I recently went to Birmingham by train. I wanted to make a speech there first thing in the morning and get back for Parliament later. That meant staying in London the night before to be close to Euston. It was a good opportunity to see how much we need High Speed 2.
I caught the 7.23 fast train from London to Birmingham, stopping at just Watford and Coventry. It was the train to get you to Brimingham for 9am, the crucial business train you might think. It left on time and arrived close to the scheduled time, despite a delay and slow movement at one point.I bought a standard class day return on the day of travel, as I had not had chance to buy an advance cheaper ticket. I had no complaints about the speed of the train or the time it took me to get from station to station. It was fast, considerably quicker than I would be allowed to travel on the M40.
The carriage I was travelling in was 17% occupied. The next door one was around one fifth occupied. The first class carriages were much emptier than the poorly used Standard class. There was little sign of all this need for extra capacity. Returning later the same morning, at half the price of the outbound fare, the carriages were still more than half empty.
The approach to passengers was not very businesslike. On the outbound journey it was not until after Watford that a crackly announcement told us there was a shop on the train where we could buy food and drinks. We were also told that the credit card machine was not working, so we could not buy anything unless we had sufficient cash. It was not very inviting.
There were regular announcements to tell you the name of the next station. They also repeatedly told us we had to be unpaid guards, looking out for anything or anyone suspicious and reporting this to the police. It was difficult to see how I could do this, as there were no police travelling in uniform on the train. Fortunately I did not see anyone suspicious so I did not need to bother.It was an unusual approach to winning over customers.
For almost £80 single to Birmingham I got no offer of a newspaper, no drink, no information about onward travel, no seat belt, no moving map to show us where we had got to, no safety restraints on some people’s heavy luggage in overhead racks, no hard copy maps in the seat pockets as you would on a plane. There was waste paper left in between the tray table and the back of the seat. No-one tried to sell me any additional good or service, other than the announcement about the shop. On the return journey there were no ticket checks at either station I walked through nor on the train itself.
Out of the train windows you could see large tracts of railway land that were not being well used, and numerous freight wagons and carriages left in sidings and looking unused and in poor state. It did not give the impression of a well run set of businesses with tight control over assets and money.
First Group when it bid for the West Coast franchise said its load factor if it had started the franchise would have been just 35%. Even Network Rail, keen not to release capacity figures, did show in 2010 that overall load factors out of Euston were just 60%.
I can see no reason why my random day to go to Brimingham was unrepresentative. Even if you allow for more use on other days and at other times, you have to conclude trains from Euston to Birmingham do not seem to be near full capacity or that busy. If I want to seea crowded train I get on a commuter route at peaks, or try to get from Reading to London by train. The case for HS2 I thought rested on the need for more seats to Birmingham, to attract more Londoners to make the journey.