HS1: Good idea but…

This was originally published on HS2 and the Environment, as part of a series looking at RailFuture’s response to HS2.

If a national high speed railway network is to be built in the United Kingdom, it surely makes sense to interconnect that network with the already well-developed high speed networks in continental Europe. After all, the hardest part of achieving this, the Channel Tunnel and the HS1 high speed rail link extending the interconnection to London, is already in operation.

The idea of boarding a train in Birmingham, Manchester or Leeds and alighting in Paris or Brussels is a very appealing one and could help reduce carbon emissions from short-haul international flights. Unfortunately, there are significant, possibly insurmountable, obstacles to achieving this seemingly simple aim.

The first obstacle to direct international rail connections from stations on the HS2 route is the UK’s customs and immigration policy. The UK is not a signatory to the Schengen Agreement and so maintains border controls for travellers to and from the Continent. This requires international travellers to be segregated from domestic ones, once border controls have been cleared. The implications of this for HS2 are discussed by HS2 Ltd in Section 3.8 of its December 2009 document High Speed Rail London to the West Midlands and Beyond; in paragraph 3.8.8 it is confirmed that “security requirements dictate that we could not mix domestic and international passengers on the same train”.

The requirement for segregated trains for international services leads to the second obstacle, which is that the demand for such services to and from UK cities other than London is insufficient to support running international trains if domestic passengers cannot be carried also. In the same paragraph 3.8.8 that I cited above, HS2 Ltd considers demand for international services to and from Birmingham, estimating that, “this kind of service would attract 600-1,250 passengers to and from Paris and 450-950 passengers to and from Brussels in each direction per day in 2033”. HS2 Ltd concludes that, “demand is unlikely to be enough to offer a reasonably frequent service”.

There is also a further problem that follows from the need to segregate international services. You may find it incredible but, even in 2033, HS2 will be short of spare train paths to accommodate additional services, such as direct international trains. This potential shortage is illustrated by Figure 7 in Appendix 1 to the January 2012 document Economic Case for HS2: Updated appraisal of transport user benefits and wider economic benefits, which shows a projected service pattern for the completed Y network. Whilst this figure is described by HS2 Ltd as “service specification assumptions”, it is clear that it represents a pretty close approximation to the service levels that we can expect in 2033.

Figure 7 shows fifteen services an hour, in each direction, running between the two London stations and “the north”. In addition two services per hour, in each direction, are shown linking Heathrow to Leeds and Manchester, stopping at Birmingham Interchange to serve Birmingham passengers (see footnote). That means that the section of line between Birmingham Interchange and the spur to Heathrow is required to support seventeen train paths per hour in each direction. HS2 Ltd reckons that it can cram up to eighteen train paths per hour onto a section of HS2 track – and that is regarded as very optimistic by some experts. So there is simply no space to run segregated international services north of London.

When HS2 Ltd looked at the business model for providing direct international services to and from HS2 stations north of London in December 2009 for its document High Speed Rail London to the West Midlands and Beyond it couldn’t make the sums stack up. In paragraph 3.8.11 it admits that:

“With fast direct international services from Birmingham, we estimate that HS2 would generate benefits of, at most, £200-450m. This is unlikely to cover the capital costs (including risk and optimism bias) of a direct link to HS1. Once operating costs are included the BCR is likely to fall significantly below 1.”

Whilst observing, in paragraph 3.8.13, that “the business case for running international services on HS2 would be improved if HS2 was part of a wider high speed network to other parts of the UK”, HS2 Ltd still concludes that this improvement would still be “unlikely to justify the cost of investment in an international station north of London”.

Little wonder then that when the High Speed Rail Command Paper, Cm 7827 was published in March 2010, the question was left open (paragraph 7.28):

“In light of the potential for future demand for connections between European high speed rail services and any domestic high speed line, but given that more work is needed to confirm whether there is a viable economic case for a link, the Government has asked HS2 Ltd to further develop options for both a direct rail link to High Speed One via the existing North London network and an improved passenger connection between Euston and St Pancras, to include detailed assessments of their respective business cases.”

However, the incoming Transport Secretary, Philip Hammond MP, pushed very hard for a solution to the HS2/HS1 link problem, and so something has been cobbled together to allow support for this interconnection to be claimed. In the next blog I will look at what is proposed and give Railfuture’s reaction.

Footnote: These two paths would of course be freed for other use if the Government decides not to proceed with the Heathrow high speed spur following the outcome of the Davies Commission review of aviation policy.


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