We’ve already spent £9bn on existing lines and it hasn’t solved capacity problems

AVE Spanish high speed train

HS2 critics have been busy reporting and re-tweeting the news that Poland has cancelled its High Speed Rail project.

The report in Railway Gazette International can be read here.

Poland’s main source of funding for rail infrastructure comes from the EU and the restricted budget available meant that choices had to be made.

But it’s hardly the same situation in the UK, where the Transport Select Committee concluded that the business case for HS2 was affordable.

HS2 would cost around £2bn per year and benefit the Midlands, North and Scotland, as well as London. This £2bn is currently being spent on Crossrail – a project which benefits London only – but will transfer to HS2 on completion.

Poland will instead spend on upgrading and improving existing lines. HS2 critics claim the same should be done here.

But we’ve already spent £9bn on upgrading the West Coast Main Line and this has done nothing to solve capacity problems. HS2 opponents such as Jerry Marshall even claim that there is no capacity crunch. This is nonsense.

    • Rail is growing at 6% per year
    • We have more people travelling than any time since the 1920s (we had twice the network back then)
    • We are constantly tweeted by people on crowded trains!

We need capacity to ensure our local, regional and freight services are not squeezed out of an increasingly congested West Coast Main Line.

Returning to the issue of Europe, we can see a clear switch from air travel to rail in Spain.

The number of passengers flying between Madrid and Barcelona has fallen by 40%, while air travel between the capital and Malaga has dropped 50% since the advent of high speed rail.

This is not just a story of success in Spain, or plane versus train. Paris to Brussels used to take around two-and-a-half hours on the train. In those days the train made up 24% of journeys with car journeys at 61% and a small airline market.

When Thalys cut the journey time to 1h 25m train patronage rose to 50%, while car journeys fell to 43% and airlines withdrew from the route.

Elsewhere in Europe, the Frankfurt to Cologne route is one of the most commercially successful in the world. Critics say high speed rail needs long distances, but Frankfurt-Cologne is an almost identical mileage to Birmingham-London.

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9 Responses to We’ve already spent £9bn on existing lines and it hasn’t solved capacity problems

  1. Indeed. Just a quick report from a colleague of mine who travelled from Gdansk to Warsaw in mid-October. He reported that, as a result of the upgrading work now underway (funded by the EU), journey times had been extended from the typical 3 h to more than 6 h; and as a result the train was near deserted. Also, there was no catering at all for the journey!

    Generally, inter-city operator PKP Intercity is losing share to cheap coach companies in a much more price-sensitive market than the UK This tallies with our own experience, where BA and VLM/CityJet added flights from Manchester and London during the disruption caused by the West Coast upgrade (original budget: £1.4bn!)..

    Interestingly though, the main line south from Warsaw towards Katowice, known as the CMK or Central Corridor, was rebuilt in the 1970s as a true high speed railway, ie. straight and flat for running at speeds in excess of 200 km/h, but limitations in rolling stock and signalling has always prevented this from being realised. It is, however, a much better starting point for a fast line than either the East or West Coast main lines in the UK, so no surprise that it is here where the 230 km/h Pendolinos will operate at their maximum speed.

    More on Poland here http://bit.ly/vQjcFT

  2. James Avery says:

    Your update was entitled ‘train to plane’, and whilst I have always supported the principle through sister website Flightmapping.com, I’m afraid hs2 really does not deliver on this reality.

    The prospectus talks of 6 million passengers switching from air to rail due to hs2.

    Where are these passengers exactly? Which domestic routes will see such transfer, now that there are no flights from London to Liverpool or Leeds, nor to Tees Valley, and no longer any easyJet flights to Newcastle? Most passengers on LHR-MAN and to a lesser extent LGW-MAN are transfer passengers, yet access to Heathrow is unclear, even with the link at Old Oak Common, you still have to change again to get to T5. To create an alternative for the Surrey / Sussex region, hs2 would need to continue through to and beyond Victoria. I’d hate to imagine the cost of such a tunnel, but Euston to Victoria is only 3 miles, so it should be a fraction of the cost of Crossrail.

    High speed rail would offer an alternative to flights between London, the Midlands, and even Manchester to the Scottish Central Belt, yet so many people like myself are totally put off by the prohibitive cost of the hs2 proposal we have seen so far.

    Remember, all we have the details for is a link between London and Birmingham, with a spur allowing trains from further north to join the line, but few details of how this will work in practice. The scheme must stand or fall on these merits, and a potential 30 minute saving to Scotland is not enough for a tipping point, especially the higher yield business passenger.

    My assumption is that the cost per mile should fall, once the extensive tunnelling to get out of London and through the Chilterns is done, yet so far, I have had little constructive response on twitter (@flightmapping or @carornocar) on this point.

    So please do not continue peddling the myth that hs2 will bring loads of people from air to rail, as it quite clearly will not.

    • gohs2 says:

      How is it peddling myths to give real examples from Europe?
      In any case, as we represent the West Midlands, we are dealing with shorter distances to London and so capacity is key. Rail passenger numbers continue to increase and if this is not addressed, or attempted inadequately through RP2 or other suggested alternatives, we will not meet demand.
      If we do not meet demand we force people off rail and onto the roads.

  3. James Avery says:

    Your evasive response demonstrates my point entirely, as you are talking about the West Midlands and the modal split between rail and road, not air.

    There are no flights between Birmingham and London, and even if routes of such distance may exist elsewhere in Europe, they don’t in the UK, as a double dose of Air Passenger Duty makes them unprofitable, with or without super high speed rail.

    Even if looking at the Y, how and where would trains heading south from Carlisle or Newcastle join this route? How is a 9 car single deck train charging its passengers a lower cost per mile in order to compete with air, and because it using hs2 for a smaller portion of its journey, going to fight for track space against a potentially double deck 20 car train using hs2 all the way to London from Manchester or Birmingham?

    • gohs2 says:

      Going back to the original blog we made the point that Poland is very different to the UK in terms of the state of its rail infrastructure and that Poland relied on EU subsidy for rail. The TSC concluded, however, that HS2 was affordable in the UK.
      As European high speed rail is often called into question by opponents of HS2 we raised examples of European successes. That is all. Nothing evasive about that.

  4. James Avery says:

    I’m afraid that the title of this blog post, like many of the arguments used in favour of hs2 (and let’s be frank, plenty used by the antis too) is confused. Is it about speed or capacity? Either way, the slug, and the email is about plane to train.

    Of course you can point out where rail has transferred people from air to rail in Europe, or in Japan or wherever else you may choose – even the US Northeast Corridor if you like.

    That is not the issue. The question is can hs2 create a significant transfer from air to rail, and the answer is that it quite clearly cannot.

  5. James,

    You’re right to highlight the confusion on both sides of the argument on HS2. This in part stems from a widely-held misapprehension that HS2 is a ‘closed’ network, when of course Anglo-Scottish services can use the connection with the West Coast Main Line at Lichfield, and have no negative impact on intermediate markets because they don’t stop between Warrington and London anyway.

    Equally, it is absolutely correct to say that there are limited, if any, air-rail modal shift gains to be made on London-Manchester/Leeds routes, so really the objective is to claim some (or most) of the patronage on the 70+ flights between London and Edinburgh/Glasgow. Empirical evidence from Japan and continental Europe has shown that the ‘tipping point’ where rail gains from air is at the 4 h mark, which trains between London and Scotland cannot achieve on existing tracks (except in the most contrived manner, such as the daily Edinburgh – London train which only stops at Newcastle).

    So even under Phase I of HS2, there is scope for that 4 h barrier to be breached, on Glasgow trains at least. Phase 2 would add junctions with the East Coast and West Coast lines at Warrington/Wigan and somewhere between Leeds and York (subject to confirmation), allowing journeys to be further accelerated.

    There are clear successful examples which HS2 replicates: the example I am most familiar with being Bordeaux – Paris, where (if I understand correctly) there are few if any flights, despite TGVs running at their 320 km/h maximum speed for less than half the distance on dedicated tracks (although the high speed line is being extended from Tours to Bordeaux so more freight can be carried on the existing line). You mention the Northeast Corridor in the US too, but even there, Amtrak is developing plans to increase speeds in order to capture share from the 35 flights per day between NYC and Philadelphia, which obviously is a smaller market than London – Scotland.

    Obviously the gain from air to rail could be construed as modest by some, but then it is only one of a raft of transport benefits delivered by HS2, albeit one that is dependent on speed.

  6. James Avery says:


    Thanks for an excellent answer. I had understood that the ‘Y’ would terminate in Manchester Piccadilly, which would not offer continuation north, as the through track (P13&14) is heavily congested, slow, and not electrified. Leeds is at least a through station (and passing through there on Wednesday, it feels (and is) vast compared to New St, but that’s for another post), but again, using existing tracks would be slow, and electrification needed.

    This still leaves a big problem on the east coast, namely heading so far west to go back east, diluting the time savings of a faster service, yet, as many antis so-often like to point out, the UK is ‘small’, or at least there is relatively little distance between major northern cities in terms of going from east to west.

    Therefore, the case in favour still claims a one hour saving to Newcastle / Edinburgh up the east coast, and a similar saving to Glasgow on the west. Yet, I remain sceptical. I would cast myself as firmly in the pro-high speed rail camp, but I have always been able to enjoy high speed rail in other countries, and not worry about the build costs or operating subsidy. So when I was reading the government’s case for hs2, I used an area I understood, namely the transfer of air to rail, as a key way to assess the claims. I’m afraid, it still doesn’t add up:

    Firstly, why is there an hour saving to Leeds, still to the east of the east coast spine, but a similar saving to Newcastle and Edinburgh? Surely there would be some loss of saving?

    The reality is that I don’t think either of us know. It is very easy to talk of potential benefits of a high speed line to the north, and eventually all the way to Scotland, and even easier to talk up models in Europe we can learn from. Yet we have to assess this based on what we are given – and the government’s own documentation presents a line terminating at Birmingham Curzon St, another line joining the existing WCML between Rugely and Lichfield, and everything else being hypothetical beyond this point. To date, I have only had the Wikipedia page to go on for an outline map serving points north, and this has no suggestion of joins to the WCML / ECML further north.

    The government document also talks of a link to Heathrow, but again, this is not on the map, just an indirect at Old Oak Common, where I assume not all trains will stop. I have not seen it suggested that trains could use hs2, and then turn directly onto the Crossrail tracks into Heathrow, due to issues with scheduling fast trains behind stoppers, and the need for a change of voltage – although trains may already be dual voltage to operate on classic lines?

    The claim of 6m passengers per year made by the government was one of the biggest reasons why I dismissed so much of the rest of the case, as I knew this was grossly misleading. Domestic air traffic is falling, not rising, and there is no suggestion that APD will be changed to reverse this trend. Rather than there being a specific ‘tipping point’ time, passengers make their routing decision based on a range of factors, including total journey time and price.

    You stated that the ‘AVE’ cutting domestic air travel by 40% was a ‘good’ example of air to rail transfer. I would have expected it to be much higher, considering that the journey time is way less than 4 hours, 2h38 when I took it in 2008, now just 2h30. However, AVE is still just an hourly service, whereas Newcastle has a half hourly service to London, and the vast majority of these start at / continue to Edinburgh.

    By the time that hs2 reaches Leeds East, if it ever gets there, the UK overland domestic air market will almost certainly have contracted further – Stansted to Edinburgh and Glasgow flights must be on their last legs, Luton will then follow, leaving Heathrow and Gatwick, where there is a sizeable provision of connecting services, whether through tickets (Heathrow), or DIY (Gatwick). Those flights that do remain will also serve the point to point market that exists around thes airports, especially to places such as Brighton (see comment that a north-south links would help here), and Reading (sadly dropped from Crossrail, but you are here to defend hs2, not that project).

    Therefore, I contend that although hs2 may well indeed have the other benefits you mention, transfer from air to rail will remain small, and that any such movements will have to be judged against the first phase of the prospectus, not on the possibility of future benefits which may or may not be developed by the time today’s graduates are approaching retirement.

  7. James Avery says:


    To clarify on Bordeaux, I counted 11 daily flights operated by Air France to Orly or CDG. What is missing on many French routes is more competition between airlines, especially low cost ones, but that says more about the nature of the French domestic market than it does about the merits of the TGV.

    Re: NE corridor – Amtrak could no doubt make the Acela service a great deal more attractive for air to rail transfer if they stopped it at Newark, but that’s one for them, and this thread is more about air v rail than air + rail, two very different concepts.

    You mention the TGV helping to bring capacity, and this was indeed the original reason for the Paris-Lyon TGV, but again the government case has sold the speed advantages more than the capacity, I guess because speed is easier to sex up!

    I also forgot to mention London City – which business users love due to its compact size, short queues and proximity to The City & Docklands. Yet, there are no flights between London City and Newcastle – nothing to do with the train, a simple case of business traffic volumes not being high enough. Equally, LCY-LBA came and went very fast. LCY-MAN & LPL have lost out since train services have been upgraded, but we’re looking at just over 2 hrs Euston – Man Pic / Liv Lime. For train to win against LCY-EDI / GLA, we’d need to see a service similar to the AVE BCN-MAD, but that might still only cut back some frequencies, rather than kill the route entirely.

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