Tunnel has not fulfilled its promise

It is 15 years since I shared a train with John Major and various other dignitaries that took us under the Channel for the inauguration of the tunnel. The day was rather marred for the British by a typically provocative comment from the Président François Mitterrand about how travellers would have time to admire the Garden of England of the Kent countryside as there was no high speed lines to take them to London from the mouth of the tunnel.

He was right, of course, and it would take more than a decade until that was remedied with the completion of what is now called High Speed One, the 67 mile line between London St Pancras and Folkestone. That allows passengers to reach the tunnel in half an hour, half the time it took on the old route, but despite this massive improvement in journey times, which has attracted more people onto the trains, the impact of the tunnel has been somewhat disappointing.

It  carries four types of traffic and while the shuttle services which carry both lorries and cars between Folkestone and Calais have been relatively successful, the through trains have not met their targets. The expectation  that there would be huge numbers of freight trains carrying traffic from, say, Manchester or Leeds through to Milan or Madrid, taking thousands of trucks off the roads, has sadly not materialised. This is mainly because of cost as lorries remain cheaper despite the obvious savings in labour because access to the train tracks and the tunnel is expensive, but the other reason is the continued difficulty of crossing frontiers in Europe, exacerbated by restrictive agreements imposed on the railways by the unions.

While passenger numbers on the Eurostar trains linking London with Paris and Brussels, and a few other seasonal destinations such as Avignon and Disneyland, did top eight million last year, they are now falling because of the recession and are way below the predictions made when the go ahead for building the tunnel was given in the late 1980s.

Therefore, to a large extent, the tunnel has not brought Britain as close to Europe as had been expected. It might be called the fixed link, but it has not, in the most fundamental way, changed Britain’s status as an island. There are no local trains, for example, linking Kent with towns in northern France and so far there have been no firm proposals to create direct services to other major cities such as Amsterdam and Cologne. Moreover, the original plan of having sleeper trains from various British provincial towns as well as direct daytime services to Paris and Brussels was scrapped.

The high speed line, therefore, is currently rather underused with, at most, two trains per hour in any direction, compared with the theoretical capacity of twenty. This will change in December when Kent domestic services are introduced linking Ashford and Ebbsfleet on the high speed line and various other towns reached by conventional railways, with London. They will greatly speed up commuter services between Kent and the capital, though travellers will have to pay premium fares to travel on the new trains, the first in Britain to have been supplied by Japanese train maker Hitachi. There is also hope that freight trains will be able to use the line, though these would have to carry relatively light products to ensure they could travel fast enough – say 100 mph – not to use up too much capacity on the line. From 2010, other passenger operators will be allowed to use the line in addition to Eurostar, but no firm bids have yet been made.

This begs a lot of questions about the plans for a high speed line linking London with the North. It would have to be better used to make it economic especially as it is envisaged that it will be part funded by private money. Yet, the fact that private investors will need a rate of return on their capital may push fares up making it less attractive for passengers than, say, conventional but slower rail services. Moreover, does Leeds, reachable by a half hourly train service from London taking just two hours, really need a high speed line?

A government owned company, HS2 is currently undertaking a study on the prospects for such a line which will answer these questions and its initial report is due to be published early in 2010. There are, though, countless hurdles for such a scheme to overcome and even if it is successful in doing so, work will not even start until 2017 and would not be completed before the middle of the 2020s.

In comparison with European countries such as France, Italy, Germany and Spain, Britain lags decades behind the development of a high speed rail network but, in fairness, it is a country that is far more intensively built up and which has good conventional rail services.

The initial study into HS2 will look at the feasibility of building a line between London and Birmingham, and will consider possible options for its extension to say, Manchester and possibly Leeds. However, the relatively poor usage of HS1 and its high cost – officially £5.2bn but in fact nearer double that once hidden subsidies, such as the gift of the trains to the developers, and related spending are taken into account – suggest that supporter of HS2 will have their work cut out to push the scheme through.

The project team on HS2 will assess the cost of a route and make suggestions on the route – such as the location of the London terminal, the most expensive factor – but it will be up to the next government to decide whether the project should move to the next stage, the establishment of the exact route and the outline design, which will require considerable expenditure at a time when government finances have never been tighter.

Therefore it is far too early for a debate about whether High Speed Two should go to Leeds or by-pass it on its way to Scotland by a more westerly route. In the meantime, it is essential that the current high rates of investment in the railways are maintained during the recession because for a long time to come the conventional railway will be far more important to the economy of Yorkshire than plans which will remain on the drawing board for years to come.

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