Rail 782: Trouble at Euston … and on Virgin

Now that HS2 is getting down to the nitty-gritty, the problems multiply and the decisions made far too early in the process are coming home to roost. One of my main complaints about the plan is that there is so little integration with the rest of the network and that the design is for the wrong sort of station.

In particular, terminus stations are a bad idea. The clue is in the name. Everyone has to get off causing bottlenecks and complex onward journeys. Parkway stations, too, are a mistake because they are difficult to access and therefore generally require a car journey to reach. Indeed, contrary to the hopes of supporters of HS2, parkway stations will encourage journeys to London but not make it easier for those leaving the capital to get to provincial cities. So the line should go either through Nottingham or Derby and not try to serve both in an unsatisfying way.

The big problems, though, are the terminuses, as the coverage about Leeds station in the last issue of Rail has highlighted. It is no surprise that business people in Leeds do not want a station that is set apart from the existing one and from the main commercial and retail areas. Much of the time gained in getting to Leeds quicker would therefore be lost. Moreover, and here is a key point, Leeds and Birmingham, which are to have terminus stations are relatively small compared with London. Many people, therefore, are heading for neighbouring towns and cities that connect well with the existing stations but poorly with the HS2 ones. Manchester is the exception since Piccadilly is going to be used as the terminus. However, even there, it would be far better if the trains themselves continued on to other destinations, as the TGV services often do in France, linking relatively small places to the capital.

The Leeds Chamber of Commerce has gone to the trouble of making a quite detailed submission for the HS2 services to go into the main station. That would require considerable work, including a viaduct, but is by no means impossible. However, the issue is that HS2 Ltd will always be reluctant to accept any changes that require extra cost. That is where politics come in. It is almost impossible for HS2 Ltd to come back to the government and say ‘sorry minister, it is not going to be £50bn including rolling stock but, euh, nearer £70bn’ (or whatever). Labour campaigned on HS2 by saying it would not spend any more than the budget – a pretty daft promise if truth be told – but clearly there are people within the present Tory administration who think the same.

That is why the situation in Euston is such a total mess. It is incredible that HS2 has got this far without any clear idea of what is going to happen at its terminus in London and indeed there is still the possibility that the railway will, at least initially, stop at Old Oak Common.

Over a year ago, George Osborne, in one of the off the cuff announcements beloved of politicians announced that the existing plans for Euston would be scrapped and that, instead, there would be a major redevelopment. Not a bad idea since the land must be valuable and the 1960s station is a homage to the worst excesses of the period – older readers will remember it was designed with no seats for tired legs, presumably on the basis that all the trains would run on time.

Well that grand plan seems to have gone out of the window. I was treated to a briefing by Camden Council and it is fair to say they are not a happy bunch. They are, to use ghastly business language, ‘in a difficult place’. Camden has been opposed to the concept of HS2 from the beginning, not least because it requires the demolition of several hundred perfectly good homes.

However, the council has a duty to do the best possible for its citizens and therefore simply maintaining a position of opposition is untenable. It has to start negotiating and demanding mitigation – in other words alleviating the negatives for local people. Consequently the council has tabled a large document setting out its objections to the Parliamentary committee which is spending the best part of two years looking at the scheme and making all kinds of detailed decisions. The council has already won some concessions such as a guarantee that all its social housing will be replaced, though owner occupiers are still likely to lose out. The council is seeking compensation for businesses that will lose out – such as my favourite Indian restaurant, Diwana’s in Drummond Street next to the station, which will be almost next to the fence marking off the building site. At present they will get none.

Councillors are confident that some concessions will be wonbut on the major issue of Euston, there is still uncertainty. The present proposal is for a three phase development but in effect the station will remain the same, which means that opportunities for planning gain will be limited. It is, the council reckons, the worst of all worlds. While councillors are not seeking some Canary Wharf type overdevelopment, they would like to see a new station with new buildings that could unlock some of the area’s undoubted potential.

It is easy to sympathise. Camden residents suffer some 15 years of disruption and work, and at the end of it get no benefit. Indeed, local resident Fran Heron, one of the campaigners on HS2, told me: ‘We have spent months “engaging” HS2 and we have got nothing out of it. There have been no concessions at all!. HS2 do seem to have the knack of getting up local people’s goats. The problem, according to Councillor Phil Jones, is that ‘HS2 is not in need of votes. The support for the vote in Parliament was overwhelming and therefore it is effectively unaccountable’. Indeed, democracy has been the lose in this because no major political party opposes HS2, even though vast swathes of the population do. It does seem amazing that the issue of the station is nowhere near being sorted out five years down the line

One final small but possibly significant point. Following the attack on the Thalys train, I was interviewed by Bloomberg News Agency whom I told that checking all passengers on a railway was impossible. A reader, in response, said that he had noticed that while the original proposal for HS2 in 2011 specified that there would be no baggage checking, by 2013 that had been dropped and there was no mention of it. Baggage on AVE trains in Spain is actually checked, as it is, of course, on Eurostar.

Now if the Department for Transport or the security services are daft enough to specify it on HS2, much of the speed advantage of the line will be lost. Most people would have to check in at least 20 minutes early, perhaps half an hour, which would further wreck the business case for the line. Yet another of those nitty gritty issues that are so important in determining the viability of the scheme.



Bad deals for the oldies


Virgin Trains has slipped out the fact that Railcard users will no longer get the wonderful concession it has offered for many years of being able to travel on peak trains at the off peak fare discounted by the one third saving. This was a great boon not just to oldies like myself but also students like Lucy, one of my mayoral campaign team, who has to travel frequently between the two cities for family reasons.

This was something of a secret concession. I only found out about it when I asked some years ago when I hit the magic sixties but it has been enormously useful as I have not had to go through the hassle of trying to work out what train to take.

Now this concession is to end on September 6. As a reader put it, that could push the fare up for a return to Liverpool from £54 to £204. Virgin says this is to bring it in line with other rail companies, but this is not much of an explanation. Indeed, the company admits that it never promoted the deal, and yet was happy to implement, a rather odd strategy.

My suspicion is that this is under pressure from the Department for Transport, which would not allow Virgin (or rather Stagecoach in disguise) to offer the same deal on East Coast. It therefore looked rather daft to continue with it on the West Coast. The Department is motivated by a need to maximise payments for its franchises but in fact it was a concession that probably did not cost all that much and helped fill up a few peak hour trains that are notoriously underused.

My reason for thinking that this is pressure from the government is that the same thing is happening in Scotland. Even though Scotrail is franchised out by a different organisation, Transport Scotland, rather than the Department for Transport, it seems odd that it too is making life more difficult for the oldies. A long running scheme of offering heavily discounted tickets at least three times per year to over 55s has been scrapped and replaced with small discounts, operating all the time, to over 50s. Crucially, as Railfuture’s Ken Sutherland pointed out, the discounted fares will only be available for advance purchase tickets and he said: ‘Club 55 incentivised people to make journeys they might otherwise not have made’. Some of the increases are sharp such as the one highlighted by my fellow columnist Barry Doe – Edinburgh to Wick which was £19 under Club 55 will be £70 under the new system.

Sutherland researched the origins of the change and found that they were prompted by Transport Scotland, rather than the new operator, Dutch firm Abellio. It appears this was a specification in the franchise contract, though both sides have been coy about answering precisely who was responsible. As with the Virgin change, money is the driving force, though, in fact, if Sutherland is right in suggesting that the scheme attracted people on to the railways, the bureaucratic pen pushers specifying these contracts may be wrong and that not only will these moves annoy passengers, they won’t actually raise the promised extra income.


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