Rail Chair says 10% fewer trains – so why HS2?

For the last three days, Rail magazine has been hosting a “National Rail Recovery Conference” to tackle “the urgent challenges… and rebuild a successful, sustainable and smarter railway of the future”.

Rail industry professionals are clearly worried about falling numbers of passengers and the structural changes that will come from changes in travel patterns as a result of the pandemic.

The headline news is that Peter Hendy, chair of Network Rail, told the conference that they should have fewer train services should run once the country opens up again.  He told the conference that commuter traffic could be about 80% of pre-Pandemic levels and theta Network Rail were looking at scenarios of between 60% and 100%.

He told the conference that even before the Pandemic, demand on Mondays and Fridays was already dwindling and that “It wouldn’t surprise me if we have more demand on a summer Saturday than we do on a working weekday.”

The Independent reports

“Andy Bagnall, chief strategy officer of the Rail Delivery Group, said 45 per cent of journeys were on season tickets in 2009-10, but this had fallen to less than one third a decade later.

He suggested there could be different timetables – with more trains – on Tuesdays and Wednesday, and that freight trains to fill empty paths on other days.”

In another session earlier, Jody Ford, Chief Operating Officer of Trainline, had a very similar message.  Rail Magazine reports

Ford, who was due to take over his new role as CEO after the NRRC, said that competition for new commuters will result from more choices than just the car, citing Zoom as one example.

“That’s ultimately the result of new, normalised working from home. There is the benefit of office working against the friction of travel. We need to, as an industry, rapidly evolve our rail offering for commuters,” he said.

But there is one part of the rail industry that is completely oblivious to the change that is occurring: yes HS2.

When the latest business case for HS2 was published last April, it basically said it was going to ignore COVID19

“Rapid developments and the uncertain outcome of the COVID-19 outbreak mean it has not been possible within the FBC to undertake specific analysis to determine the outbreak’s potential longer-term impacts to transport passenger demand…

“…However, until new information is available on the potential longer-term impact of COVID-19 on long-term demand and economic growth it is not possible to say whether this will materially impact the Value for Money of HS2.”

So have the government yet done anything about re-forecasting passenger demand?

Short answer: no.

In January, Andrew Stephenson, one of the ministers in the DfT, told the Transport Select Committee

“Who knows what the outcome of Covid-19 will be?”

before going on to say

“We are looking at the emerging evidence and the emerging trends. Because they are published when investment decisions are taken, I think the next time we will probably publish a full business case will be if Parliament gives Royal Assent to the 2a Bill, taking the line from the west midlands to Crewe. Then we will be in the process of publishing a full business case.”

We note that the “process of publishing” is not the same as “publishing”.

Most of the rail industry have already acknowledged that COVID-19 has changed so much: when will HS2 get the message?

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