Rail 618: Could freight line be an alternative to HS2?

I have been taken to task by various readers for my piece on high speed rail two issues ago which raised a number of questions about the project. In order to learn more about the government’s plans and to respond to their criticisms, I went along to the offices of HS2, the government’s specially created company, to find out precisely what it is doing.
It is clear that the sheer scale of their task is daunting and replete with ironies. The offices are at 55 Victoria Street, home of the defunct Strategic Rail Authority, headed by Richard Bowker who pressed the case for a high speed line without ever managing to get it on the government’s agenda. Moreover, the HS2 team is led by David Rowlands, a career civil servant who was the Permanent Secretary at the Department for Transport at the time the government published its rail strategy nearly two years ago which debunked the idea of a high speed line or, indeed, pretty much any strategic investment programme in the railways such as electrification.
Yet, now he heads the team of 24 people which is charged with producing a report by the end of the year on the options for a high speed line linking London with the West Midlands. The precise brief is to provide the government with a detailed assessment of the business case, with route options, and examining the social, economic and environmental aspects of the project. It will then be up to the government to publish the report and respond.
But, of course, that is only the start of an incredibly long process. With 2-3 years for both the planning and legislative processes, the very earliest that the first sod would be turned is 2017 and even that looks optimistic. With probably a five year build period, we are looking very far into the future before anyone steps on a British domestic high speed train other than on HS1.
The British planning system throws up new obstacles at every turn. The HS2 team is caught in a Catch 22 bind that makes their job almost impossible. Following a legal case over the plans for the high speed rail link to the Channel Tunnel, the ombudsman decided that people whose homes were blighted by proposed routes should be compensated even if eventually they were not so close to the line as to be entitled to statutory payments. That means the report will not be able to provide a route that is sufficiently detailed to be precisely identified, although, of course, those with a good knowledge of local areas should be able to guess what the ideal line of track will be.
There is no shortage of options. There are half a dozen suggested routes, with huge differences about connections with Heathrow and the siting of terminals, and the team is having to sift through the various suggestions, as well as considering others as they are ‘starting with a blank piece of paper’.
At the Rail conference, Andrew Adonis was very bullish about the scheme, suggesting it was not a matter of if a high speed line is built, but when. He is, therefore, pre-empting the report since he has no idea of the business case for the line, and that was why I raised the questions about various uncertainties. And, in a way, he is departing from the British way of doing things and in that, he found a backer on my website, Michael Weinberg, who, in response to my piece, argued that the detailed questions I asked about the cost and impact of a high speed line ‘are precisely the reason why nothing ever gets done in this country’.
Lord Adonis is trying to break the mould here, arguing that the line should be built pretty much irrespective of what the HS2 report comes up with, making my questions irrelevant. In a way, I admire that. In researching the books I have written about the construction of both the London Underground and the British rail network, I developed a huge admiration for the Victorian entrepreneurs who simply identified a need, raised some capital, often on pretty dubious grounds, and built their schemes. It is that spirit which he is seeking to recapture.
So part of me would like to throw my lot in with the visionaries and support their idea, whatever they come up with it. Would I, for example, have opposed the construction of the Great Northern line in the 1850s between Kings Cross and York on the basis that there was already an existing line, albeit along a rather tortuous route? I hope not.
But this is 2009, when there are huge issues about mobility, the environment, the sustainability of economic growth and the state of the economy which make it essential not just to have a dream as Lord Adonis and reader Michael Weinberg would like, but to ensure that a high speed line would, as its supporters say, be good for Britain, the economy, the environment and, indeed, the railway system.
Let me give one example, about opportunity cost. I have been chastised by another reader,
Bruce Howard, who agrees that many of the points I make are valid but then suggests that the alternative would be a new freight rail route. It is a proposal with which I have a lot of sympathy, though one which has not really been treated seriously after the debacle over the Central Railway scheme which collapsed after being overwhelmingly rejected by Parliament. A new version of the project, the EuroRail Freight Group line from Glasgow through to the mouth of the tunnel, has long been promoted by the MP for Luton North, Kelvin Hopkins, and has the support of various organisations, but as the idea is far less sexy and media-friendly than a passenger line but at, the suggested estimate of £6bn, possibly a fifth of a high speed line to Scotland, may be the right answer to providing the extra capacity. Clearly the two schemes are alternatives, as both could not be built, and the idea of a freight railway should be put into the mix when a final decision is made, but I doubt it will be given proper consideration.
The HS2 report will be a fascinating document which will take in issues far beyond the immediate concern of whether the line should be built or not. Producing a coherent piece of work which will also examine demand for long distance travel, and basic engineering requirements by the end of the year will be an almost heroic task. Every detail will be pored over by both supporters and opponents for years to come. Let’s hope Mr Rowlands and his team are up to the task.
Who pays for investment?

And another piece I wrote has been challenged. The point I made in Rail 613 about the investment by Chiltern Railways’ being essentially funded by subsidy has been picked up by Graham Cross, the business development director of Chiltern Railways who argues that this is not the case. In a detailed response Mr Cross points out that while some of the investment by Chiltern such as platform extensions at nine stations, improvements to the signalling and a turnback facility at Kidderminster have been supported by subsidy, others such as half the extra 3,000 car parking spaces, the new station at Warwick Parkway and new platforms at two other stations have not.
This is a difficult issue. When the franchise agreement was signed in 2002, Chiltern agreed to a number of investment schemes which were said to be worth £370m. The issue is clouded by the fact that Chiltern has been receiving public subsidy until now. Its investment were taken into account when the subsidy levels were set in 2002 and without them Chiltern would have been expected to receive less – or indeed pay more now that it has reached the point of premium payments.
However, Mr Cross points out that the company has done more than that as a result of having a 20 year franchise and has further plans in the pipeline such as speeding up trains to Birmingham and running services to Oxford. Indeed, according to the boss of Chiltern, Adrian Shooter, in the first five years the company invested four times the expected £16m because a number of schemes were found to be commercially viable. The company says that some of these schemes will be loss making in early years but provided it can consider the long term, then it is prepared to invest. However, that is contingent on the Department for Transport confirming that the franchise will, indeed, last until 2022.
While I accept that this does not represent an extra subsidy it is a material benefit because the fact that rail growth has been much greater than expected over the past seven years means that, effectively, Chiltern is getting in extra revenue and can therefore afford to invest. As I said, it is a complex issue.
I do agree with Mr Cross that long term franchises such as Chiltern’s 20 year deal are a much better arrangement if the government is seeking to encourage operators to invest. Indeed, as he puts it, there are other advantages: ‘Operators who are granted long term stewardship of their routes will naturally build strong relationships in their localities, and develop a very clear understanding of their operations and markets [giving them] the temporal space to think freely about investment and improvement, without the threat of imminent franchise end/bidding competitions to distract the focus of management’. Certainly, Chiltern, as I said in my original piece, is able to have a much more strategic view on investment than other franchisees and does more to answer the Wolmar question on the purpose of franchising than any other franchise.

  • Michael Weinberg

    Dear Christian,
    As I’m mentioned by name in your piece in ‘Rail’ 618, perhaps I could make a few points.
    You portray hi-speed rail as somehow a leap of faith when in fact it is anything but!
    Everywhere hi-speed lines have been built they have been successful in attracting traffic from air and car. It would be no different here.
    If you are saying we should somehow curb people’s propensity to travel at all then that is another argument..
    It is not one being considered by airlines or motoring interests, both of whom are hell bent on expansion, aided and abetted by Govts too scared to take them on.
    My position is that rail should take all steps possible to attract an increasing share of the travel market and only hi-speed rail can do that.
    There’s enough hostility to rail from motoring and airport/ airline lobbies without encouragement from one considered, rightly, to be our foremost journalists in the rail transport field.
    Your comments about the freight only line proposal seem bizarre.
    In contrast to passenger travel there is not one shred of evidence that rail freight has had any success in shifting freight onto rail to any significant degree. Even the modest growth trumpeted by the RFG in a period of prolonged economic growth is largely ephemeral if Roger Ford’s article in the latest ‘Modern Railways’ is anything to go by.
    Spending lots of money on a dedicated rail freight line would certainly put the kybosh on pursuading Govt’s to invest further heavily on rail.’
    In fact if all rail freight traffic stopped tomorrow the effect on UK PLC would be barely noticable.
    Finally I’m somewhat flattered to be linked with Lord Adonis in so public a way: whether the Lord will be so happy is doubtful!
    Michael Weinberg

  • RapidAssistant

    There are so many great and good rail projects on the drawing boards; what with HS2, electrification of the MML and GWML, Varsity Line, Crossrail (OK, not on the drawing board anymore strictly speaking) rebuilding of the missing parts of the GCR for freight, numerous infill electrification schemes etc.

    The travelling public want action NOW not for politicians to stand up and say – yes we’ll invest in the railways but it will be 10-15 years before the infrastructure is built. And progress is painfully slow. It took British Rail just 5 years to modernise, electrify, and build a new fleet of express trains the East Coast, whilst the West Coast modernisation has taken twice as long. Two or three governments could come and go in the space it will take to plan, fund and build HS2.

    There isn’t enough money to go around for everything. And the wish list I’ve mentioned above is years old already. Polticians should start thinking now about what delivers the most bang for the buck, and what can be achieved quickly, rather than wasting any more time cooking up pie in the sky schemes – let the HS2 studies continue on in the background by all means – but people want decisive action now.

  • Richard Crompton

    I’ve travelled on TGVs, Eurostar, Eurostar Italia, ICEs and AVE. A look at the maps of the countries shows that France and especially Spain have large population centres separated by long distances of low population countryside. Germany and Italy are different having a more even population spread. The Spanish experience (OK, in Preferente) was streets ahead of all the others. My train went from Zaragoza to Madrid (307km. same distance as London to Liverpool) in 74 minutes.

    Population distribution in Britain is more like that of Germany. A high speed line makes sense if there are few stops and the traffic on offer between the principal centres that are served is enough to make the new line financially viable. That is why HS1 is a financial white elephant – not enough traffic caused by the international nature of the journey opportunities and the consequent, stifling government regulations.
    In the UK, the existing routes are viable because they serve long established towns. A new line would not provide services for those taxpayers (who also have to fund the new line) that do not live in the principal centres because, of necessity, intermediate new stations would be at some distance from towns.

    My view is that the existing routes should be developed so that they can offer reasonably fast journeys from one extremity to the other and good travel opportunities from intermediate towns with well co-ordinated interchange at the ‘nodes’. This system has been adopted where I live (Switzerland). The trains are not superfast, but the population has (at least) hourly reasonable journeys to anywhere in the country. The system works well because the management realises that operating precision is critical to the success of the concept. It really does work and enables me to live here without a car. Even my wife who would much rather go by car sees the benefits.

    SBB has recently delivered a policy statement for services 10 years hence and some of the construction works for the enhancements that are needed to achieve the policy aims are now in progress.

    So for the UK, any train buff can make a list of locations where infrastructure enhancements would produce valuable improvements. The Selby bypass would be a perfect example from the past.
    What I do find utterly comical is that the ECML still has that double track section at Welwyn, no flyover at Hitchin and underrated traction power supplies at the southern end of the route. On the WCML, how does anybody justify operating Birmingham to Glasgow/Edinburgh with Diesel trains and no plans for replacement by electrics?

    In Switzerland, the SBB has a vision and the government backs that vision with investment cash. In the UK today, the people holding the purse strings plainly have no vision at all.

  • Dan

    Richard – some interesting comments about this theme under Christian’s Rail 616 column elsewhere on this site.

    On your point about distances between stops, the Minister raises some very interesting points about Japan in this rather good speech here onthe DfT site that I posted before. It makes you think about the Japanese experience.


    My view is that HS line will not get built for ‘transport’ or ‘strategic’ reasons – it will be built for political reasons – that is what you get when you have to rely on politicians deciding (and paying for things) – it’s very simple in that regard. The fact that Obama has signed up HS Rail inthe US makes this more, not less, likely. So I’d be watching the US now – not europe (we are the 51st state after all…) for clues. If nothing really happens in the US and it turns out to be hot air, then it will be the same here. If it does, then something might happen.

    Politicians are not interested in peicemeal enhancments – they are not interesting enough – if they had been asked, you’d never have got WCML modernistaion from politicians (it was the ‘private sector’ int he form of Railtrack that proposed that surely. Politicians just had to rescue it – they’d have never agreed to spend 9bn if asked to start with.

    I’ve never heard of a politician who went into politics to make ‘steady peicemeal imporvements’!

  • Richard Crompton

    OK Dan,

    I have read Adonis’ speech and it is inspiring. I take your point about the possibilities for having a mix of long distance, non-stop services and a metro service. What I can’t see is how a new HSL would serve existing stations so as to allow onward connections to other places (say) Watford, Milton Keynes, Northampton, Leicester, Nottingham, etc. Of course, with unlimited resources anything is possible, but in England land prices are high and the planning regulations are designed to delay or force extensive alternatives to be considered. Scottish MPs can understand the utility of a London to Glasgow/Edinburgh line, but would not understand the need to spend more money so that people in parts of England other than London could gain access to the wonderful new line. And of course, without the traffic that such population centres could generate, the economics of the new line might not be so good.

    I do realise that politicians love prestige projects to boost their own egos but I wonder if we’ll ever get politicians with brains. Ironically, Lord Adonis appears to be just that but I just wonder whether I will live to see his dream realised. However, given the current crop of visionless politicos, I’m absolutely certain that I’ll be dead before a second Welwyn viaduct opens for traffic.

  • David

    Speed isn’t the only factor which determines modal choice – remember the “three Cs” of cost, comfort, and convenience; this is where the Swiss system (and to some degree those in Belgium and the Netherlands) win hands down over ours in Britain.

    High speed alone will not result in increased patronage; although there are some very cheap fares available if booked in advance, they are not always best for some people. Just think of someone attending a meeting in London; unless they have a meeting starting early afternoon, they are unlikely to be able to get a cheap ticket, and they will then probably have to kill time in the capital if they want to make use of a cheap ticket for their return journey. Some may be able to cope with this, but others will use alternative modes of transport; what this will be will depend upon journey length, congestion, etc.

    These same considerations will come into effect if high speed is available. Yes, you might be able to leave Edinburgh at a reasonable time for a day in London, and then get back home in time for tea; but unless there are flexible tickets available at reasonable cost people won’t change to rail. Consequently, there is danger that an Anglo-Scottish high speed line will become a massive white elephant.

    One of the advantages of the French high speed lines is that reasonably priced tickets are available until departure (provided that seats are available, of course); just look at the typical length of queue for long distance tickets at somewhere like Lille Flandres. This is something which needs to be factored in to the decision making process, for if it isn’t people will learn to “play the system”.

    And this can mean to loss of revenue for the railways. I’m not sure how often it happens, but there have been occasions when for some of my family members it has been more or less the same cost to them to but a very cheap ticket on day a, stay overnight in London in a reasonably priced hotel, and then return home on a cheap ticket during the afternoon of day b so that they could attend a morning meeting in London on day b, rather than to catch – and have to pay full fare for – an early morning train into the capital. My family members have also had the advantage of not having to get up so early, but the railway company has lost some income which would have gone to them if reasonably priced tickets were available in the morning peak. This option will still be “played” if HS2 is built, unless the complete fare structure is overhauled.

  • Michael Weinberg

    Of course faster journey times increase ridership.
    It did wen the WCML was electrified, ditto the ECML.
    More people use trains to Manchester when it takes two hours than when it took nearly three! same for London -Leeds. There are countless examples of faster times attracting passengers.
    Why are motorways so popular? They enable you to do journeys in times that were a pipedream before they were built.
    Jet planes attract more passengers because they get you there faster.
    Cost comes into it of course but that is another question. Given the same costs, faster journeys = more passengers.
    Develop existing lines?
    I live on a redeveloped line at Milton Keynes and it’s been 10 years of misery, the improvements are not that great, and the whole thing will run out of capacity in 10-15 years.
    And it cost as much if not more than a new line.
    The UK is not different from anywhere else. It’s an excuse for not doing all sorts of things they manage to do better abroad.
    What we lack is political will combined with a general carping attitude to virtually any new development, from the millenium dome to high speed railways .
    Every where else, light rail and trams prove their worth day after day. But not in this backyard. No, we go for guided buses: We want the cheap and nasty option. And where miraculously a line gets built and is hugely successful, ie Nottingham, the incoming Tories want to scrap the proposed extensions. I despair!
    We’ve got the public transport system we deserve, and apart from London our city systems are an embarrassment.

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  • John Orton

    Manchester – Paris at present: 2hrs To London, 1-1.5 hrs Euston to St P and go through formalities then 2hrs to Paris. Why doesn’t the damn Pendolino just hang a left at Willesden to the triangle north of St P and onto HS1? Forget HS2 for now and use current resources.
    I think I Know the answer but I’m still interested in your views.

  • Christian

    Ok John, here are some reasons, which I give without any suggestion that I agree with the thinking behind them:

    1. The Pendolinos are not allowed through the tunnel because of the ridiculous requirement that trains need to be able to be broken up into two for safety reasons though this may change
    2. They would require modification to run on foreign electrification systems
    3. British security arrangements do not allow such through running
    4. There are no spare Pendolino sets to allow this
    5. It would require a very complex negotiations involving Virgin, the government, HS1, various regulators, Eurotunnel, and so on…
    6. It would probably need subsidy – would that be allowed (state aid) and who would pay it?

    I’m sure there’s several more. But it is a great idea and I know there is some interest in the concept within Virgin Trains

  • John Orton

    But aren’t these miniscule issues compared with building HS2? We need effective leadership! Oops – I forgot – we ain’t got any!

  • RapidAssistant

    On the surface John, yes they appear miniscule to railway novices like me for certain. No doubt, as with most things on the British railway, what looks like the most straightforward of ideas is littered with all sorts of ‘road blocks’ and political issues which take years to sort out before anything can begin to happen.

    On a related subject, when the additional Pendolinos are built in Italy – I bet for the same reasons they will be put onto ships, trucked on the roads before finally being craned onto the WCML instead of the supposed no brainer which would surely be would be to haul them across the European rail network and then through the tunnel.

  • John Orton

    I only think they’re miniscule compared with the mammoth task of a new HS line. Even easier would be Parisian services from Leeds that could use Eurostar sets (no need for tilting trains).
    Of course I want to see new HS lines if only so we can use European loading gauge vehicles.
    I agree with your comment on Pendolinos hitching a lift!

  • Johno

    Pendo rakes are actually formed of 2 half sets each with a pantograph, so it could actually work with the tunnel regulations.
    WCML, HS1 and Eurotunnel are 25kv overhead, as are the French, Belgian and German networks and Dutch HSL Zuid. I’m not an electrical engineer but surely it wouldn’t require too many modifications, perhaps just signalling, but Pendo’s are capable of being modified for this as they were originally planned to have in cab signalling that would permit 140mph running

    Coming from Rugby, our station was once suggested as a place where european trains would split as it had such a long platform.

    I think that the main issue here is the Schengen agreement, something that no-one ever mentions in these discussions and in my opinion, is the single most important factor other than tunnel safety rules.

  • RapidAssistant

    Yes there are legal and engineering issues to be got round, but I think though the core answer to the question is ultimately one of demand and economics. Remember all those Eurostar lounges that were built in Glasgow Central, Manchester Piccadilly and the like and then got mothballed, and the additional 373 sets that ended up gathering dust on sidings? Eurostar came along at exactly the same time as Ryanair and EasyJet and the idea of international rail travel from the provinces was buried before it even got started – on the existing infrastructure at least. Regardless of whether it is a 373 or a 390 – neither can compete on time as they have to run on the congested classic main lines before getting on to HS1.

  • John Orton

    Indeed – Eurostar n’habite pas ici!
    I’ve always wondered what they got up to in that long shed at Longsight near Picc station.
    I’m afraid I have to agree that that (economics and route congestion) is the real achilles heel of my proposition.
    However, not to go out without a fight:

    the economics has changed – the environment, cost of fuel, motorway congestion.

    the infrastructure has changed – HS1 has now been built and to be parochial, the WCML upgrade has improved capacity and journey times even before the use of tilting technology. Surely some entrepreneur could hire the odd Eurostar rake to run on a package tour basis to as a proof of concept?

    Before I stop banging on about this and to address Johno’s and Christian’s comments about Schengen I have to descend into fantasy and paranoia.
    If you go to:


    it looks like they are building a big government complex adjacent to Manchester Piccadilly station. It seems to incorporate the derelict Mayfield station site.
    Surely they could slip in a few international platforms and the necessary infrastructure to process us all?

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