High Speed Rail Link Two (HS2) – The Great Debate

Phil Marsh takes an objective look at the High Speed UK rail debate.

High Speed Rail Link Two (HS2)

Phil Marsh reports on the June 21 Transport Select Committee (TSC) meeting, recently televised, which discussed the High Speed Rail debate. Questions from TSC members reflected the arguments put forward by the pro and anti sections to the project.

The TSC invited people with experience of High Speed Rail to answer questions put to them by the Parliamentary Group to help them assess proposals to build the UK’s second High Speed rail line from London to Birmingham, Manchester, Leeds and Scotland, known as HS2. This was based on the five month public consultation period launched by The Transport Secretary Philip Hammond in February, which ends on July 29.

The TSC did NOT consider the effects of HS2 on individual landowners, business and residents. It concentrated on the principle arguments for and against High Speed Rail as a concept rather than the precise specification for the line.

Members of the TSC chaired by Louise Ellman included Milton Keynes MP Ian Stewart,

Wycombe MP Steven Baker, Manchester MP, John Leech and they looked at how HS2 would fit in with the Governments stated transport policy, the business case and overall impact of the line costed at £32bn.

Witnesses called for their high Speed Rail experience were Nicolas Petrovic, Chief Executive, Eurostar and Pierre Messulan, the Rail Strategy and Regulation Director of French Railways (SNCF). UK attendees were Anthony Smith, Passenger Focus, Richard Eccles, Director of Network Planning, Network Rail, and Michael Roberts, Chief Executive of the Association of Train Companies (ATOC).

The freight sector was as ever, ably represented by Lord Tony Berkely, Chairman of The Railfreight Group. These are all people with a vast experience of railways in the UK and Europe who offered some very interesting comments in response to TSC questions.

Richard Eccles emphasised that no final decision had yet been made as to the precise route of HS2 but that starting it at Euston was key to the project. A structured consultation and research exercise would commence in a few weeks and would be ongoing until September.

These structured questions would provide information from organisations affected by the line and included asking opinions on specimen timetables. These include new train service patterns on the West Coast Main Line (WCML) with Northampton specifically mentioned as being brought within 45 minutes of Euston and Milton Keynes having maybe 10 trains an hour to Euston.

A new station at Kenilworth was talked about, (as it has been for a decade) between Coventry and Leamington, perhaps as a sop to gain support from campaigners who want their old station reopened.

New Timetables from 2026 and Lichfield Junction

The frequency and length of trains to and from the West Midlands is being looked at for a new timetable to start in 2026 when the first section of HS2 could open. This would be possible because of better faster paths made available by HS2 taking long distance traffic from the WCML as far as Lichfield where it would join the existing WCML until the second section opens.

One key point Lord Berkely made was that north of Lichfield, up to 6 trains an hour plus the additional freight services running on HS2 would be rejoining the WCML there creating a traffic jam there. So what alternative routes would be made available until Manchester and Leeds were connected into HS2, later joined by Scotland. He made the very valid point that freight trains only ran when there was a customer, unlike passenger trains which run as part of a franchise agreement and can run empty taking up capacity for no benefit.

He also hoped that the Rail Regulator would remain independent in approving train paths and cited that one train company (believed to be Virgin) who insisted that the Government said they had priority over all other trains. Given one freight path an hour for 10 hours a day on the WCML, Richard Eccles said that 300,000 lorry loads could be removed from the roads a year.

Economic Benefits Learned from HS1

NR strongly believes in the economic benefits that HS2 will bring based on experience gained from HS1 and other similar lines around the world. He also said that the socio-economic benefits are not reflected in the current assessments, as they miss out tax benefits and job creation. A study of these benefits is due to be published in mid August and a copy was requested by the TSC.

The SNCF 30 Year High Speed Rail Experience

The SNCF guests were invited to inform the debate of their experience of high speed rail over the last 30 years. M. Petrovic said that the gradual reduction of journey time from when services started in 1994 taking 200 minutes between London Waterloo and Paris, reduced by 15 minutes when the first section of HS1 opened and by another 15 minutes when St. Pancras opened in November 2007.

Before 1994, rail had an insignificant share of the London-Paris/Brussels travel market but now accounts for 80% of all travel said M. Petrovic. One of the attractions was that people enjoyed the seamless travel with shorter check-in times at stations than at airports offering more productive time while on the train than by flying.

Punctuality reached about 95% since HS1 opened throughout which in turn boosted business travellers. Last year 9.5m passengers travelled and the forecast for 2011 is 10million in a two way market with passengers travelling to and from Europe attracted by the ease of travel and journey-times. When Eurostar services commenced, the tipping point where passengers transferred to air was 3 hours, now it is 4 hours.

M. Messulan when asked about how SNCF (The French Rail Network Operator) had decided to locate stations replied that it was a simple matter of joining large areas of population. The first HS line was opened 30 years ago linking Paris, Dijon, Lyons and Marseilles, all with a large population.

French Success

The success was due to fast journey-times which eventually led to companies relocating to Paris as it became easy for business men to make a day visit to the Regions rather than staying overnight or having to fly. This meant that suppliers and customers found meeting easier and cheaper using the new high speed rail network.

Eurostar have noted the increase in UK regional traffic and M. Petrovic cited travellers from Leeds to Paris changing at Kings Cross/St. Pancras and London to Marseilles via Lille as specific examples of travellers choosing rail over air even if there was one change, as long as it was easy.

This meant that the regional towns with high speed line stations attracted businesses, thus boosting the local economy. This was seen in Lyons to start with which attracted many local businesses creating employment and was a catalyst for economic growth. Lille was another town to benefit from the TGV network and the local council has created a new town around the station. Eurostar has grown consistently for eight years despite the recession.

He reminded the TSC that if you added one stop to a journey, it added seven minutes to the schedule which drastically reduced the competitiveness of the project. Ridership had vastly exceeded projections on the early lines but were over optimistic on later routes.

Passenger Forecasts and New Stations

But the most recent lines to open have met predictions and in any case, over a longer period of time, forecasts have been met. Existing stations such as in Paris and the regions had been used to keep the cost as low as possible. Each TGV route is a leg of the network – hence the use of existing stations and some of the pre-existing network on cost and efficiency terms.

The only new stations were at places such as Paris Roissy station at Charles De Gaulle airport which quickly became self-funding as they provided trains direct to and from the airport from 65 stations in France. These trains were mainly inter-regional trains and not serving Paris but were equally well loaded to and from the airport station.

Joint venture combined tickets has been developed with airlines, this has also been done in Germany. Conversely, Air France had complained that the TGV services had destroyed the domestic market for them and 120 million passengers were now carried every year on TGVs.

The SNCF high speed network had made mass rail travel affordable by price management (demand forecasting in UK language) and he also said that the TGV services had saved the rail business from collapse in France as road competition was prevailing by providing inter regional connections. In short, high speed rail was and is a success he said. Having a good regional network also helped passenger numbers and the economy he said.

Regional HS2 Stations

In response to a question about intermediate stops from the Milton Keynes MP, he was told that Transportation is about geography and demography and you stop when the volume of passengers was present. High speed rail should have few stops but should offer connections with classic routes.

The next TGV line will open in December from Dijon to the German border and it was decided that where the population was between 200,000 and 300,000 in a town, it was worth stopping, but not for lower populations which are served by connections.

The new line linked several towns which trains will stop at, but not all trains will call at all stations and each of these are served by regional services offering good journey-times and frequency driving modal shift from road and air to rail.

In response to questions from the Wycombe MP, M. Petrovic said that the market to and from London was close to carrying as much as was possible but when they had a marketing campaign in quiet times, ridership grew. They also expected more growth when the new trains were delivered. He said that the HS1 could run 12 trains an hour now which could increase to 14 trains an hour in December this year. With the European Train Control System, this could reach up to 15 or 16 trains an hour.

He also asked if it was true that the further away from Paris, the greater the subsidy required. This was rebutted by saying that the Paris to Lyons and Marseilles route was the most profitable because of the population in these cities. The real question to ask, suggested the SNCF Director, was when to stop building TGV lines as the most populous towns are now connected to the network.

When asked about noise and visual impact complaints, M. Messulan replied that they had not had many arguments to start with as the lines crossed rural areas. Later, when more populated areas had lines built through them it was mainly rich people who objected and noise protection was provided.

The French planning laws are different to the UKs and support the construction of nationally important projects. In the UK, the law is different and noise reduction measures should be used. The last question was about noise complaints in France. The TSC was told, frankly, there were no complaints received about noise as their high speed lines had been surrounded by earth embankments or noise reduction fences.

The Route

HS2 could start at Euston and run via a tunnel to Old Oak Common and then roughly follow the old GWR route through the Chilterns via Wendover and across the Vale of Aylesbury to Quainton. From there it would follow the old GCR route and crosses the Bletchley to Oxford line at Claydon. It would run via a spur line into the old London & Birmingham Railway’s terminus at Curzon Street in Birmingham just round the corner from New Street and Moor Street stations.

Chiltern Dissenters

The Transport Secretary Philip Hammond has described the Chiltern protestors as NIMBYs. These same people objected when Marylebone was nearly closed in the mid 1980s and gladly took the property price increases driven by the Network Southeast route modernisation and introduced new trains 20 years ago.

They are also very happy for the route upgrades between Marylebone, High Wycombe, Princes Risborough and Banbury to Birmingham Snow Hill but they are against the new line even though it will generate local employment and reduce traffic on the M40 through the Chilterns. It will also provide better train paths, more trains and seats in peak hours on the Chiltern route and the WCML from stations such as Tring and Cheddington, just a short drive from Aylesbury.

The Chiltern Society has produced a very biased DVD against the HS2 scheme claiming that nobody knows what the effect of trains passing at 250mph will be. These obviously will not run unless proved to be safe.

They also claim that a chalk river will dry up because of the proposed railway tunnel and that the construction phase will be awful. Their DVD ends with very patriotic music and says that nothing should change the area. Therefore one assumes that they are against any progress or modernisation and economic benefits that the project is forecast to bring.

Your Opinion Counts

Visit www.campaignforhsr.com or call 07758 019 351 for more details.

Images copyright of rail.co.uk


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