Rail 610: High speed rail still a long way off

Gosh, how things can change so quickly. Rail policy requires long term strategic thinking and the commitment of governments to carry it through. That’s how Japan and France built the world’s most extensive high speed rail networks and it is the strategy being followed by

Spain and China which will overtake them in the next decade.

 Yet, here, plans are chopped and changed with all the frequency of managerial sackings in the Premiership. Just 18 months after ministers kicked the idea of a new high speed line firmly into touch, it is now firmly back on the agenda when Geoff Hoon, in his Heathrow announcement, said that a study would be undertaken. .

 It is, though, difficult not to take this remarkable U turn with a pinch of salt. While I have no doubt about rail minister Lord Adonis’s personal commitment to the concept, I am far more sceptical about the way that the high speed line has become embroiled with the future of Heathrow. As Lord Adonis admitted himself in an interview in the Evening Standard, by saying ‘we  are quite clear that the scope for replacing domestic flights by high speed  rail  is limited. The case for a high speed line has very little  to do with replacing domestic flights, though it could replace some at  the margins. It is based on the need for additional inter-city capacity on our rail network.’

 This makes clear that the announcement about high speed rail was made at the same time as the Heathrow runway plan as a sop to the more environmentally-concerned ministers in the Cabinet such as Ed Miliband and Harriet Harman, rather than as an attempt at integrated transport policy. But it barely takes the salt off the pill, let alone sweetening it.

 A third runway at Heathrow is an environmental disaster on a huge scale. Quite apart from the carbon emissions implications – and we can ignore the nonsense about the runway not being used to full capacity until the emissions targets are met – the project will cast a pall over a large swathe of west London and reduce the value of thousands of houses which will find themselves under flight paths for the first time. But note the different emphasis given to the schemes: the third runway is getting the definite go ahead, while for the rail project, there is to be an assessment of the scheme, something which was actually a manifesto commitment that Labour has so far forgotten. Moreover, there was a study nine years ago which rejected the idea and it was again effectively ruled out both by the Eddington report into infrastructure needs published in 2006 and the rail strategy paper the following year.

 There is no doubt, from what Lord Adonis has written and said, that he wants the government to give a firm commitment to the idea. He also wants electrification of both the Great Western and Midland Main lines, something which has the side effect of making the Intercity Express Project in its present form redundant. Adonis is understood to be working at ways of implementing these major schemes on the cheap, but there is clearly no funding for either a high speed line or electrification at least until 2014, unless new money were made available, since the five year Control Period 4 which starts this April includes nothing for either scheme.

 So the rail minister has set himself a big task in winning over not only his own boss, Geoff Hoon, who clearly has no real commitment to rail given his readiness to push yet more money into road schemes, but also the Treasury, at a time when the recession is going to eat into passenger numbers on the railway.

 The study will need to demonstrate conclusively that a high speed line would be a genuinely green project, and that will be no easy task for its supporters to prove. An environmental audit of such a major scheme will have to take into account the huge amounts of carbon by its construction and by the trains running on the line. That will be fine if it can be demonstrated that passengers on the trains will be using less carbon than otherwise, and that may be hard to prove. For example, people displaced from existing trains will have actually increase their carbon emissions, and so will those who would not have travelled otherwise.

 The experience of the High Speed One demonstrates just how difficult it is to assess the environmental consequences of these projects. The line between the Channel Tunnel and St Pancras represents massive overprovision if it is to be used solely for Eurostar. But both the potential additional uses are problematic. Freight is effectively barred by the premium prices – six times the normal mileage rates – being asked by London & Continental the state owned company that owns the line. Contrast this with the French policy of encouraging postal trains onto their high speed network with special rolling stock.

 The Kent trains, due to be introduced on the high speed line in December, are an answer to a question that was never asked. While commuter services from Kent are poor thanks to the history of the railway, their users were mostly quite content to travel into Cannon Street and Charing Cross at relatively low fares. Now, fares are rising by 3 per cent above the rate of inflation in order to pay for the new high speed services and those people who do go onto the new high speed services will pay a further premium.

 A Kent MP, Roger Gale, is incensed by the fact that his constituents are being asked to pay premium fares for a service they never asked for and has launched a campaign to try to restrict these increases and to preserve existing services as much as possible. He points out that few of them will want to go to St Pancras, rather than their present London destination, which will negate any time saving. Therefore, the advent of a high speed line will lead to people travelling further and at a greater energy cost, and what is more paying for the privilege. Similarly, an environmental audit would have to show that the passengers attracted to the new railway would be using less energy than had the line not been built, not an easy test. 

 Even if the environmental criteria can be satisfied, there are fundamental questions about the high speed announcement. From what one can glean from the sketchy statements, the projects is for a line from Heathrow to central London, presumably St Pancras, and then up north, initially to Birmingham. But is not the best route for a high speed line. It would make the journey from Heathrow up north rather convoluted if passengers all had to travel via London (and change trains?) when, in fact, they could easily drive round the M25 and up the M40 to Birmingham in pretty much the same time. There is, too, a big question mark over fares. As I have argued before, the way that a high speed line would be funded, and the fact that there is no government policy to ensure cheap fares, means that it is highly likely that reaching Heathrow by train would be considerably more expensive than flying, particularly as airlines tend to price connecting flights very cheaply.

 Moreover, existing services on the West Coast are excellent and fast. A friend of mine recently told me how he left a meeting in Whitchurch in Shropshire at 6 45 and managed to reach a dinner in Chelsea at 9 30 pm with a rather tight connection at Crewe. Who needs high speed lines with that kind of service?

 It is going to be a fascinating debate and it is welcome that Labour has, at last, made good its promise to investigate seriously the high speed line concept. But in the mix, there should, too, be consideration of investing a similar sum – say £30bn – in improving and expanding the existing network which might be money better spent, given my friend’s experience on the West Coast Main Line. And ultimately, if I had to put money on it, I still reckon neither a high speed line nor the third runway will ever be built. But it is going to take a long time to prove me right – or wrong!



Adonis puts train operators on the back foot


The decision by Lord Adonis to stop South West Trains from implementing nearly half its proposed cuts to ticket office hours shows that any operator contemplating make cuts in services in response to the downturn will face an uphill task to push them through. SWT declared itself ‘deeply disappointed’ at the ministerial decision saying that the reductions ‘were not plucked out of thin air but were the result of a thorough assessment of ticket sales’ at the affected stations.

 Obviously, though, the minister clearly looked at the evidence and took a different view as he was entitled to do under the Ticket and Settlement Plan, the 1995 regulations which ensure that there has to be ministerial sanction for any major change in customer service. According to industry sources, this effectively means any alteration apart from very minor reductions of, say, half an hour, to opening hours.

 This is a far cry from the laissez faire attitude of previous ministers, highlighting just how craven past incumbents were by acquiescing to such cuts. Remember the changes  implemented by Southeastern two years ago which left 30 stations with much reduced opening times and which were rubberstamped by ministers.  

 Moreover, train operators will be viewing this decision with trepidation. Of course they will argue that this is yet another example of micromanagement by the Department but, in fact, it is actually safeguarding passenger interests. That said, it is daft that ministers are having to make decisions at this level and this episode merely reinforces the view that there should be a quasi independent railways agency to police the franchise contracts. But in the meantime, Lord Adonis’s vigilance in support of passengers is welcome.


  • Ross

    A note on the use of rail to access Heathrow for an international journey. While this might be the best option if you live in the south-east, my own experience flying through LHR to go overseas has been that it is far easier to fly into Heathrow and transfer there – without having to go through security again – than to take a train to London and then across to the airport.

    The main reason is luggage. Provincial airports take your luggage off you at the earliest convenient opportunity and then check it through to your final destination – no having to lug 20-kg bags onto and off the Heathrow Express or (worse!) the Tube. The landside facilities at LHR are so-so, and the check-ins can be awful – much easier for all concerned to check in at a provincial airport, and then remain airside when you get to London.

    But then – there’s no reason why you should go through LHR at all if you can fly directly from the provinces to wherever you want to go, or go through the big European hubs – which are far more pleasant to use than Heathrow. Or Gatwick, for that matter!

  • James

    Yes indeed, for anyone with luggage an air connection is much easier than train plus tube to Heathrow, although many people would be travelling with sufficiently light bags that that’s no great hindrance. A more significant problem is the lack of interlining possibilities. With the cheaper train tickets all requiring advance booking on a specific train (just like the airlines), anyone trying to organise such a connection either has to leave themselves a huge time margin for error, or pay through the nose for flexible tickets. If either train or plane is too late to make the booked connection, the company responsible isn’t going to rush to help you rebook, whereas with air tickets, whether or not it’s the same company on both legs, for a through-ticketholder they are required to sort out an alternative. With trains direct to Heathrow, the potential for problems causing delay is reduced, but unless train tickets were to be sold by airlines as connecting “flights” this major drawback would remain to discourage passengers from using the train to get to Heathrow.

  • richard keen

    Re your tirade against the Kent HST’s due to be launched this year why be so negative? I agree that passengers should not be asked to pay more, there was no corresponding increase when Virgin’s VHF started, but so far as I can see you forgot to mention the reduced journey times from Mid and East Kent, the interchange opportunities at Stratford and the general ecomonic benefits { ok after the current recession is over} of having a high speed line in a town. I bet even the disgruntled commuters will not mind seeing their property prices rise rapidly once the link starts as I believe has already happened around Ebbsfleet.

    Of course we can revert to King Arthur class locomotives. I’m old enough to remember them and the general benefits the 1960’s eletification had on the area, being the stimulas for growth in the Medway towns. I believe the HST’s will have an equal effect for Ashford, Folkestone, Dover and the Thanet areas, which I believe are economicically at the low end of the scale for the UK

  • Paul O

    I would say this article is an accurate assesment and I am in the No camp for Environmental reasons and a desire to see the current network built up further all of which I’ve said in previous posts and which is very well covered here.

    What I do want to touch on though is the danger of rail supporters putting too much faith in one person namely Lord Adonis. We should remember what happened the last time someone so high profile, high powered and pro rail came onto the scene, a man who inspired a rock star following with his evangelical pro rail agenda, we thought he was going to change the world and put the lorry on its back foot but ultimately he didn’t and worse he vanished overnight. I’m talking about Ed Burkhardt ceo of Wisconsin who bought out all the railfreight co’s BR had to offer with the exception of Frieghtliner and created EWS.

    Mr. Ed – The Talking Horse, as he was affectionately known in some quarters of EWS talked the talk but ultimately he didn’t walk the walk and what a huge disappointment that was for all of us who hoped that this time it was going to happen. Remember his soundbites “BR had poisoned the well for frieght” EWS was going to fix it, but look back now and there are more recently founded frieight operators out there who have grown up on work taken from EWS because it would seem if frieight customers opinions about customer service are anything to go by then EWS didn’t do much better in terms of not poisoning that either. RES – The Post Office walked away, RFD – Channel Tunnel Frieght collapsed due to immigration issues, the list of failures goes on and on, nothing like what we had hoped for. Now finally EWS is back in state ownership – though German this time – under the guise of DB. Oh what a dream Mr Ed inspired, what faith we had that the promised land was near and what another false dawn we all witnessed, lets be careful before we put all our faith in one person like that again.

    Ok I hear you say, Lord Adonis is a politician and not a captain of industry, that is true but he is still just one person, a lone soul in a political department that is inhabited in the main by very powerful road lobby beasts that have political teeth bigger than a sabre toothed tiger. He is also what Robin Day would call, “A Here Today Gone Tomorrow Politician” I hope he does make a difference, but lets not build our hopes up too much as surely the lessons of the past must tell us not to.

    As an off topic footnote, Mr Eds second in command Randy Henke – what a great name that is btw, much better than all those boring BR management names, thank you Wisconsin, thank you for that alone – Randy did the rounds meeting staff at all the old BR frieght depots speaking to staff, he told them he wanted a new name that signified a national rail company that operated in all areas of the British Isles and he wanted staff suggestions as to what that name might be , A friend spoke up, “I’ve got a good idea for a name he said,,,,,,,, Why not call it British Railways?” That quip probably sums up why Wisconsin never really made it in the UK rail industry, two countries seperated by a sense of humour, they just didn’t understand us or it.

  • RapidAssistant

    I suppose that Ed Buckhardt was Richard Branson’s opposite number in the freight end of the privatised railway – someone who preached that there was a quick fix to cure all ills (BR in other words…) which were never really as bad as everyone made them out to be. It sounds to me like the typical American mentality that you can barge into someone else’s camp, rewrite the rule book and everyone will live happily ever after. Doesn’t work like that – not in an industry that has evolved over 150 years; and indeed much of what you might call “railway protocol” is still rooted in Victorian times.

    Adonis I wouldn’t put too much store by to be honest – whilst its exciting that there are more rail friendly people in the DfT these days, the truth of the matter is that Labour is now rapidly running out of time, and whatever Adonis and Hoon are promising today – the Tories could (and probably will) quite easily scupper it all in 18 months time.

  • RapidAssistant

    The doubts I have about a high speed link from London-Scotland is one of cost to the passenger. A premium price would be inevitably be charged for using the service if what’s happening with the Javelin service to Kent on HS1 is anything to go by.

    London-Glasgow Saver/Off Peak fares are sky high as it is (£65 in 1997 at privatisation, it was £98 three years ago, and two years worth of fare rises has rocketed it up to £107 under Virgin today). Putting that into perspective, even my large 2.0 litre turbodiesel car would get to London and I’d only have to refill the tank on the return journey round about Manchester. Total cost – about £80 I reckon. Full service airlines (BA and BMI) are about the same if you book about a month in advance, a little less for the low cost carriers (EasyJet/Ryanair) once you’ve factored in the cost of getting to/from Stansted or Luton. Small wonder most people fly – even with the time saving I’d doubt if High Speed rail would be as competitive on price – not with the British mentality that railways are supposed to pay their way.

    Unless of course driving and flying suddenly became more expensive by changing their taxation arrangements, but no government is going to do anything which will p**s off the electorate. That’s a political question.

    But as I said in my earlier post I think either the planning hurdles, or a change of government will scupper it long before it even sees the light of day.

  • Dominic

    The train can offer a good connection with airlines and it is done in Europe. Code sharing between Thalys exists on the Brussels to CdG route, Deutsche Bahn and Luft Hanse also offer code sharing between various German destinations.

  • Michael Weinberg

    Much of Christian’s article contains a lot of sense, as usual; but I think he underestimates the potential a hi-speed line would give for services on the classic routes to be improved.

    Not living at either end of a main line, but somewhere between, we are suffering from Virgin’s obsession of fighting the airlines.

    A hi-speed line would allow them to get on with this, and allow other companies to cater for intermediate traffic which in my judgement is woefully neglected, except perhaps on First Great Western which has become a semi-fast railway, in old parlance.

    For my particular route, the WCML, a frequent semi-fast service calling at Watford, MKC, Northampton, Nuneaton, Stafford, Crewe, Warrington , Wigan and Preston, operated with new or decently refurbished Mark III’s and new electric locos, upgraded catering facilities, family areas, and effective ‘quiet’ zones would have much to commend it. A reasonable ‘walk-on’ fare structure and good promotion would tap into a large market completely ignored by Virgin, yet the lack of paths and the ‘moderation of competition’ clause effectively prevents such a service being processed.

    Christian’s comment about journeys on the WCML being ‘quick’ only holds good in a British context.
    Most people dont fly because of comfort or convenience or cuisine, they fly because it’s perceived to be fast. In the Contenental world, an hour by train from Manchester to London would be fast, two hours is not!

  • ken

    Interesting that Rail issue 610 contained a note that the HS2 company set up to develop the proposal is to be chaired by former permanent secretary to the DfT Sir David Rowlands. A clear message from the civil service that whatever an upstart minister might think, HS2 (or 3 or 4 etc) is going nowhere.

  • John

    Isn’t there a physical link near Willesden that connects WCML to HS1?
    If so how fast would a Eurostar get to Paris from Manchester?
    If a Pendolino could travel on French routes how much faster? 4 hours?
    Manchester (yes I’m being parochial) doesn’t need faster services to London – it needs rail access to France and beyond. While we wait for HS(n+1) can’t we use existing lines to serve south of the Northwest/Yorkshire using existing kit?

  • RapidAssistant


    Yes you can get onto the North London Line at Willesden, which allows you to cut across and join the lines coming out of King’s X and St. P – I know this from when the Caledonian Sleepers to Scotland have to divert up the ECML. You leave Euston up the WCML as normal, but then the train goes into Willesden Depot, stops for a bit then reverses onto the NLL via Camden Road, then joins onto the ECML just at the Arsenal stadium, so I’m assuming there is a route onto HS1 from here.

  • John

    @RapidAssistant: so – how much does it cost to hire a Eurostar plus driver and staff and pack it with passengers as a charter to Paris – just for proof of concept?

  • Anoop

    1. The cost of building a railway is a sunk cost, and basic maintenance has to be paid whether it is used or not. Therefore the minimum price a train should have to pay to run on the railway is the cost of electricity and additional maintenance required for damage done by that train. Trains which are likely to make a profit from fares should pay extra.

    2. The issue about higher fares on SouthEastern should not be an issue. Passengers travelling on the high speed line should pay full fares. Passengers taking the slower trains to London Bridge or Victoria should be able to buy cheaper ‘Not Valid Via Stratford’ tickets.

    3. The primary purpose of a new intercity line to the North is twofold:
    – to relieve congestion
    – to provide a diversionary route in case of disruption or engineering works (reducing the need for bus replacement)

    We can now consider potential routes, and the cost/benefit of building it to various speeds. Note that over short distances and in the vicinity of stations there is no benefit in having a higher top speed, however a London-Edinburgh time of under 2h 30min is desirable to replace air travel.

    There is very little benefit to be gained by building a high speed line to Manchester because London-Manchester journey times are only 2 hours, which is already quicker than flying. Similarly there is little benefit in having a super-fast London-Birmingham service if it will take longer to travel across London and Birmingham to get to the departure station. The main benefit is for train journeys which take 3+ hours (e.g. London to Newcastle, Edinburgh and Glasgow; and for destinations north of Edinburgh). These journeys can replace domestic flights from Heathrow, thus freeing up capacity.

    My suggestion would be for High Speed 2 to run from Birmingham International to London, entering London along the under-used GWR branch of the GWR/GCR joint line (parallel to the Central Line) and then join HS1 and the line to Euston, probably using a short tunnel.
    A spur would lead from the main HS2 to the Heathrow Express platforms in Terminal 5. Trains going directly to central London would bypass Heathrow. Trains going to Heathrow would then continue on to Paddington via Heathrow Central, replacing the Heathrow Express service. (Heathrow Express would be redundant because of CrossRail). The maximum speed of 125mph on the GW mainline would be perfectly adequate for this short sprint.

    Birmingham International Airport can be increased in capacity to provide more jobs in the area. Flights from North America should be encouraged to land there rather than continue to Heathrow, to save 100 miles of flying and to ease congestion. High Speed 2 will make it easy for passengers to travel on to London. A Eurostar terminal can also be built.

    The high speed line will then go to Newcastle via the Midlands, creating numerous fast connections between the northern cities. Cross-country services can be reconfigured to use the new line and reduce the number of services going via Birmingham New Street.

    The final Newcastle-Edinburgh and Edinburgh-Glasgow links would not require high-speed extensions into the city centres because all the trains would stop at these stations so they would be travelling slowly anyway.