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Alternative investments to HS2


Alternative investments to HS2

51m, diagram of Inter City West Coast passenger mileage to 2012 - 2013

The 51m group of local authorities opposing HS2 have called on the government to hold a referendum so voters can chose between the rail line and their alternative proposals, the Bucks Herald reported (23 Sep 2013).

Alternative ways of spending the £47 billion earmarked for HS2 on schemes which ‘will bring more immediate economic benefits across the UK’ are outlined in a document published by 51m, the alliance of 19 councils opposing the controversial rail project.

It sets out how the money could be better targeted to bring faster, higher value economic benefits across the entire country.

Martin Tett, leader of Buckinghamshire County Council and chair of the 51m Alliance said: "We are so confident of our programme that we challenge the Department for Transport to ‘ask the people’ by allowing the country to vote between HS2 and our alternatives at the time of next year’s European Elections.

51m’s 36-page Alternative Investment Strategy categorises the alternative investments as follows:

  • Increase capacity on north-south rail network: £2 billion (including contingency)
  • Restore and upgrade the nation’s roads: £14 billion
  • Ultrafast broadband and 4G mobile: £10 billion
  • Core City infrastructure investment: £17 billion
  • Devolved funding to Local Enterprise Partnerships: £7 billion

As might be expected, the component of 51m’s proposals involving ‘Mainline rail capacity’ focus on the West Coast Main Line.

HS2 provides no additional rail capacity between London and Birmingham until 2026 at the earliest, and 2033 for the North of England.

The West Coast Main Line is the least crowded main line to London, and, unlike many other routes, its capacity can be increased by lengthening and reconfiguring trains, at a fraction of the cost of HS2.

The capacity arguments for HS2 are fundamentally flawed

Ministers constantly quote Network Rail stating that ‘the West Coast Main Line will be full by the mid-2020s’ but there has been no objective, independent review of this statement. Even on Network Rail’s own evidence1, the West Coast Main Line is, apart from HS1, the least crowded main line into and out of London:

Service group (long distance services into London)
[Load factor (3 hour morning peak - 2010)]

Paddington (Main Line and other fast trains) – [99%]

Waterloo (South West Main Line) – [91%]

St.Pancras (Midland Main Line) – [80%]

Liverpool Street (Great Eastern Main Line) – [78%]

Victoria (fast trains via East Croydon) – [72%]

Kings Cross (ECML long distance) – [65%]

Euston (long distance) – [60%]

St.Pancras (HS1 domestic) – [41%]

There is much other evidence that West Coast Main Line services are nowhere near full. The average number of passengers on Virgin Trains services in 2012/13 was 1642, much lower than for the East Coast Main Line (224). The majority of West Coast trains now have 589 seats, a ‘load factor’ of 28%, compared to airlines of between 80-90%. And routes such as main lines into Waterloo, Victoria and Liverpool Street and key commuter routes into cities such as Birmingham, Manchester and Leeds are full now – and in many cases the Government has no plans to provide extra capacity.

The Department of Transport has repeatedly refused to provide data on train loadings for Virgin Trains on the grounds of ‘commercial confidentiality’, even though rail franchises are major government contracts, and there is an obvious public interest for the taxpayer. Some data released to the High Court as part of the Judicial Review case in December 2012 showed that evening peak Inter City departures from Euston (2011) carried on average 229 passengers, a load factor of only 52.2%. These counts were carried out before the programme to lengthen 35 of 56 Pendolinos from 9 to 11 carriages was implemented. This alone provided a further 150 standard class seats in each train. Assuming 20 of 29 Pendolinos leaving Euston in the evening peak are now 11 carriages, the standard class load factor is just 45.8%. [...]

Future demand

Passenger numbers on the West Coast Main Line grew dramatically after the route upgrade was completed in 2008. This isn’t surprising, as frequencies were improved and journey times were slashed. Using London to Manchester as an example, there had previously been just one train an hour taking 2 hours 40 minutes, but now there are three trains an hour taking 2 hours 8 minutes. This has led to a big change from air travel, with almost everyone now travelling to central London by train – the remainder are either transferring flights, or fly because the destination airport is more convenient than Euston.

But Virgin Rail’s figures show that rapid growth is now over.

The same thing happened when the West Coast main Line was electrified in the 1960s, with initial rapid growth, and then plateaued passenger numbers. Future growth on West Coast Main Line is now only likely to come from growth in the total transport market, rather than transfer from road or air, which has already happened. Rail is already dominant for travel to central London, with the Department for Transport’s statistics showing business travel in decline, almost certainly because businesses are increasingly using IT as a smart, cost effective alternative.
The Government should make sure it has a good understanding of what’s actually happening rather than just extrapolating constant rail growth into the future. After all, passenger miles grew by less than 1% in 2012/13, well below the growth assumed for HS2.

West Coast Mainline capacity

The Department for Transport (DfT) forecast 102% background growth in long distance demand from 2008 (in 2011 consultation documents). Based on recent trends, this looks highly unlikely. Even if rail growth does continue, there are much cheaper and quicker ways to increase long distance capacity on West Coast Main Line. The alternative developed by 51m4, the group of local authorities opposed to HS2, achieves a major increase by:

* Changing one first class carriage to standard (still leaving three first class coaches per train).

* Lengthening trains from the present 9 or 11 carriages to 12 (except for Liverpool trains which would
remain 11 carriages because of constraints at Liverpool Lime Street).

This approach gives 693 seats on most trains – more than three times the current average evening peak demand.

And eliminating three minor ‘pinchpoints’ (restrictions between Euston and Crewe) would allow an extra 15 InterCity trains in each direction daily, and increase freight capacity by separating InterCity and freight trains along the line.

Within the documents issued by the Government (January 2012) are reports commissioned by DfT from Network Rail5 and WS Atkins6. While the Network Rail report was intended to undermine the 51m alternative, it acknowledges that capacity calculations set out in the alternative are practical and deliverable, and the report from Atkins report states that the alternative has a Benefit Cost Ratio (BCR) of 5.1, compared with 1.4 for HS2. The capital cost of the alternative is £2bn, a fraction of the cost of HS2.

Euston commuter capacity
There is a major crowding problem on the fast commuter trains to Milton Keynes and Northampton today. The Department for Transport stated that three of the ten most overcrowded trains in the country last year were on this route.

The 51m alternative doubles fast peak commuter capacity on the route by building a new flyover south of Milton Keynes and introducing faster rolling stock. This could be done in five years whilst HS2 provides no extra capacity until 2026 at the earliest.

Major increases to capacity on shorter distance commuter services (e.g. Watford and Hemel Hempstead) can be achieved by increasing all trains to 12 carriages, and by operating extra commuter trains by changing stopping patterns and transferring a small number of freight trains to run outside peak periods.

HS2 doesn’t help shorter distance commuters, as trains still have to operate on the ‘slow lines’ since DfT’s plans for WCML show ‘fast lines’ busy with fast (125/110 mph trains) after HS2 is built.

Commuter capacity in Birmingham, Manchester and Leeds

The Government may also argue that HS2 is essential to address growing commuter demand in Birmingham, Manchester and Leeds. In reality, HS2 only has a marginal benefit in each case. Using the morning peak as an example, only two trains from London arrive at Manchester and Leeds before 9.00am today. HS2 only releases capacity for two more trains, on just one route into each city, a minimal benefit for Leeds or Manchester commuters despite the £50 billion price tag.

As proposed in this report it would be far better to invest up to £3bn in each Core City area to deliver big capacity increases for all routes to city centres.


HS2 supporters argue that the 51m alternative will create major disruption because of the engineering work required. This simply isn’t true because work is only necessary in three places (Ledburn Junction, south of Milton Keynes; Brinklow, Nuneaton; and Colwich junction, south of Stafford). This is similar to work already being carried out, for example the Nuneaton flyover, Bletchley remodelling, and Norton Bridge flyover. The work required cannot be compared to the previous WCML upgrade that involved comprehensive renewal and maintenance of the route.

By contrast, work to build HS2 will be VERY disruptive at Euston, with a permanent reduction in the number of approach tracks (six to four) and platforms (18 to 13/14) from early on in the construction programme, leading to reduced peak services. This will also impact on Scottish sleeper services, which will no longer be able to stand at Euston after arrival in the morning; it is quite likely that these trains will have to be permanently transferred to another terminal.

Even away from London, HS2 requires work that will cause as much (if not more) disruption as the 51m alternative, with construction of grade separated junctions near Lichfield, south of Crewe, and south of Wigan.


HS2 delivers no benefits for the East Coast Main Line or the Midland Main Line until Stage 2 is completed in 2033 at the earliest – at least twenty 20 years away – and the cost of HS2 will inevitably squeeze investment on all other parts of the rail network. Sensible incremental improvements in capacity and reductions in journey times could be delivered within five to ten years across the network delivering national benefits, at much less cost.

Improving journey times to/from London

Even before any potential journey time improvements on existing main lines, times between London and major English cities are already fast by international standards, reflecting previous investment in improving principal InterCity routes to and from London, and the shorter distances involved compared to other countries like France or Spain. For example, Manchester to London takes 2 hours 8 minutes today, compared with 2 hours 11 minutes from Paris to Lyon and 2 hours 45 minutes from Madrid to Barcelona. Before high speed rail Madrid to Barcelona took 6 ½ hours, so it was a huge step change that caused a shift from air to rail. HS2 will not give the same change for London to Manchester as rail is already fast, and the time saving is much lower, especially for end to end travel times, taking account of the time taken to get to and from stations.

There is also real scope to reduce journey times on all three main lines from London to the Midlands, the North of England and Scotland. Electrification of the Midland Main Line will reduce journey times by up to 15 minutes, and DfT has promised that introducing new ‘IEP’ trains on the East Coast Main Line will also cut times (by 17 minutes to Newcastle for example). Virgin Rail believe it is possible to travel between London and Glasgow in 3 hours 59 minutes by 2017/187. Further improvements on West Coast Main Line could be achieved by running at 140 mph, the design speed of existing trains.

Rail already has a high share of the market between major cities and central London, the principal market for HS2. The real priority must be to cut interurban journey times away from London – it is perverse that the train service between Liverpool and Manchester is slower and less frequent today than in 1910. Interurban improvements can be achieved much sooner, at a fraction of the cost of HS2, and will encourage transfer from road to rail, positively supporting regeneration in the North of England.

As already described, major capacity increases on shorter distance commuter services (to Watford and Hemel Hempstead) can be achieved by increasing all trains to 12 carriages, and running extra commuter trains by changing stopping patterns.