Jim Steer: High speed rail must stay on track

An artists' impression of the future HS2 railway. Picture: Contributed

An artists' impression of the future HS2 railway. Picture: Contributed

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IT’S so much easier to back infrastructure investment when year after year, demand grows at exceptional levels. That’s why I shall be arguing at our conference in Glasgow this week for Anglo-Scottish HSR to remain firmly on the agenda in Westminster and Holyrood.

The figures speak for themselves. The latest year-on-year passenger numbers from the Office of Rail and Road (ORR) are plus 9.6 per cent at London Euston, 8.3 per cent at Birmingham New Street (where a rebuild is nearing completion) and 6.0 per cent at Edinburgh Waverley. Long distance demand is growing faster than London commuter demand.

But here’s the problem. There’s no sign of the demand boom in rail travel ending. On the West Coast Main Line, Virgin has trebled demand since the start of its franchise in 1997, and talks of increasing carryings by another 50 per cent by the time the first southern phase of HS2 opens in 2026. They’ll look to do some similar magic on the East Coast, no doubt. They’ve made a particular success of the Scotland-Birmingham route (up 261 per cent since 2007). TransPennine Express has managed plus 191 per cent with its Glasgow/Edinburgh-Manchester service; if they had the faster Pendolinos, they’d be able to cut the journey time to under three hours and do even better. The airlines on the shorter distance routes are losing market share. They’d lose more if there were fast train services between Leeds and Glasgow, Liverpool and Edinburgh. These will come, but only if there is a network able to carry them.

So the happy tale of the fastest growing rail sector in Europe – which means among other things reducing subsidies to the railway – will come to a shuddering halt when no more services can be added on to the network.

On the southern end of the West Coast Main Line, the ORR earlier this month allotted Alliance Rail – owned by Deutsche Bundesbahn – some new train paths between Blackpool and London. But the line is so busy none of the new services can run in the three-hour morning or evening peak periods. Alliance may make a success of their new venture, but what about more capacity when it’s most needed?

Many people wrongly think this is a problem centred on southern England. With rapidly growing numbers of commuters (relaxed in the knowledge that their season ticket prices won’t increase in real terms over the lifetime of this government), services are crowded from places such as Milton Keynes and Cambridge. The railway is rapidly running out of wheezes to fit more people in. And it’s true, north of Preston (west coast) and Newcastle (east coast) there are few commuters. But there are large and growing amounts of freight on rail.

Over lengthy, unmodernised, hilly and twisty lines through dramatic scenery, the fast passenger trains soon catch up the slower freights. They use the same track. It becomes just as difficult here, across the Anglo-Scottish border as in the south (where at least the intercity and freight services largely get to run on separate tracks), to fit in extra trains.

Sorry, but if capacity can’t be increased when it offers a better option than flying or using the motorway, prices will have to rise to manage demand, an outcome nobody should want. Thought about this way, the case for investment over the cross-border routes becomes clear. Led by a need to provide more capacity, it doesn’t take a genius to work out the investment needed to get the much sought-after Glasgow/Edinburgh-London three-hour journey time.

When I advised the Northern Way (the three regions of the north of England) on transport between 2005 and 2010, one message was particularly clear. We want better connectivity with London, between northern cities and with Scotland, I was repeatedly told. The Scottish perspective in the business and other communities I know is similar.

If we fail to provide the capacity for Anglo-Scottish rail demand growth, and with it faster and more reliable services, it will be the economies of the Scottish cities and the vision of the Northern Powerhouse in England that will suffer in equal measure.

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