Rail 579: Who is going to use the new high speed line?

In the run up to the opening of High Speed One, there was a flurry of interest about Deutsche Bahn planning to run a service from Berlin to London via the Channel Tunnel. The idea first appeared in The Times on November 1st and was picked up on various radio and TV stations.

Unfortunately, there was little substance to the story. I talked to Deutsche Bahn that day and they were adamant that there were no such plans, and gave a number of good reasons. First, it is questionable whether a five hour train ride would be competitive with air travel. Generally, three hours is reckoned to be the maximum, though possibly four hours on a train may remain attractive compared with flying in these days when Evian water has supposedly become a potentially lethal weapon on an aeroplane (although not yet on Eurostar fortunately).

Then, there is a host of administrative and practical hurdles to overcome. The first is getting approval for the German high speed ICE trains to go through the Channel Tunnel. At the moment, the safety authorities are still stuck with this ridiculous notion that trains have to be long enough (almost) to be able always to stop near enough an emergency exit. Moreover, the default safety procedure in the event of a fire is for passengers to be evacuated into half the train, leaving the burning half behind to be uncoupled, and then for the half train to escape into the open.

A madder and more insane scenario could not be imagined given that the best way to escape would be into the safety tunnel between the two running tunnels, kept at a slightly higher pressure in order to keep out smoke. Nevertheless, at the moment all staff are trained for such an eventually and a 10 or 12 coach ICE train would not be allowed to travel through the Tunnel by the Safety Authority unless it could be split in half, or unless the ridiculous rules were changed.

Then there is the issue of security. Because Britain is not part of the Schengen agreement, trains going to the UK would have to be stabled at secure platforms surrounded by fencing and remain there for the duration of their stay. Not surprisingly there are not many stations with such spare capacity, and with sufficient room to deal with international travellers in the way that the British government demands including space for immigration officials, security searches and waiting rooms, made necessary by the ridiculous half hour checking-in arrangement. What a contrast with the Thalys train on which I travelled recently from Cologne to Brussels when I got on the train two minutes before departure and it was impossible to detect that one was travelling internationally apart from the multilingual announcements. Why we continue to think that the Eurostar trains are a more likely terrorist target than the international trains of our European neighbours is one of those pieces of security bunkum which increasingly plague our lives and, in this case, make it virtually impossible to create a viable international train service since of course ultimately all this is about money.

Deutsche Bahn would probably never be able to sustain a business case for trains between London and Berlin, or even Frankfurt or Cologne. Running a train over the High Speed One tracks costs about £2,000 (though the precise arrangements have not yet been worked out in terms of whether this will be assessed per passenger, per train or by the amount of time spent on the tracks), a passage through Eurotunnel would cost around the same, and then there are all the other expenses, too, such as the charges for the rest of the track, the staff and the rolling stock, making it very unlikely that a service could wash its face yet alone return a rate on any capital invested.

Perhaps if the price of oil doubled or trebled again in the next couple of years, then the economics may weigh in favour of the railway but the high cost of operation appear insuperable otherwise, since it involves permanently tying up platform space at heavily used stations and allocating four or five ICE trainsets as well as having to train staff and sort out the difficult issues surrounding use of the tunnel.

These various administrative and security requirements do not apply solely to Deutsche Bahn but will present a serious barrier to anyone seeking to run trains on High Speed One. The most likely initial destination for Eurostar trains is Amsterdam since London – Schiphol is one of the busiest international air routes in the world, but insiders despair at the prospects of finding anywhere in Amsterdam to stable trains under the conditions required by the British government.

. At the moment, the tracks are being scandalously underused. There are about 30 Eurostar trains per day in each direction while there is the capacity to run 20 trains for, say, 16 hours per day. In other words, the liner is less than 10 per cent full at the moment. (As a comparison, TGV Est which opened in June started with 50 daily services straight away.) The Kent domestic trains, due to start in December 2009, have been allocated eight services per hour, but surely those paths will only be filled in the peak. Freight trains, despite the construction of loops on the line, are nowhere on the horizon. Two paths an hour are laughingly being retained for open access operators such as Deutsche Bahn.

Trains operating directly between north of London and the continent, as originally promised to MPs who were reluctant to support the Channel Tunnel Act 1987 would suffer from the same security constraints. They would not be allowed to act as domestic services, picking up and dropping off passengers en route since this would be deemed a security risk and therefore their potential viability is wrecked.

In a rational world where environmental considerations were paramount, maximising the use of a major piece of infrastructure, built at taxpayers expense, which offers a greener way of connecting the UK with Europe would be exploited to the full. In fact, while we are all celebrating High Speed One as a magnificent achievement, which it undoubtedly is, it is clear that it is already a financial basket case that makes the Eurotunnel itself look like an economic success story.

Given all this how will any new services, beyond a few extra Eurostar trains for which plenty of spare sets are available, ever make use of this wonderful new asset? How long will it take to get 10 trains per hour let alone 20? All the options for increased usage have already either been scrapped – such as sleeper trains – or are being made wholly impractical by these difficulties.

The real problem is not that there are a lot of obstacles – there always are in any major project – but, rather, that there is no one charged with responsibility to solve them and to get the process of attracting more usage started. As I mentioned a few months ago (Rail 566), Guillaume Pepy, the chairman of Eurostar, told me that trying to get the senior civil servants on the intergovernmental Channel Tunnel Safety Authority, would just be too difficult.

Eurostar is quite happy to stick to the business it knows, as it is under no great pressure to expand its routes. Richard Brown, Eurostar’s boss assures me that new routes will be examined by a committee early in 2008 but the very fact that it is not until after the tunnel has opened that this work is starting suggests the idea is only being considered in the most lukewarm way. Ministers have more too much else on their plate and no private sector organisation – or even a major foreign railway – could really push for such a scheme without strong governmental support.

British Rail dreamt up most of the ideas that make up today’s Eurostar service. God knows, it made some mistakes such as building sleeper trains that were expected to run on ludicrous routes such as Plymouth to Paris or Cardiff to Stuttgart in very expensive hotel trains, now been sold off to Canada, and requiring every Eurostar train to be 18 coaches long – except those for regional services which have never been used. But without BR to bat for the railway, we would never have got the service we have today and there is no rail organisation that is able to play that role. The idea that the Department for Transport’s civil servants will press the case for extra trains on High Speed One is simply laughable. It would be extra work and hassle they can do without.

Don’t get me wrong. We have a fantastic new piece of kit, and a station that cannot be bettered anywhere in the world. The achievement should be celebrated and the railway deserves great praise. However, if taxpayers are to get the benefit of the £5.8bn they have invested (actually it is a lot more, including another £1bn for the trains given to Eurostar but paid for by the taxpayer, and at least as much again on track improvements paid for by British Rail), then the line needs a champion who is going to battle for greater use. If the private sector is going to take over the line, which is the subject of speculation in the City, then the government must ensure that under the deal the aim will be to maximise usage rather than revenue.

Ironically, of course, this may well cost yet more taxpayers’ money either to reduce the exorbitant cost of using the line, or to subsidise new users. So be it. There is no point in building a fantastic facility if it is to be something of a white elephant.

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