Is the WCML really full?

In November 2011, HS2 Action Alliance carried out research to find out whether the West Coast Main Line trains really were full at peak times.

What the research showed – verified by independent research firm CRT Viewpoint – was that long distance trains leaving Euston during the week day, evening peak period (16.30 to 18.59) on the West Coast Main Line (WCML) had an average occupancy rate or load factor of just 56 percent.

This directly contradicts claims by the DfT and HS2 Ltd that the lack of capacity on the WCML is the central reason why the £32b HS2 rail line needs to be built.

The occupancy of the trains during peak period trains to Manchester was even lower than other destinations at an average of 45%. This further undermines the business case for second phase of HS2, which is planned to run from Birmingham to Manchester and Leeds.

The loadings on trains making an extra stop at Milton Keynes were significantly higher with an average loading of 107 percent. It might seem obvious therefore that Milton Keynes could really do with a HS2 station. However, in typical bizarre HS2 Ltd logic they said, in 2010, that they rejected Milton Keynes for a station because the trains would be full at peak hours.

The first trains after the peak ends (19.00 to 19.30) had higher loadings (67%). This demonstrates the effect on demand of the much cheaper fares that kick in when the off peak travel begins.

As Hilary Wharf said at the time;

“With extra capacity being at the very centre of the DfT and HS2 Ltd’s argument for the need for the £32 billion project, this research shows that the business case for HS2 is fatally flawed. Two extra carriages are planned for WCML services in 2012 which will reduce crowding further.

“We had to run our own research because the DfT refused a Freedom of Information request for the load figures. Having seen how low they really are in the peak it is clear why they tried to hide them.”

This research was followed up by Steve Baker at the Transport Select Committee when he questioned Justine Greening intensely about the passenger loadings on the WCML. He pointed out that FOI requests about passenger loadings on the GWL had been granted, but not for the WCML. Justine Greening said she’d look into why the two cases were handled differently.

She’s now looked into it. And decided not to release the figures because of “commercial confidentiality”.

However, in 2009, it was reported (the loading figures are across the whole day, not just peak hours)

“…Meanwhile, however, the number of train kilometres was 27% up on the previous year – thanks to the extra Birmingham-Glasgow services but also following the introduction of Virgin’s “Very High Frequency” timetable. As a consequence of these changes, average train load fell by almost 17% to just under 150 – a load factor of 35% on a 423-seat Pendolino tilting train.”

Of course means that Justine is quite happy to commit the country to spending at least £17 billion,  but unwilling to show that there is any need to spend the money.

How can the public be sure that building the proposed HS2 line is the right way to spend billions of pounds of taxpayers’ money, if the data that the entire case is built on is kept secret?

Methodology of the HS2AA research:

The methodology counted passengers onto each train, on Thursday 17 and Tuesday 22 Nov 2011. A third count took place on Thursday 24th November 2011.

Over the two days 66 trains were counted. Although the sample is small, CRT Viewpoint say they believe this gives a fair reflection of mid-week loading, away from a holiday period, on two normal working days.

The loading figures are for both first and standard class carriages as counters were unable to board the trains and separate the two classes. All trains were formed of nine car Pendolino’s except the Holyhead and Wrexham services which were formed of 10 car Voyager trains.

CRT conducted three audit counts on the three platform access ramps on Tuesday 22nd November 2011 in order to verify the accuracy of the counts being taken

The methodology used is no different from how many of the train companies do their counts in order to get loading figures.

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15 comments to “Is the WCML really full?”
  1. While not being in favour of the HS2 line coming, as there are far more viable options to create faster and higher capacity trains on routes 17/18 on the WCML I find your comment “leaving Euston during the week day, evening peak period (16.30 to 18.59) on the West Coast Main Line (WCML) had an average occupancy rate or load factor of just 56 percent.” somewhat misleading from my extensive experience of the routes.

    I will address directly the case for HS2 – Stage 1 (London-Birmingham Route), this being the WCML franchise (Virgin Operated service) the peak-time services (16:30-18:59) operating Euston – Wolverhampton/Birmingham (Route 18 Rugby split) typically the Class 390 – Pendolino, 9 carriage 439-seat, service. This service is occasionally operated by the larger Class 221 – Super Voyager (Not Class 220 – Voyager, as Virgin no longer operate these trains)

    I find it incomprehensible how any person can claim that the WCML peak-time service to Wolverhampton/Birmingham operates at ANYWHERE close to 56% occupancy unless looking expressly at first class carriages (which according to the data collection, it was not). I have noted these researchers with clipboards and counters, however during the initial boarding of peak and near peak-time trains there is a stampede of passengers who ‘flood’ the platforms and trains, of which anyone who travels regularly on these services can confirm. I also doubt that passengers could be counted accurately especially when two trains are leaving from connected platforms, or worse, at platforms 1, 2 and 3 at Euston which have a single entrance.

    Only 1-in-3 of the Midland bound services stop at Milton Keynes, where visible occupancy reduces slightly, yet only to the point that fewer passengers are standing. Stops at Watford Junction are pick-up only and stops at Rugby and Coventry (The latter stopping on each of the 3-hourly service) reduce passenger numbers further. The increase in passenger numbers for the first off-peak trains after peak, seems somewhat obvious does it not? Passengers on this service also include the overspill of these peak-time trains due to the flexible nature of the high-priced train tickets. Along with those who are willing to wait 20 minutes to save around £100 (The difference in these tickets), these trains I have always found again to be standing room only with a distinct increase in passenger numbers, full vestibules and passengers in the aisle. But such is the nature when there is simplistic on/off peak fares, rather than a complex progressive peak-time fare structure.

    Outside of Peak and near-Peak hours the route operates closer to the 50% figures in standard carriages and even less in first-class carriages, on more than one occasion having been the only traveller or one of less than 5, in the first-class carriage. Although this comment has focussed directly on the London to the Midlands service, I have also had relatively limited experience of the the Super Voyager Service to North Wales/Crewe, however this service I have only travelled in First Class so cannot comment on the occupancy rate of the standard carriage. However, during these trips the first class carriage (in one of the trains – Super Voyager service is typically a two train connected service) had occupancy in the region of over 70%.

    Whilst I agree with the sentiments that in its current form the case for HS2, is a ridiculous waste, I feel the current statistics shown don’t add up to scrutiny based upon personal experiences of the WCML travel during peak and near-peak times. I would implore you to ‘sample’ this service which I assure you will vindicate the claims I’ve made above. They appear to align more closely with government released figures, in the standard carriages at least. It is only during these peak-hours that I can see a benefit of adding extra capacity to the route, but I do not believe that HS2 is the way to do this.

    • Firstly, we did specify “long distance trains”. And we said the trains that stopped at Milton Keynes had much higher occupancy figures then the other trains surveyed, showing that HS2 Ltd’s decision to exclude a station there is short-sighted.

      Different people have tried FOI requests to get the Department for Transport’s own figures for the WCML. The Dft have consistently refused to release the data.

      My view is that this survey must be accurate when compared to the Dft figures, otherwise they would make public the WCML loading figures they hold.

  2. I keep hearing that a major benefit of HS2 will be to release capacity on the WCML for many more local and freight services even though Ms Greening wont release the current capacity data
    Isnt it up to the private franchisees to decide what services to run or at the very least to minimise taxpayer subsidies

  3. How does this freedom of information act work? It’s no rocket science to know we don’t need 200 trains per day (say its operating 12 hrs per day and 18 trains per hr to go between London to Birmingham). DfT send me a leaflet in Jan after Justin Greening gave the green light. All fluffy bunny marketing jargons were sung around the line of demand and capacity! Nothing else. What is that they need to hide if that was the truth? She was ez accountant for the city, am sure she knows how to hide numbers!!

  4. I suppose it has always been a few, that do as they think best for the majority.Now they should be open and accountable.Everyone should have their oppinion heard, and the majority listened to.This is not the case with HS2.We have seen wrong doing in the newspapers and
    things printed have led people to believe things that were not true.It is not right that data regarding train passenger numbers are witheld as they are a high percentage of the reason why we are told it is needed.

  5. Re Simon’s comment on the Chiltern Line. I used to commute to London from Haddenham and never had to stand either way. The trains certainly filled up at High Wycombe and Beaconsfield etc but not always to standing room only. HS2 will do nothing to ease that on commuter lines. On every line there is bound to be services at specific times that are so popular, they will always be crowded, this is where flexible working would help, to spread the peak load.

    The Government’s refusal to release the loading figure for WCML shows yet again what a devious, untrustworthy lot they all are. They are still spending millions of our money on this whilst reducing central funding to Councils, resulting in cutbacks in social care and many services. The sheer madness is unbelievable!

  6. It would be really interesting to understand what the real reason is for building this railway, obviously it’s not to do with capacity or speed, any ideas anyone?

  7. Hi. Chiltern’s line is a pain. I commute to London everyday from Haddenham. Trains are often full in both direction. I’ve stood twice this week all the way into London. Not happy.

  8. Wow I’m suspired that you can count in the first place but the only counted three days. This is a very limited survey therefore if you are trying to say that capacity is not need. Thick again with this type of survey. Next time do a little more work, try standing on a station next time and just count the number of trains that pass. It’s not you seat on trains but the told number of paths.

    • The Department for Transport have much more comprehensive data on train loadings on the West Coast Main Line. However, they are refusing Freedom of Information requests to release the information. That’s why the survey was done: but even after it was brought up at the Transport Select Committee, Justine Greening is refusing to make the information available for public scrutiny.

    • Sadly those of us that live near the “approved” route between London and Birmingham will not even be able to stand on a station platform and watch the shiny new HS2 trains go by unless it is one of the existing Chiltern line stations! So this is hardly likely to address any capacity issues in that area is it?

      I also note with amusement that now HS2 is “going ahead”, there are now calls by business leaders to review and increase airport capacity.
      Now correct me if I am wrong but I thought that amongst the “many” reasons that we need HS2 was the “fact” that it was going to reduce the numbers of people taking flights and all the associated good stuff that goes with that.
      I also wonder if these are the same business leaders so determined to get HS2 that seemingly hardly any of them answered the consultation documentation in support of it maybe because it was a done deal?

      Well well, welcome to the school of no surprise!

  9. Do we have any capacity info on the chiltern line which I hear very little about given that it is London to Birmingham

  10. How can they claim its in the national interest if they wont provide proof?
    This is totally unacceptable and must be challenged in every possible way

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