Why plans for hs2 will do nothing to replace wasteful short-haul flights
This week, the government confirmed its plans to proceed with the first phase of its highly controversial £17 billion HS2 (High Speed 2) rail project, which will see a new fast link between London and Birmingham taking 49 minutes when it opens in 2026.
Confusingly, the government is also seeking to pass legislation for the next phase of the project, a 'Y' shaped continuation to Leeds and Manchester opening in 2032, bringing the total projected cost to £34,000,000,000. This has led to many inaccurate claims and counter claims regarding the actual scope of the project, whereas it has been impossible to do a rational assessment of this second phase of the project, as details of exactly where it will go have not been released, except that there will be some form of station in the East Midlands - presumably East Midlands Parkway Version 2.0 (drawing on the failures of the first one no doubt!).
Since before setting up Flightmapping.com in 2002, I have for a long time held the view that High-Speed Rail is a logical replacement for short haul flights. These flights are extremely wasteful as they use so much energy in the takeoff and landing process. So, why do I feel that the HS2 project falls so far short of such ambitions?
Train versus plane
This is naturally the first criteria I should look at when assessing a high-speed rail project like this, especially as I have also travelled by high-speed train in almost all other European countries that have them, and I have seen how short-haul flight routes have changed over the last 10 years as these rail routes have developed. So how does HS2 compare in this respect?
Claim: Up to 6,000,000 passengers per year will shift from UK domestic flights to rail travel due to HS2.
Reality: The train has already won the battle for point to point travel between London and northern England, with flights no longer being available between London City and Liverpool, or between London Heathrow or Gatwick and Leeds/Bradford airports. The high-frequency shuttle flights from London City airport to Manchester dwindled to just a handful each day before being axed, whereas flights from Manchester to Stansted are also well and truly finished.
Therefore, the only flight routes which would run directly in competition with the new rail line are those which operate from London Heathrow and Gatwick to Manchester. Even this route is highly vulnerable to the pressures of Air Passenger Duty (APD), which results in two sets of charges for passengers taking domestic flights, against one set for those people taking flights to mainland Europe and beyond. Already, three quarters of passengers on the Heathrow to manage the flights are taking connecting flights elsewhere -- not only are these taxed differently, but they are less likely to be substituted by rail services if passengers can make a direct connection in one terminal.
The current total market for flights between Manchester and London is around 1,000,000 passengers per year, although the market for point to point flights, as opposed to flight connections is clearly much smaller than that.
Where does the 6,000,000 passenger figure come from?
Apart from inflation based on a growing market (clearly not the case), the figure is largely made up by assuming that passengers in Scotland will transfer from short-haul flights on to rail services as a result of the gains in speed further down the line.
However, the ability of the HS2 project to deliver this as it currently stands is highly questionable. The first phase, by providing a faster route south of Rugeley, might knock around 20 minutes from the total journey time between Glasgow Central and Euston, not enough to make any significant difference, and certainly not enough to justify the huge investment in rolling stock which would be needed to make this happen. Any savings or on a journey times between Edinburgh and London would be miniscule, as the majority of this traffic would almost certainly continue down the east coast.
I would like to assume that the second phase of this project will join the West Coast Main line somewhere around Warrington, and that there will also be a join with the East Coast main line somewhere around York. However, this has not been put forward as part of 'Y' scheme, otherwise it would be more accurately described as a double 'Y' (Why o why I hear you say!).
Even if joins are provided at Warrington and York, the savings in time will still be slightly less than the one hour saving provided to Leeds and Manchester, as these will operate on a direct route, whereas the joins will operate as a spur. There is also a much more significant question about how different services will compete against each other for track access paths.
Trains operating entirely on the high-speed lines will be up to 20 carriages long, and they may also be double-decker, whereas trains operating on conventional lines will be restricted to single deck, and can only be as long as platform space allows at the stations they call at, although selective door opening may make length less of a problem, providing the terminus station can accommodate the full length.
High-speed line only trains could just be bought off the shelf -- for example the next generation TGV Duplexes could provide optimum capacity by joining two trains together and using a double-decker arrangement, whereas the hybrid trains would have to be customised to British classic line specifications, and therefore they may end up being more expensive, even though they would carry less passengers.
This does not, of course, mean that Glasgow or Edinburgh to London train services could not use the high-speed line at all, but it does mean that they are at a potential commercial disadvantage when compared to trains which use the high-speed line for the full length of the journey.
This may mean that discounted advance purchase tickets are either not available, or are not sufficiently attractively priced compared to low-cost flights operating between London and central Scotland. Don’t believe me on this – try finding an advance ticket on the current HS1 service from St Pancras to Ashford and beyond.
More likely is that if the time-saving compared to current journeys is only around 45 minutes, so there is less likelihood that lucrative business passengers will transfer from air to rail at this point – yes, the timings will be more appealing for some passengers, but not fast enough for a major switch by the premium passengers.
In effect, there is a significant squeeze both at the top and bottom end of the market in terms of operating a competing train service, compared with flights from London to Edinburgh and Glasgow. And European experience shows that a good fast train service may result in a reduction in frequency of flights, but it rarely actually kills the route entirely. For example, despite the TGV from Lyon to Paris offering fares from just £23 each way, and a service to both central Paris and CDG airport for connecting flights, Air France still operate multiple daily flights from to both Paris Orly and CDG airports from Lyon.
Either way, the figure of 6,000,000 is completely unrealistic, unless of course, the high-speed line was to continue all the way through to Scotland.
In terms of routing, it might make more sense to go up the West Coast and to have a split around Carstairs, although this leaves the question of how a high-speed line might get through this sensitive Lake District. A route heading East from Leeds via York could also serve Newcastle, but this may end up in a bit of a circuitous routing to reach Glasgow.
One thing that proponents of the scheme have failed to ram home is that although the cost per mile of the first phase stands at a prohibitive £145m per mile, much of this is due to the estimate £6bn cost of getting as far as Old Oak Common. The cost for phase 2 falls to around £63m per mile – still expensive even by European standards, but far more reasonable compared to phase 1.
A continuation to Scotland may be a phase3 – or should we call it High Speed 3 – arriving sometime in the 3rd Millennium at current rate? From the point of view of providing an alternative to short-haul flights, this would become far more viable. If anything, the cost per mile heading north may fall further, as land prices fall and as economies of scale kick in – although if extensive tunnelling is needed in the Lake District, these costs could rise again.
Either way, it should cost much less than another £34bn to continue north to Edinburgh and Glasgow – and it may be possible for as little as £9bn, assuming a slight reduction in cost compared to Phase 2. This is not much more than the cost of getting between Euston and Old Oak Common. Now I accept that this link is an important part of the scheme, but ultimately it still only provides a link as far as the north edge of London’s Zone 1, and connectivity with the first high speed line, which has still to be costed, and which is still going to present some serious operational challenges.
If, however, the link to Edinburgh and Glasgow was built first, followed by the link between Old Oak Common and Euston, that would be a real game changer!