Too Much of a Good Thing?

This is a guest post by Peter Delow, who writes the HS2 and the Environment blog.

When (or should that be “if”) the Transport Secretary (or even the Prime Minister or the Monarch) of the day cuts the ribbon for the new shiny HS2 railway between London and Birmingham I think that we can expect a high-frequency service. After all, there would be little attraction in a service offering that was worse than the current timetable (49 trains per day on Virgin Trains).

This expectation appears to be borne out by the proposed HS2 Day One train service set out in Figure A1 on page 59 of the February 2011 publication Economic Case for HS2: The Y Network and London – West Midlands. This diagram shows a basic service between London Euston and Birmingham Curzon Street of three trains per hour each way, increased to four trains per hour during the peak hours of 07:00 to 10:00 and 16:00 to 19:00. Given that we are advised on page 74 of High Speed Rail: Investing in Britain’s Future that trains will run between 05:00 hrs (08:00 hrs on Sunday) and 24:00 hrs, we can therefore expect 63 trains each way, every weekday. I have been unable to find any details of the expected Sunday service; this will presumably be a reduced service and I will assume a half-service of 30 trains each way. So every week approximately 470 trains will operate in each direction, giving 940 total train operations.

On page 19 of High Speed Rail: Investing in Britain’s Future we are told that a 400 metre long HS2 train, comprising two 200 metre units, will have a capacity of “as many as 1,100 seats”. I think that it is fair to assume that only 200 metre long trains will be used on Day One, carrying up to 550 passengers.

So every week 517,000 seats (550×940) will be available on HS2 for passengers travelling from London to Birmingham and in the reverse direction. That amounts to 26,884,000 seats per year, which seems a lot; so how does it compare with expected demand?

A good place to start would be current demand and Network Rail’s July 2011 document West Coast Main Line Route Utilisation Strategy can provide that information. Table 3.9 on page 47 gives total passenger journey data, for the survey year spanning 2009/10, for passengers boarding and alighting at West Coast Main Line (WCML) stations for trips to and from London Euston. The addition of the Birmingham New Street and Birmingham International data in this table yields the base demand for the new HS2 London-Birmingham service; this amounts to 3,120,000 passenger journeys per year.

Paragraph 7.2.6 on page 49 of Economic Case for HS2: The Y Network and London – West Midlands tells us that the forecasts by the Department for Transport (DfT) assume that rail demand will grow by 1.4% per year overall. If this annual growth is applied to the total passenger journeys per year figure calculated in the previous paragraph, then the passenger demand between London and the two Birmingham Stations will rise to about 3.9 million by 2026 (HS2 Day One).

I think that we may safely assume that WCML services will continue between Birmingham and London even when HS2 is running; after all the Channel Tunnel did not signal the end of cross-Channel ferry services. Since the WCML services will continue to serve intermediate stations such as Coventry, we can expect that the WCML franchisee of the day will fight hard to retain customers using the Birmingham stations. However for the sake of this current calculation I will be kind to HS2 and assume that all Birmingham passengers will use the new service. If this happens and HS2 is not successful in attracting any new customers, then the all day load factor for HS2 (passengers/available seats) in 2026 will be a staggeringly low 14.5%.

However, we are told in Table 3 on page 19 of Economic Case for HS2: The Y Network and London – West Midlands that only 65% of HS2’s customers will be passengers switching from classic rail. Now this table has been calculated for the year 2043 and so may not apply equally to 2026, but it is all the information that we have to go on. I suspect that the 2026 figure would show a higher percentage of passengers switching from classic rail in the total, as it will take time for HS2 to find its full potential customer base. On this basis I feel that, as its use is likely to flatter HS2, then I am justified in using this figure in this current calculation.

So if the 3.9 million passengers a year figure that I calculated earlier is only 65% of the total customer base in 2026, then the latter figure will be around 6 million passengers per year. If this optimistic scenario is achieved, which requires an extra 2 million customers a year to be found from somewhere, then the all day load factor rises to a still miserable 22.3%.

So with an all day load factor predicted, on the basis of DfT, HS2 Ltd and Network Rail figures, of between 14% and 22% in its first year of operation, it looks as if the “white elephant” tag that has been attached to HS2 by its opponents will be totally justified. The success, or otherwise, of the HS2 London-Birmingham sector will depend entirely on what happens in the twenty years or so after 2026 and that is so far in the future that it is impossible to speculate.

Acknowledgement: I am grateful for the inspiration for writing this blog to comments on HS2 capacity made by Chris Stokes in his Appendix 17 to the HS2 consultation response submitted by the 51m alliance of local authorities.

PS Don’t forget to check HS2 and the Environment.

One comment to “Too Much of a Good Thing?”
  1. In terms of Day 1 capacity
    In Annex 2 to “A summary of changes to the HS2 economic case” April 2011 at Para 3

    Our cost assumptions reflect the likely profile of demand in the future. It is unlikely that a full capacity of 400m trains during peak periods would be required before 2035. Up to this point some peak services would only be 200m in length, reducing operating costs by around 24% in the opening year. Operating costs then increase linearly to 100% in the year 2035.

    With the diagrams for the 7 sets to give 3 TPH 2 or 3 sets would only be 200m

    The 21minute turnround will not give enough time to add / remove a set

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