I have now received a detailed reply to my letter to the Secretary of State for Transport about HS2.
We seem to be in agreement about current use of the line. I have long argued that there is low demand for long distance travel from London in the morning peak and back into London later in the day. The Secretary of State now confirms this, saying ” You mention outbound trips north of London in the morning peak. At present the attractiveness of commuting on long distance services out of London is relatively low”…. This seems to me to be important, as part of the case for HS2 is to spread business activity out of London.
We are also in agreement that capacity is too small for shorter distance commuting into London, both on the lines northwards and on other lines into London as from the west via Paddington which will not benefit from HS2. The Secretary of State draws attention to other plans to deal with capacity shortages for these lines.
The Secretary of State argues that commuters into Euston already face insufficient capacity and many have to stand. He agrees that lengthening trains can help, and is continuing with the plans to do this. The recent existing railway upgrade has increased the numbers of trains using the West coast mainline as well. He says that an additional 36% capacity could be bought for £20bn by making further improvements to the present railway, which he thinks is not enough.
He agrees that the forecasts for passenger use of HS1 were too optimistic. He lays the blame for these mistakes on the fact that it was “an entirely new international service” and on the impact of low cost air travel as a competitor. In contrast he thinks that if anything the forecasts for passenger demand for HS2 are likely to prove low.
This where our agreement runs out. The forecasts for passenger demand for HS2 rely heavily on people who would otherwise have used existing railways using HS2 instead. This is likely to lead to a fares war, which is not assumed in the forecasts for revenue and use in the HS2 prospectus. HS2 produces a huge increase in capacity, which will prove very difficult to fill in its early years.
Currently without HS2 I have been offered a £12.50 fare to travel to Manchester Standard class, on a good range of pre booked trains on future days . Imagine what might happen to fares if there is a very large increase in capacity. The Department has to understand that HS2 is very vulnerable to mainline price competition from trains, just as HS1 is vulnerable to cheap airline competition.
Conscious that there need to be economic benefits from HS2 in the northern areas it serves, he has set up a Taskforce to work out what economic advantages a new line could bring. Other critics have said that the assessment of economic benefits attributes very large gains to relatively few extra rail journeys to there major cities.
On Wednesday I headed west to the Forest of Dean to give an evening talk on the EU and current UK politics. My outbound train to Bristol was pretty full. The train from Bristol to Gloucester was just two carriages long, with standing room only for part of the journey. The long train to take me back at 10.30 from Bristol was practically empty. The railways have great trouble in matching capacity to demand. It seemed odd that there could not be an extra carriage on the short commuter train, and odd there were so many carriages on the late train with all the wasted cost and fuel that implied. Some say it’s to do with the need for more carriages in the morning, yet they seemed to be running fairly empty trains in both directions!
It is also interesting when the main capacity shortfall is clearly commuting seats into London in the morning peak and out of London in the evening peak, that the answer is thought to be a new railway line to the north of the capital, but improving the existing lines to the east, south and west.