Is time on a train really useless time?

The Coalition government wants to commit to spending £33 billion on building the HS2 high speed railway from London to Manchester and Leeds.

Given so much money is involved, and the timescales – more then two decades to build –  it is vital that the  justification for spending so much money is robust.  Small errors in the starting assumptions make a huge difference to the final outcome of the project.

And even HS2 Ltd acknowledge the starting assumptions for HS2 are out of date, but they have not changed the way they calculated the economic benefits.

About 40% of the economic benefits of the London-Birmingham stretch of HS2 is based on an old idea that journey time is all wasted.  But as anyone who has used a train in the last few years knows, this is no longer true.

The government owned HS2 Ltd accepted the changing habits of travellors in their economic case published in March this year, when they said “However, with laptop computers and, increasingly, wireless internet access available on modern trains, rail passengers are increasingly spending at least some of their time in productive activity.” (p51)

In spite of this acceptance, the so called economic case for building HS2 as currently proposed is still based on the idea that reducing a journey by a few minutes makes a big difference to a business travellor’s productivity.

Can the Coalition really justify commiting £33 billion on an outdated assumption?

PS Read research about the changing use of train time here.

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14 comments to “Is time on a train really useless time?”
  1. Come now John and Elaine, surely it is selfish not to “invest” at least £34bn in this exciting project? Why would you wish to deprive foreign companies such as Siemens a chance to make a shed load of money and think of all the companies that are queing up to invest in or relocate to other parts of the country just waiting for a high speed rail link before they can do so. So, valuable acres of agricultural land will be lost and a few ancient woodlands, and wildlife sites and a scar across an AONB, people blighted by noise, visual intrusion and years of building work that will adversly affect local economies but at the end of it we will have a flashy train.

    Sound good?

    No it doesnt really does it

  2. I saw inside the back cover of a Harry Potter book that the idea occurred to J. K. Rowling on a train from Manchester to London, where she says Harry Potter ‘just strolled into my head fully formed’, and by the time she had arrived at King’s Cross, many of the characters had taken shape.

    How’s that for a productive train journey?

  3. What seems to be repeatedly overlooked is the fact that HS2 argue that the value of time of rail travellers is due to the congestion on railways, but then they add on to the value of time saved even more benefits from reducing the level of congestion. If they seriously thought they were reducing congestion they should change the value of time. Instead they have found a way to pile up more benefits by this “double counting” adding about a quarter more to their claimed travel benefits.

    • another point overlooked is that people work or read or try to relax on a train as a way of passing the journey time. if they can find a seat they may get some productive work done more so then by any other mode. but people arenbt taking the train so they can work ! but rather that they are able to. it doesnt mean that they would not rather have both a seat and a quicker journey time.

      if you think that most business or leisure travellers dont want quicker journeys, i suggest that you drive along say the m1 or m6 at 7O mph and see how many people you pass and how many overtake you. i tried this recently. it has always been a facet of human kind that we always want to do things more quickly. how many people would go on a more efficient plane if it took them longer to get to their destination ? and what about the olympics next year ? will the athletes want to set new records for you guessed it faster times ???? and will people going from kings cross to the olympics want to go via the circle line and dlr or the north london lines or will they use the very much quicker javelin ?

      • People view time differently. I commute each day and actually enjoy the time on the train to do things like read, I’ve studied for a job related qualification on the train, if my journey was quicker I wouldn’t get this time (my time) within the busy days I have. Some people may WANT to go quicker I would WANT to win the lottery, but what impact does my WANT have on the economy….none. The old saying WANT and NEED are very differnt things comes to mind. Personally I count quality of life above speed.

          • @John: “speed is irrelevant for the 70% which will be leisure travel”


            Modal shift, from intra-European short haul air to railborne alternatives, forms a central plank of any environmental argument in favour of high speed rail (HSR). Cast your mind back to the days when Eurostar were running their London to Paris/Brussels service out of Waterloo – this situation persisted for 13 years. During that period the air route between London and Paris/Brussels continued to thrive and retain a sizeable market share. On the 14th November 2007 HS1 opened up fully, exposing the benefits of HSR (cast your mind back to some of the adverts – see this link) to consumers – what happened next – the Eurostar services remorselessly ground down their airborne competitors and consumers voted with their cash, switching in droves to the seemingly new (only it wasn’t new at all was it?) rail service on offer from St Pancras.

            The exact same scenario applies now. Last week I travelled by train from my local station (Wilmslow) to Avignon in one day, boarding the 06:11, arriving Euston 08:09, a walk down Euston Road (pain the proverbials) for the 08:57 from London St. Pancras, arriving Lille Europe at 11:24 (local time, add on hour on for CET) and finally the 12:55 from Lille Europe, arriving Avignon TGV at 17:10. I realise such behaviour is unusual and the vast majority will choose short haul air (not that there is a direct air link from Manchester to Avignon!).

            With HS2, phases 1&2 in situ, I could board a HSR service at the planned Manchester Souther Hub station (within the environs of Manchester Airport) and arrive at Lille Europe 2.5 hours later – a single transfer across the platform will link a prospective traveller to any number of services; (by that time, twenty years hence) Barcelona, Milan, Munich will all be linked directly into the expanding pan-European network by 2030 (probably nearer 2020). Cheap budget air fares will also be a distant memory by that time.

            That’s why speed does matter and why it does play a vital role in the equation – to pretend otherwise is sticking your head in the sand!

            • The decline in flights between London and Paris started years before HS1 opened.

              According to the CAA, air passengers numbers between London and Paris fell consistently from 2002 to 2007, and the decline in air passengers between London and Brussels started earlier, in 1999. Looking at the graph on p3 here: it would appear that the sharpest decline on the London-Brussels route was actually in 2000-2001.

              What I thought interesting was the evidence to the TSC from Flybe. They said that when the Eurostar terminal moved away from Waterloo, they saw an increase in the number of air passengers between Southampton and Paris from people who lived south of the river.

            • So for you P.Davidson, and a minority doing these trips, the rest of us ( ,the majority) must pay ,with our taxes( that we believe could be better spent on the majority), and in other cases also sacrificing our communities,way of life ,countryside and homes.Do you realise how selfish that is? I suggest if it is so arduous for you that you find another job and like some of the polititions find out what it is like living in the real world.

            • I’ve no idea whether what you say is correct as its a long way into an uncertain future and that’s your way to spend leisure time.
              Others prefer quiet walks in the country,using local playing fields,enjoying woodlands etc.
              Either way why should I and many other hard working taxpayers subsidise your leisure choices?

            • OK it is very neat to get from A to B quicker than you can at the moment. But HS2’s spreadsheet (freely available on their website) shows that somehow they have missed out that travellers actually have to pay out for their tickets. They somehow obtain a very large additional revenue yet there is no evidence of any user charges. So for their “Year 1” network spreadsheet, in 2026 the total additional revenue is £273,556,796. In comparison the total additional User Charges (i.e. what people have to pay) is £91.18. [No I have not missed off any noughts here!] So somehow HS2 works a miracle by generating cash out of thin air. The issue of the value of time is relatively unimportant in comparison. Once you correct this and remove the equivalent amount of cash from the users (i.e. add it in as an extra cost) the viability of HS2 changes significantly.

            • I would like to correct an error I made in my comment of 7th October. When I said that in comparison to the expected additional revenue of £273,556,796, the Users were only expected to pay an extra £91.18 I was wrong. In fact the spreadsheed is saying that HS2 will be paying out to the Users a net extra of £91.18 (and not the users paying HS2). Sorry for this, but it is an easy error to make. You need to look at how the numbers are carried on to the next stage. As these numbes a positive values and are added to the total benefits, this must represent money being paid out TO the users. As this correction shows, there are some weird and wonderful bits of maths in how HS2 is being justified.

              Once you correct the spreadsheet by setting the User Charges cells to be equal to minus one times the revenue the Benefit Cost Ratio given by the spreadsheet plummets to a mere 0.8, even when you add in the “Wider Economic Impacts”. In otherwords for every £1 paid out we only get 80p back.

              Not only is there this, but also HS2 are claiming benefits from the “Boarding Penalties”. In the model passengers appear to have a time penalty given to them when they board a train. With the HS2 in place there are more travellers in total. So not surprisingly we get a bigger total time penalty. Yet despite it being a “penalty” this value is added to the total benefits and not subtracted from them. In comparison to the issue of the “missing User Charges” the value of these benefits are small, a mere £4,446,239 for 2026, but it is still an error. The some is probably happening to the “Access/Egress” times – interpreting an increase in the total penalty (because more people are travelling not due to any fundamental change in how individuals use the rail network) as a positive benefit (of £5,386,400) when it should go on the cost side of the equation.

              Now of course I might be wrong – in which case presumably HS2 (who will be keeping an eye on this site) will post an explanation.

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