish—but with large potential benefits—and it would predicate comprehensive timetabling of the whole network.

36.  Finally a point must be made about regulation and competition. The analysis of possible distributions of paths assumes a planned railway (because a complex system demonstrably depends for its optimal functioning on planning). If multiple operators are granted access by a regulator to compete for the most lucrative markets it is certain that services for the less lucrative markets will be cut back, to the detriment of an even spreading of benefits. The ambiguity in government policy on this matter must soon be resolved. It should be noted that a service planned by a public-interest agency does not exclude its delivery by a range of contracted parties.


37.  The strategic objectives of HS2 are in disarray. Timetable planning on the existing network is not in good shape, as the East Coast saga has shown.16 Awkward interfaces between plans across the country are becoming more evident, and none so much as those between HS2 and the classic railway. It has not been proven conclusively that the capacity shortfall on WCML merits a huge single project that cannot deliver benefits for fifteen years, in preference to enlarging the programme of smaller, more immediate incremental projects across the country, particularly ones that might appreciably lift rail's very low modal share. And timetabling is emphatically not some secondary technical activity that can be undertaken long after large projects have been designed.

38.  In my view, what is needed is a process that (a) starts with a matrix of flows by all modes and models future demand under a range of scenarios; (b) sets targets for modal shares driven by environmental (eg. carbon-reduction) as well as economic factors; (c) derives a national timetable plan to meet the forecast demand, within a framework of standards and free of historical and institutional preconceptions; and (d) draws up a national rail infrastructure plan to enable the planned services to run in an operationally efficient manner. Such a process might well generate a case for new lines, including even something akin to the current proposal, but they would be embedded in a coherent plan for the benefit of the country as a whole. The tools and the data exist for such an exercise—and to undertake it would bring Britain into line with Switzerland, whose much admired public transport network has been built through applying broadly this methodology over the last 30 years and which already enjoys a vision for the next 20.

May 2011

1  Department for Transport [DfT] (2011 - February). High Speed Rail: Investing in Britain's Future. Consultation. This quote [at p.28] comes from the May 2010 Programme for Government.

2  For one of countless examples see: Abbott, S (2011). A lament for Lincoln. Modern Railways, May, pp 69-73.

3  For example, the consultation document [op cit, pp 9-10] slips from generalisations about economic growth and competitiveness into an uncritical discussion about capacity, for which high-speed lines may, or may not, be the solution. The too-easily-forgotten Eddington Transport Study [Department for Transport (2006)] concluded [Volume 2, para 2.18] that "average rail journey times between major UK urban areas are close to that [sic] of other European countries, with journeys between London and other UK major cities performing particularly well relative to journeys from other European capitals". In its advice to Government [Executive Summary, paras 1.50-1.52] it placed the emphasis on the density of transport demand rather than on high speed. The genesis of the present proposals lies in the former but has been taken over by the latter. The report is archived at
http://webarchive.nationalarchives.gov.uk/+/http://www.dft.gov.uk/adobepdf/187604/206711/executivesummary.pdf and ~ /206711/volume2.pdf.

4  Some safety rules are unnecessarily restrictive, some timing margins are longer than they need be in order to protect Network Rail's performance record, and on some sections more trains could probably be run in peak periods by trading off the advantage of more seats against occasional risks to punctuality.

5  Author's estimate from the published diagrams
[www.dft.gov.uk/pgr/rail/pi/highspeedrail/proposedroute/maps/]. Comparisons between current and high-speed journey-times must be transparent with regard to recovery margins: the latter are probably being quoted with modest allowances whereas the former are inflated by the malign effects of the prevailing performance regime.

6  "Inter-city rail links have an unrivalled capacity to enable rapid and direct journeys between central business districts" [op cit, para 1.32]; HS2 Ltd's "demand-led" approach indicated "city centre station locations with high quality onward transport links" [para 4.6].

7  It described its future London service of one train/hour (rather than three) as "residual" [DfT (2009). High Speed Rail: London to the West Midlands and Beyond. HS2 Technical Appendix, Appendix 2, p 17].

8  "It is assumed that some infrastructure/signalling works have taken place in the Stafford area to alleviate this known capacity constraint" [ibid, para 2.20]. Any project would be complex, environmentally fraught and very costly.

9  DfT (2011—February). Economic Case for HS2: The Y Network and London—West Midlands. Figure A2, p 61.

10  Compare the two appraisals: DfT (2010). High Speed Rail: London to the West Midlands and Beyond. A Report to Government by High Speed Two Limited*, section 3.8, and paras 3.24-3.33 of the Consultation document [op cit].
* http://webarchive.nationalarchives.gov.uk/20110131042819/http://www.dft.gov.uk/pgr/rail/pi/highspeedrail/hs2ltd/hs2report/pdf/chapter3d.pdf

11  The Secretary of State is reported to have said "Lug your heavy bags down a couple of escalators along 600m of corridor and then change trains at a wet suburban station somewhere in north west London. That is not an option"

12  As far as this author is aware. The Tokaido Line runs at 14 trains/hour in the morning peak into Tokyo. There are plans for 15/hour in France after 2020.

13  See the figure referenced at endnote 9. The original specification was 14 trains/hour in the peak (10 off-peak) with "an ultimate capacity of 18" [see endnote 7, Appendix 1, para 2.3.2].

14  Greengauge21 (2011). High-speed rail: capturing the benefits of HS2 on existing lines. The present author designed the timetable summarised in this report; a detailed technical report will shortly be available. See:

15  The consultation document refers rather casually to portion working for Heathrow services [op cit, p 66], and two associated Factsheets mention coupled running, but no other reference is known. See:
and ~ files/connecting-to-heathrow_0.pdf.

16 See: Tyler, J (2010). How not to write a timetable. Modern Railways, November, pp 64-66.

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Prepared 8 November 2011