High Speed Rail (Preparation) Bill

Written evidence from Network Rail (HSR 33)

The capacity challenge

1. The railways don’t just move people and freight, they also generate and spread prosperity. They can create jobs, connect economic centres and open up new markets to support low-carbon growth.

2. We have seen unprecedented growth over the last decade (2002-2012) and the number of passenger journeys has grown by 50% to 1.46bn. By 2020 a further 400 million passenger journeys will be made and freight will also grow by 30%.

3. Critical parts of the network now run at close to 100% capacity. As more and more people have chosen to travel by rail, trains have become more crowded and we have built longer platforms to accommodate longer trains. Once these longer trains are full we have squeezed more trains onto an already crowded network – we carry one million more trains now than ten years ago. [1] There will come a point when there is simply no space to run more trains and we are rapidly approaching that point on the busiest parts of the network.

4. The more trains run on the network, the greater the knock-on impact when things go wrong. Something as simple as a blown fuse bears comparison with a breakdown on a motorway – you can fix the problem quickly, but there are tailbacks for the rest of the morning. The more congested the network, the harder it is to recover from delays and the greater the impact on punctuality.

5. When more trains run on the network it also causes more wear and tear on the track and other infrastructure. This requires us to close lines to carry out maintenance meaning disruption for passengers.

6. We are investing around £5bn a year in renewing and upgrading the railway, continuing the biggest capacity improvement programme since the Victorian era. By 2019 we will have provided 170,000 extra commuter seats at peak times and space for up to 700 more trains a day across the North of England.

7. Carrying out this work will mean the railway gets better, however, in the long term demand will still outstrip even this extra capacity, and lines like the West Coast Main Line will be full.

West Coast Main Line 

8. The West Coast Main Line connects our biggest cities, carries a quarter of all rail freight and is the busiest mixed-traffic railway in Europe.

9. There are 12 different operators. Fast and stopping passenger trains mix with each other and with heavy freight trains. Different trains stop at different stations, at different frequencies and other lines join it at regular intervals. Train paths are as precious as airport take-off or landing slots and its terminus, London Euston, handles more passengers every day than Gatwick airport. [1]

10. The rail industry continues to invest in capacity to meet growth. We have delivered a major upgrade at Bletchley to allow 12-car trains to operate, train operators have lengthened many services, and proposed work at Stafford will untangle bottlenecks and separate passenger from freight trains. But in the longer term, demand will still outstrip supply.

11. Shorter-distance commuters already experience overcrowding. Most trains between Northampton and London Euston are carrying more passengers than there are seats when they arrive in the capital [2] , and a third of the most overcrowded trains in the country depart from Euston in the evening. [3]

12. By the mid-2020s, the both the trains and the line will be full. The effects will be felt by people at the southern end first, with many commuters unable to board their trains at the busiest times, before similar problems then start to affect longer-distance passengers.

13. Whilst the lack of capacity is most acute at the southern end, demand for long-distance services is also growing at about 5% per annum. [4] Looking forward, our 2013 Long Distance Market Study anticipates growth over the next ten years of between 17 and 24% on London to Birmingham journeys, 31 to 46% on London to Manchester and 25 to 34% for Birmingham to Manchester. [5]

Proposed alternatives to HS2

14. In 2009 Network Rail published the ‘New Lines Study’ which looked at the solution to the capacity problem on the West Coast Main Line. Then, in 2011 we reviewed two specific proposals for the Department for Transport in a study called ‘Review of Strategic Alternatives to High Speed Two’.In each report our conclusions were the same: a new line is the only viable option to meet the long-term growth in demand from passengers and freight.

15. In the 2011 study, Network Rail reviewed the proposal by 51M and also one by Atkins called ‘Rail Package 2’ to assess if they could meet future demand on the West Coast Main Line. As part of this report we included the 2011 load factors into Euston during the busiest peak hour:

o Outer suburban (London Midland trains serving Leighton Buzzard and stations to the north) 129%

o Inner suburban (London Midland trains serving stations mainly to the south of Leighton Buzzard) 83%

o Long distance (Virgin Trains serving primarily business travellers rather than commuters) 80%

16. Since that report was published, the load factors for inner suburban and long distance services are likely to have dropped slightly due to train lengthening. However, our assessment of the proposed alternatives showed that they still did not provide enough capacity to meet long-term demand. Even if all the upgrades within the 51M proposal could be delivered, we estimate that the evening peak hour load factor on suburban services would still be, on average, 96% in 2026 increasing to 122% in 2035.

Benefits of released capacity 

17. As well as transforming long-distance journeys, the completion of Phase 1 to Birmingham will see the majority of long distance services move on to the high speed line, freeing up space on the existing line to meet passenger and freight growth.

18. Our report on how this freed-up additional capacity might be best used found that significant improvements could be provided for commuters at the southern end of the line, such as faster, more frequent trains, more direct services and a reasonable chance of a seat. [6] Places likely to benefit from that released capacity include Milton Keynes, Northampton, Berkhamsted, Hemel Hempstead, and Leighton Buzzard.

19. In addition, the completion of Phase 1 will create space for freight growth and improve local services in the West Midlands, such as a better timetable for local stations between Coventry and Birmingham and a far greater chance of a seat.

20. Though the West Coast Main Line will be the first of our north-south routes to feel the acute effects of increasing demand on the network, similar effects will be felt in future on the East Coast Main Line and Midland Main Line.

21. Phase 2 of HS2 to Leeds and Manchester will not only provide additional capacity, it will also deliver a step-change in Britain’s connectivity, bringing our biggest economic centres closer together and creating opportunities to improve existing services.

22. Network Rail is looking at how to make best use of the capacity and connectivity opportunities HS2 could provide, and this work will run alongside our long term planning process which looks at how the railway should develop to help meet key national aspirations: economic growth, reduction in carbon emissions and a better quality of life for individuals and communities.

Additional resources

23. Submission to the APPG for High Speed Rail’s enquiry into rail capacity, Network Rail, 2012

24. Department for Transport news release on overcrowding, December 2012.

25. West Coast Main Line Route Utilisation Strategy, Network Rail, July 2011

26. New Lines Study, Network Rail, 2009

27. Review of the Strategic Alternatives to High Speed Two, November 2011

July 2013


[1] Network Rail, ‘A better railway for a better Britain ’, 2013

[1] CAA statistics, 2011; ORR statistics, 2011

[2] S ubmission to the APPG for High Speed Rail’s enquiry into rail capacity , Network Rail, 2012

[3] Department for Transport news rel e ase on overcrowding , December 2012.

[4] N ational Rail Trends, Office of Rail Regulation, 2010-2011

[5] Long Distance Market Study (Draft for Consultation, Network Rail, July 2013

[6] Future Priorities for the West Coast Main Line , Network Rail and Passenger Focus, January 2012

Prepared 19th July 2013