High Speed Rail - Transport Committee Contents

Written evidence from Thomas Hart (HSR 91)

This submission argues that HSR should be examined not only in relation to conflicts or synergy with other aspects of rail strategy over the next 20 to 30 years but also in the context of the economic importance, and climate change benefits, of more rapid moves to a low carbon and energy efficient economy. It considers whether a high priority for HSR investment might prejudice more beneficial investment (and other fiscal and regulatory actions) not only in other parts of the rail system but in other parts of the economy.

The conclusion is that there is a justifiable place for phased HSR development in wider programmes for transport and other aspects of moves to a low carbon and energy efficient economy.


As noted in the attached summary paper on changing trends presented at Glasgow University on the occasion of the 25th anniversary of the formation of the Scottish Transport Studies Group, transport trends entered a period of major historical change in the later 1990s characterised by:

—  a near stabilisation of passenger movement per head within the UK (even in conditions of economic expansion and increasing car ownership);

—  a significant shift from car to rail passenger use (not evident in any previous decade since 1910); and

—  a substantial slowing of previous rates of aviation growth from around 2000 (including a near stabilisation of air miles per head within the UK but continuing, though moderated, growth in longer-distance travel by air.

Freight was not dealt with in the paper but there is evidence of longer distance freight remaining overwhelmingly dependent on sea and rail with rising road fuel and labour costs and improving rail quality also leading to expansion of general rail freight in addition to bulk traffic parts of which—such has coal and oil—are shifting from growth to decline under low carbon policies).

These changes have been poorly reflected in existing UK methods of movement forecasting. This requires urgent re-examination, especially in relation to longer distance trips and to patterns of movement within city regions. Even in the absence of low carbon issues, changing trends reflect a new situation where rising real incomes and aspirations for a different quality of life seem certain to see an increase in preferences for travel by rail over longer distances and also in, and around, larger cities and tourism centres i.e. a sharp contrast from the car and aviation preferences which were dominant from the 1960s to the 1990s.

Low carbon issues, higher energy costs (notably for oil and gas), changing fiscal and regulatory policies and improved efficiency within the rail sector (both in procurement and in operations) are likely to reinforce an existing trend towards rail over the next 20 to 30 years with increasing probability of some absolute decline in car and lorry vehicle miles (with the possible exception of a few UK regions with above average rates of growth in population). Though it is arguable that an ability of the road motor sector to adapt to low carbon or a superior ability in other sectors to achieve cost-effective carbon reduction may permit a re-expansion of road use relative to rail, this is now highly improbable. It is worth noting that the recent EU draft of a revised transport strategy expects the rail and water share of medium distance movement to rise from around 20% to 50%.

This evidence suggests that rail growth over the next 20 to 30 years will continue at a high level with road traffic stabilising or falling. Recent rail passenger growth on the West Coast Main Line has been as high as 10% a year with the Virgin Rail/Stagecoach partnership confident that growth will continue in the 6% to 8% range over the next five years and beyond if key capacity constraints are removed. There are particularly strong prospects for business and discretionary travel shifting from air to rail , not only on shorter trips into continental Europe but also on corridors such as the Scottish Central Belt to London, Birmingham and other English and Welsh cities. Within England and Wales, the greatest prospects are for changes in business and discretionary travel decisions from car to rail use.


The above scenario, though it may vary in intensity and by corridor, indicates a clear and cumulative shift of mode share from road and air to rail within a stable level of total movement within the UK—demand for substantial increases in road capacity has virtually disappeared with attention shifting to a few localised schemes , better use of the existing inter-urban road network , absolute falls in road traffic levels within cities and some expansion of maintenance and localised schemes yielding clear gains.

In all transport sectors, more attention (and investment—much being private) will require to be given to more efficient use of energy and shifts to low-carbon fuels. But rail offers particular opportunities for increasing the use of low carbon electric traction for both passenger and freight—justifying enlargement of the present electrification programme and the introduction of lower energy usage by both local and longer-distance trains (Present Virgin and Eurostar trains compare poorly with the latest continental HSR trains in terms of energy per seat mile while there are also opportunities to vary pricing to improve seat utilisation).

In terms of track capacity, the present rail network offers much scope to increase usage through provision of more rolling stock, additional and longer platforms and signalling/timetabling changes. However, a key issue is to identify:

(a)  those corridors on which demand is rising beyond the ability to cope through relatively small improvements; and

(b)  gaps in the network and interchange/ticketing deficiencies which inhibit rail growth not only on corridors to, and within, London but also between, and within, other cities and tourism/leisure areas. This includes the topic of access to principal airports, using rail access to inter-link with flights increasingly to and from longer-distance overseas origins and destinations.

Under (a), rising demand (and the ability to release capacity on existing routes for freight and additional regional and "intermediate express" services) justifies planning now for new sections of HSR route (as in the present Y strategy from London to the West Midlands dividing for Lancashire and Leeds) fully completed by 2030 but including complementary work to facilitate shorter trip times north from Leeds and Lancashire and also on other inter-city corridors.

Lengthy sections of new route should be designed for HSR operation (defined as speeds of 200 mph or higher) but with most HSR trains also operating over sections of improved existing route—including extra opportunities for overtaking freight or intermediate passenger services or diversion of some of these to alternative routes. While some HSR trains may be designed to the more commodious continental loading gauge (including double-deck operation) but precluded from operating over existing lines with more limited clearances, the most cost-effective and realistic approach over the next 20 years is likely to lead to most HSR trains in Britain being capable of operating over the inter-city network - though with strictly limited stops and average speeds in the 135-150 mph range (higher on longer sections of new build route).

HSR plans should proceed in parallel with:

—   city region rail/Metro/tram /bus improvements;

—  strengthened rail freight strategy (including a large rise in electric haulage);

—  an expanded national and regional rail electrification programme;

—  major improvements in interchange and ticketing;

—  specific programmes for improvements in the inter-urban passenger network; (involving shorter sections of new construction, line redoubling, line reopening and measures to raise speeds to 140 or 150 mph on some sections of route—together with timetabling adjustments, this could raise average speeds on inter-city links to the 90-110 mph range if demand so justified. On several routes, the preference may be for improved frequency and lower fares but somewhat lower average speeds—especially for links to, and within, tourist/leisure areas).


Expanded rail usage could be funded from a variety of sources such as:

(1)  increased usage and income.

(2)  savings arising from shifts in business and discretionary spend from car and air to rail use; reduced HGV levels, energy and fossil fuel savings; cuts in trunk road and airport investment;

(3)  since most savings and benefits under (2) would have no direct reflection in rail income, consideration should be given to allocating a proportion of net proceeds of road fuel taxation and aviation taxation towards rail schemes shown to be offering benefits not fully reflected in income (or reduced if attempts were made to maximise income);

(4)  earmarking part of the proceeds of carbon trading or fossil energy taxation towards the costs of approved rail projects;

(5)  savings in procurement and more efficient operations (McNulty estimates suggests that, on the basis of continental comparison, rail project procurement costs could be cut in real terms by at least 30% while electrification offers considerable savings in operating costs (especially with a rising trend in usage) plus other opportunities for cuts in operational and signalling costs with gains for transport safety;

6)  expansion of public/private partnerships subject to assessment of risk transfer eg private finance could be expanded in some areas of rolling stock provision, track/signalling maintenance and interchange improvement but with public finance (and lower borrowing costs) utilised for the formation of new rail alignments and for payments towards franchise specifications for sub-commercial networks. On some busy corridors, payments from operators to government could help fund borrowing costs but with care taken to ensure that such payments did not contradict the aims of encouraging mode shift from car and air to rail); and

(7)  potential levies on increases in property values or earmarking of other taxes towards contributions to borrowing costs.

May 2011

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Prepared 8 November 2011