If, as has been suggested to me, the minimum cost of a high speed line between London and Scotland will be in the order of £50billion or more, the case for building it will have to be exceptionally strong, especially given the current pressure on the public purse.
Such a sum would involve doubling the level of spending by Network Rail for a period of ten years. The fundamental question, therefore, must be why build it. Nothing illustrates the confusion over the purpose of the line than whether it should serve Heathrow. The Bow Group, a centrist Tory think tank, has entered the debate on high speed line with a pamphlet imaginatively named The Right Track which warns that the government is likely to select the wrong route for the line because it will not run direct through Heathrow.
The report argues that without a connection to Heathrow the line would have much less value to the economy and therefore recommends that there should be an airport interchange serving both the Great Western Main Line and the high speed line. This would not be directly underneath the airport but rather at a hub a couple of miles away from Terminal Five on the main line near Iver in Buckinghamshire, connected with the various terminals by a rapid transit system. The idea which has long been promoted by Ove Arup, the huge consulting engineers, is based on the notion that the high speed terminus would be at Euston – definitely the bookies’ favourite to be recommended in the HS2 report which is to be published in March. Its supporters accept that going to Heathrow would lengthen the journey time to Birmingham, but their claim that it would only add two minutes to the 43 minute trip is fanciful. Simply stopping would add five minutes, once acceleration and deceleration are taken into account, and since there would need to be extra tunnels in which trains travel slower, that would add yet more time.
The pamphlet argues that Heathrow is a difficult airport to access by rail and therefore many travellers use other European hub airports. For example, if you live in Leeds and want to go to Singapore, you would probably either drive to Manchester to take a direct flight or go from Leeds-Bradford to Amsterdam or Paris. According to the Bow Group, a high speed line connection to Heathrow will allow them to fly from there instead.
That is not very convincing. To be attractive to passengers using the airport from, say, Leeds or Birmingham, there would have to be frequent trains, probably at worst one per hour since that is the only way to attract people onto public transport. Now is there a conceivable business case that suggests it would be worthwhile to run trains to these provincial cities from Heathrow every hour or so when, at present, there are no flights to these destinations presumably because there is no money to be made out of them? I doubt it.
The High-Speed-Rail-Heathrow debate is replete with such contradictions. The fundamental question is whether the high speed line connection is designed to reduce or increase the number of flights. Clearly if it is the latter, then its environmental credentials take a heavy battering.
I asked this question of Tony Lodge, the author of the Bow Group report, and his answer was unequivocal: the idea is to encourage more flights from the airport in the long term as the airport will be more accessible. He argued that this was obvious since the aim was to make Heathrow more viable, which implies that the High Speed Line would need to feed people into the airport rather than the other way around. That clearly damages any Green case for the line as the extra flights generated by the railway would have to be taken into account in the environmental balance sheet.
However, Mr Lodge defends this by arguing that there would be two sets of people who would contribute to a substantial shift to rail: those currently driving to the airport and those currently flying to short haul destinations. I am not convinced that either of these flows would be substantial.
The Bow Group seems to confuse better accessibility to Heathrow in general with the specific provision of a high speed line. The pamphlet mentions Airtrack, the back door scheme into the airport from the south west which is a no-brainer except for the fact that Surrey County Council no longer support the scheme because there are no fewer than 15 level crossings in places such as Egham and Barnes, some of which would have to be closed for more than half the time in order to accommodate the extra trains. However that has nothing to do with whether a high speed line is built or not.
As for the second point, while there may be a few people who would take the train rather than drive on the M40 from Birmingham, they would probably be outnumbered by the extra travellers attracted to the airport by increase in flights. Moreover, the strategy would clearly undermine the economics of regional airports. That shows that whereas a high speed line is supposed to strengthen the economies of the regions, there may well be perverse economic outcomes in the opposite direction.
In any case, I am also very dubious about releasing much capacity at Heathrow which suggests the extra flights would have to come from a third runway, an environmentally disastrous option. The only significant domestic destinations from Heathrow are Manchester and the two main Scottish destinations, Edinburgh and Glasgow. Manchester already has a fantastic train service with three trains per hour and a journey time of just over two hours. If people are flying on that route, it is because they are interlining and a high speed line is unlikely to attract them.
A mere 8 per cent of journeys from Heathrow are on domestic flights – down from 18 per cent twenty years ago – and therefore there is very little for a high speed line to tap. As for Paris, Brussels and Amsterdam – they are, or will be, well covered with trains from St Pancras, far more convenient and with a shorter journey time than would be achieved from Heathrow hub. The only people who would schlep out to Heathrow to take a train are those in the surrounding area and again there is the issue of frequency – would the high speed trains to Brussels really run direct from Heathrow, which means people would have to change, or go via Euston which presumably would be a terminus station.
You cannot attract people onto the railways if they have to change trains, which is why the very name ‘Heathrow hub’ suggests the idea is misconceived. The success of Ryanair, Flybe and EasyJet is based on the notion that they fly direct, point to point. Flybe, for example, has pinched a substantial section of the CrossCountry market by linking up pairs of towns previously were only linked through a long train journey. The Bow Group report itself admits that you lose up to 50 per cent of the potential demand if people have to change trains to reach their destination.
Heathrow is a big bad elephant trap for high speed line advocates. Connecting Heathrow makes other journey times longer, attracts people onto airplanes rather than deterring them from flying and will strengthen the case for a Third Runway, not weaken it because it will make provincial airports less viable.
The coverage which the pamphlet attracted shows the difficulty the Tories could find themselves in over transport issues. Since the pamphlet makes clear that a third runway is needed, which is counter to Tory policy, the local TV media jumped on the ‘split’. The Conservative opposition to a third runway has appeared rather opportunistic and populist, and one suspects that grass roots Tories, who have little interest in environmental concerns apart from those directly affecting their local area, are generally in favour of a third runway. Support for a high speed line does not get the Tories off this nasty hook. Indeed, if the arguments of the Bow Group are followed, the debate over a high speed line highlights the unanswered questions about the purpose of the proposed high speed line.
Announcements still too noisy
There is some good news on announcements. A regular at Castle Cary, Maurice Hopper, informs me that there is an old fashioned human being who, without notes, provides a full list of stations for each train with ‘fine diction, clearly presented information, no script, notes or electronic gizmos’. That’s what we need – people.
However, this is an exception. For the most part my inbox and in tray are full of complaints which demonstrate the most basic lack of customer care: announcements every thirty seconds, ridiculously inappropriate requests, endless requests to mind your bags and so on. It is time it all stopped especially as it is costing the industry customers.
What is most disappointing about this issue is the refusal of the train operating companies to engage in any kind of meaningful discussion about the problem and their readiness to use the red herring of legislation. South West Trains have hidden behind the notion that the ridiculous number of announcements on its trains are required by health and safety, and European legislation.
This is not the case as I have checked with a reliable source within the industry. SWT has been told unequivocally by the Railways Safety & Standards Board that the only legal requirements set out in the Rail Vehicle Accessibility Regulations 1998 (RVAR) are that the next stop should be announced in the five minutes before arrival, and the destination and next stop should be announced while the train is stationary. Nothing else is required apart from announcements relating to delays, diversions, or emergencies, and European legislation has not changed the situation.
So Michael Roberts of the Association of Train Operating Companies, you are ever ready to praise your members’ attentive to the needs of their customers – why not ask them to tone down the announcements for all our sakes?