Monday, 11 July 2011

Let's Go HS2!

Of course, the biggest transport discussion at present is HS2 - the one transport topic that transcends the mainstream news agenda.
I've been deliberately quiet about it, as I'm no expert in the pros and cons of the route it is proposed to take, the back gardens of supposedly well-off Chiltern-arians it will plough up, nor if it will address the "north-south divide" that we apparently have in this country.
I'm a public transport advocate. So naturally, I support good public transport. Does the prospect of Birmingham to London in 49 minutes excite me? Tremendously! I'll barely have time to scoff my bacon roll! Do we need it? I think so. Often, psychology takes over when talking in terms of journey times.For example, I'm looking forward to the new Chiltern Railway timetable that will provide some Birmingham-London journeys in 90 minutes. Does shaving a few minutes off journey times really matter, some people ask? Some may say that you may lose all of the benefit getting stuck in a traffic jam getting to or from the station. But I think journey times do matter. Railways may have lost an awful lot of the romance they once had in the halcyon days of the 1930s for example, but cutting journey times always sends a little bit of excitement to the brain. It makes the world a smaller place. Think of railway history as steam, then diesel locos shaved time off their journeys. Think of the Inter-City 125s when they first came on track. The Virgin Pendolinos that still have the ability to mildly thrill me as they tilt their way along the West Coast Main Line.
I think High Speed 2 will do the same.
But it isn't necessarily the speed that sells this project to me.
It is the potential for extra capacity on our railways that is so desperately needed.
I make lots of railway journeys to all sorts of places. The one thing that has stood out for me over the last 5-10 years has been the explosion in numbers of people travelling on our railways. The rise in numbers appears to be unrelenting.
I went to London last week. Birmingham to Marylebone on Chiltern Railways. 1015 from Moor Street. The peak commuter crowd have more or less gone. This train won't arrive into London until 1225. But it's a busy train, and I can't count all that many empty seats. My £10 ticket - bought on my iPhone - is a bargain. And everyone loves a bargain.
I return from Euston on London Midland's "slow" train, up the West Coast Main Line on the 1554. Even 1st Class pre-booked has only cost me £19.50. But as I stand in Euston at around 1530 perusing the departure board, I am surrounded by a large mass of travellers. As I settle into my supposed premium seat, I can see the sheer amount of people cramming on to this train. It is a scene repeating itself across the rest of the country, around the clock in some cases.
So does the prospect of HS2 give us a new blank piece of paper to start with?
It seems only recently that we upgraded the West Coast Main Line to give us Virgin services that operate every 20 minutes in the daytime between Brum and London. And yet even this isn't catering for the incredible demand for travel. If we can "start again" and build a new railway that can handle such demand, it potentially frees up the West Coast Main Line to both provide additional services and cater for more freight on our railways.
So in principle, HS2 excites me. I don't buy the argument that this is simply a "vanity project" just because the Germans, French and much of Europe has High Speed and we - the nation that gave the World the railway - does not. If anything, we ought to have done this a long time ago. But of course politicians of many colours have left us on the slow tracks.
There are, of course, many questions still to be answered.
The "Nimbys" are revolting. But they do have a point. I don't suppose any of us can really know what it feels like to have a High Speed Railway proposed to run through your back garden, unless you are that actual person. We shouldn't kill off such an exciting, important project based on this alone, but we really have to be assured that the minimal amount of people are affected. But this is progress, ultimately. The Victorians wouldn't have built our railways if they had succumbed to not dissimilar pressure regarding railway routes.
Another concern is the "end game" pricing of tickets on HS2. One letter I read in the papers recently compared HS2 to Concorde. As much as Concorde was a beautiful bird, she was a rich person's plaything. Phil Collins managed to perform at both Live Aid concerts in the 80s due to the miracle that was Concorde with her supersonic speed. But Concorde was indeed mostly for the rich and famous. We must ensure that tickets for High Speed 2 are not completely out of the range of the masses. One of the most intriguing sights I see at Euston are the rows of 1st Class carriages on Virgin Trains, under-utilised on some journeys, whilst others cram onto other areas of the train. Don't get me wrong, I'm not advocating the abolition of 1st class, but it does need to be looked at. Let's not forget that, even now, a walk-up fare on Virgin in the peaks on the West Coast Main Line is probably only regularly in reach of those aforementioned "rich and famous". If HS2 is to be born, it needs to play to everyone's advantage and be available to a lot of people's budgets.
We also need to be clear that the budget for HS2, to build this once in a lifetime opportunity, is not at the expense of what is known as the "classic" network (i.e. what we have now), which also needs investment. Railways - and public transport on a wider scale - is so important in this country, but often falls by the wayside in politicians priorities. HS2 may be sexy, other railways, buses, trams and coaches not so, but all are the backbone to our nation.
So we do need HS2 for several reasons, and I support the project. But let this be the renaissance of public transport on a wider scale. Somehow, I fear that may be a much harder sell!


  1. Phil I fear you may be getting suckered - for many of the real world door to door journeys, having to hike to Curzon Street from New Street (claimed 10 minutes but in National Rail allowances Moor Street (closer) advises 22 minutes to get train to train) or you drive to Bickenhall and with this at the convergence of some busty roads and a busy airport and a busy National exhibition site ... you'll probably be faster on the old services even when travelling from Coventry.

    What might be interesting to reflect on is that we now have timetabled trains on the existing network averaging over 100mph (up to 115mph IIRC) so the 112 miles from Paddington to Birmingham on an Evergreen 3 (plus) which could, with the trains they have now be a 125mph service (its the signalling and track issues that made 100mph a better balance of cost vs time savings) and at 125mph the existing service for substantially less cost gets damned close to that 49 minutes for an eye-popping amount - and it connects with so many more places to give door to door journey times far better than HS2.

  2. Interesting thoughts, Dave.
    Of course the "49 minutes" excites me - I bet there aren't that many who wouldn't be (even if they don't admit it!)
    But what really attracts me is the extra capacity on the corridor that is suggested.
    We surely wouldn't want to put up with more large-scale upheaval on the West Coast Mainline again - and the results I understand would be fairly minimal.
    I have 2 concerns. One is as mentioned - it must not become a "rich person's plaything" - and I'm yet to be convinced that, even if we accept that we'll pay a premium for it, that it won't be. Secondly, it's the connectivity in Birmingham, as you suggest. I personally would have liked to see it go into New Street, but that would seem a non-starter. There needs to be some serious thought given to how New St and Curzon St connect - whether by covered walkway / complex or other means.
    But all of this shouldn't detract from the scheme as a whole. Overall, I'm attracted to it!
    Thanks for your comments - appreciated.