Back to the future for the benefits of high-speed rail?

Lucy Battle believes the development of a high speed, high capacity network for the UK is long overdue and looks at the history of high-speed rail to explain why.

As early as 1903, speed trials in Prussia demonstrated the feasibility of electric high-speed rail. In Europe, high-speed rail arguably began during the 1965 International Transport Fair in Munich, with runs at 120mph between Munich and Augsburg using powerful electric ‘Class 103’ locomotives.

In the UK, initial enthusiasm for electrification waned. The West Coast Main Line was partially electrified between 1959 and 1969, with a grudging extension from Preston to Glasgow (but not Edinburgh) opened in 1974, and there being lingering suspicions of political interference, making electrification conditional on closure of the direct route from Carlisle to Edinburgh.

With no political appetite for significant further electrification, British Rail introduced the 125mph high-speed train in 1976 and it was a runaway success. Operating under the brand name ‘InterCity 125’ on routes between London Paddington and Bristol, journey times plummeted and passenger numbers shot up.

A couple of years later a similar high-speed success was achieved on the East Coast route, where up to an hour came off the journey time between King’s Cross and Edinburgh.

Fast forward to 2019 and the debate around high speed rail could not be more different.

While the sector continues to champion the project, enthusiasm for HS2 appears to be dwindling amongst the public and politicians alike. Can the changing fortunes of the original high-speed train routes teach us any lessons about how to approach the conversation around HS2? How can we better communicate the benefits to those who are sceptical?

It’s not even that much faster!

Campaigners against HS2 often use the shorthand of ‘who wants to spend billions just to get to Birmingham a few minutes sooner?’. On initial inspection, they arguably have a point. Typical schedules between Birmingham and Euston now only range between 83-86 minutes, compared with the regular 89-91-minute service some 40 years ago in the pre-high-speed rail era. There’s more. To put it kindly, journey times between Wolverhampton and London have remained static for nearly 40 years, such that (ticket permitting) the shortest journey times can now be achieved by travelling to Stafford (some 15 miles north of Wolverhampton), and changing on to a non-stop service up the West Coast ‘proper’.

However, the HS2 critics only peddle half the story. Between Birmingham and London Euston, there’s now an extra ‘InterCity’ train an hour in each direction, with the total capacity between the two cities much higher than what is currently available under British Rail. More trains on the line, naturally, means longer journey times.

Journey times are a function of speed and distance. The greater the distance between two points, and the fewer intermediate calls, the more that top speed really matters. Overlay political considerations, and a ‘business case’ assessment mechanism, and you go some way towards explaining why the high-speed network in the UK has developed as it has.

To reach a top speed, you need either an empty railway, or a railway at which all trains operate at the same speeds. This is why the original 1976-1977 introduction of the high-speed train between London and Bristol, and London and Cardiff enjoyed success; the route was relatively empty, enjoyed separation of slower services onto extra tracks, and trains could operate for long enough distances, at high enough speeds, for 125mph to make a real difference.

Typical journey times between London Paddington and Bristol Temple Meads in 1979 were 87 minutes. Today, the new Hitachi class 802 on the 1230 from London Paddington makes the trip in 98 minutes, whilst others are in the 100-107-minute range. In common with the Pendolino on the West Coast, and the ‘225’ on the East Coast route, the trains – though theoretically capable of 140mph – are stuck in the rut of a 125mph maximum.

So, what’s happened? Has the high-speed dream derailed?

Not all about speed

Actually, it’s quite the opposite. The introduction of high-speed services (at no extra ticket cost) brought towns and cities closer together, gave people access to jobs, and heralded the dawn of the long-distance commuter. As railways once more became attractive, more stops were added to the high-speed network. This increased journey opportunities, passenger volumes and revenues; however, over time, it also started to erode the overall journey time benefits. It became a victim of its own success.

A careful balance had to be struck to ensure the optimum operation. The law of diminishing returns started to apply – every extra stop costs a few minutes; add those up and the overall journey time could become uncompetitive. This philosophy was applied to the Birmingham – Euston service (many trains now stop at Rugby and Milton Keynes in between), where the road competition is deemed not to be a threat.

Now, however, market maturity has set in. If economic growth is slow, then the prospect of new punters in droves is low. From the narrow perspective of railway operations, once this commercial reality is established, it is a short step from questioning whether top speed is anything other than a PR and marketing tool.

For the shareholder, income and profitability is what really matters. If the income can be the same, without the additional costs of signalling and infrastructure for high-speed running, then what benefit is it to you whether or not the trains run at top speed? The profit is the same.

We’ve seen this before – the UK already had two fleets of 140mph trains, which have never used that capability. The ‘InterCity 225’ (225kph=140mph) was launched 30 years ago on the East Coast Main Line, and has never operated at that speed. 20 years ago, Virgin’s 140mph ‘Pendolino’ trains were introduced in a similar blaze of publicity, but suffered the same 125mph fate.

So, are the critics of HS2 correct? No. The missing element in all of this is the UK economy. There is an evidential link between connectivity, journey times and economic activity. Connectivity stimulates economic activity – it shouldn’t just react to it. If you build it, the extra investment, the jobs, and therefore the commuters, will come. That’s why, irrespective of ownership, railways need strategic guidance and long-term vision and commitment.

Many sections of the routes I’ve outlined are now so congested, that running at the original design speeds – for significant distances – is impracticable. Anyone making the leisurely journey between Coventry and Wolverhampton will experience the sluggish outcome of mixing traffic types.

The long overdue development of a true high speed, high capacity network for the UK isn’t just a ministerial ego-trip; it is essential if capacities are to be released on existing routes, and if economic activity is to flourish beyond 52 degrees north.

With the Government’s recently announced aspiration for the UK to be carbon neutral by 2050, there’s no time to spare. Partial electrification of the West Coast Main Line in the 1960s showed how journey times could be improved alongside economic activity.

The ‘first wave’ of high-speed rail in the UK gave people further reasons not to use the car. It was done ‘on the cheap’ by brilliant engineers, after electrification was ruled out by Government. We see this mistake perpetuated with the use of bi-mode trains and prevarication over when, where and whether to electrify.

The ‘second wave’ of high-speed rail may be more of an existential necessity – both in human and economic terms. If the Government is sincere in environmental objectives, then high capacity and high-speed railways must start immediately, or the UK will grind to a halt.

This article was written by one of our Directors, Lucy Battle, and appeared in Rail Professional magazine on 31 May 2019.

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Photo credit:JoeDunckley