Friday, September 30, 2011

British High Speed Rail? - Or a better railway for Britain

Editor's note: I personally and professionally am quite happy to continue to bash the feckless and  ill-gotten British High Speed Rail (“HS2”) proposal and its variants that we and others have discussed in these pages previously at  It is such a juicy target of avarice, gross incompetence and intellectual laziness. One has to ask oneself what do the cheering advocates have in mind -- not only those in the industry and other interests that will benefit largely from this railroading (!?!) of hard earned taxpayer money, but also in the three main political parties who have lined up most irresponsibly to support the proposal. If only they could turn back the clock and it were 1965 -- and Britain were France, or 1990 and they were Taiwan, or anytime they chose and Chinese, then they might have a decent shot at it.

But it's 2011 and Britannia is not only small and crowded, and lumbered by the second highest Genie Coefficient of income inequality in Europe (0.34 or so). WOrse yet  she is also also quite demonstrably and most uncomfortably broke. There are much better things to do with the thirty or forty billion Pounds Sterling that this boondoggle will cost, than to spend it to save minutes for an already privileged population of gentlemen in suits. For these and other reasons we can conclude that from a strategic perspective this is the wrong proposal for the wrong reasons at the wrong time.

But let's not be negative - that's too easy. Since on the other hand, there is a job to be done in improving rail standards and performance across the sceptered isle, and today Chris Stokes can help us understand what the real challenges and opportunities are.  Let's have a look.

A Better Railway for Britain

- Chris Stokes

Construction of a new high speed line (“HS2”) is not a priority. A much better approach would be to deliver high standards across the network, driving modal shift, instead of concentrating investment on HS2, benefiting benefit a few at the expense of the majority.

There are five key priorities:

1. Meeting the capacity challenge

Rail use has grown very strongly in the last fifteen years, and capacity on many parts of the network is now under pressure, in particular:

• There is an emerging critical shortage of capacity on key routes in the London Commuter area.
• There is a need for additional capacity on inter-urban routes.
• There is a need for additional capacity in major urban areas, particularly Leeds and Manchester.

But solutions need to be developed on a cost effective basis. So for the West Coast Main Line, which is in fact far from being the most overcrowded route, incremental improvements can fully meet foreseeable demand for both passenger and freight traffic.

An alternative incremental upgrade comprises:

o 12 car trains (3 cars first, 9 cars standard)
o Grade separated junction south of Milton Keynes
o Additional track south of Nuneaton
o “Stafford bypass”

This delivers more than three times the standard class capacity in the “base” used in the evaluation of HS2, and doubles commuter capacity to Milton Keynes and Northampton. Capacity increases can be delivered incrementally, as needed, at a total cost of £2.06 bn – Phase 1 of HS2 costs £17 bn, and delivers no benefits until 2026

2. Narrowing the Quality Gap

The best parts of the British rail system provide services as good as or better than anywhere else in Europe. However, overall standards are very variable, in terms of service levels, rolling stock and the quality of the station environment.

There should be an audit of quality by route, to quickly identify the key “gaps” in overall service quality, which in turn would drive future franchise specifications – based on outputs, not inputs.

3. Making connections

The timetable is fragmented on many parts of the network, with too many poor connections, often simply as a result of failures to co-ordinate between different train operating companies. The industry should be tasked with developing “clockface” timetables with improved and consistent service patterns and connections.

4. Driving modal shift

Rail already does well in two key markets, commuting to central London and InterCity travel to central London

But the major opportunities to increase the use of rail and achieve mode shift to reduce congestion and deliver carbon savings is in markets where rail is weak at present. Away from the routes to London, speeds are generally low, many centres do not have frequent direct links, and on some routes the trains themselves are unattractive.

Britain should follow the Swiss example, developing a plan for a comprehensive, national network linking all the key centres of population with through services or attractive, regular connections. Delivery of this will not only require improved frequencies and “clockface” services, but also targeted investment to improve journey times and ensure that modern, attractive rolling stock is provided on all routes.

5. Charging Fair Prices

For any but the simplest journey, finding the best value for money ticket requires sustained research and often a knowledge of the rail network that no-one should need to have. As a result, many passengers pay more than they need, or get a more restrictive ticket than they need, or both – or give up in frustration.

There should be a thorough review of the current fares structure, creating a national, affordable structure for “walk on” fares.

The Way Forward

• A committed, medium/long term programme of investment will progressively raise standards across the railway nationally on an affordable basis – perhaps half the level of expenditure envisaged for HS2 over the next twenty years.

• The improvements to the network will increase revenue across the country, hence improve the financial performance of the industry.

• The improvements will also increase rail’s share of the total transport market, relieving congestion and delivering environmental benefits

• A new fares policy will make the network easier to use and better value for money, while maintaining the “walk on” benefits of high frequency

*  This approach forms the basis for a better railway for the whole.
It is set out in more detail at

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About the author:

Chris Stokes has held a range of senior posts in the rail industry, Government and management consultancy. He worked for British Rail until 1993, and was Deputy Director for Network SouthEast, British Rail’s largest business sector, from 1988 to 1993. He was Deputy Franchising Director from 1993 to 1999, then an Executive Director at the Strategic Rail Authority until 2000. Chris has subsequently worked widely as a consultant, including advising on a number of winning franchise bids, and advising the Association of Train Operating Companies (ATOC) on the case for network electrification. He was a non-executive Board Member at the Office of Rail Regulation (ORR) from 2004 to 2006, and non-executive Chairman of Agility Trains from 2008 to 2009

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