There is an alternative to HS2: upgrades and planning

4 Feb 2013 @ 10.59 am
| Opinion

Trains at York Railway Station. Photograph: YorkMix
jonathan-tyler-bylineAfter arguing the case against HS2, York-based rail expert Jonathan Tyler outlines a more sustainable future for our railways

Getting to London more quickly

Network Rail’s business plans to upgrade the East Coast Main Line [ECML] will benefit York. There are four major projects already underway. These are six-tracking between Alexandra Palace and Finsbury Park and the flyover at Hitchin, both of which are well advanced, the diversion of freight trains to the route via Lincoln and works just north of Doncaster that will remove some freight trains which now cross the main line.

Those projects will knock several minutes off the schedule and they will certainly improve reliability. They may also allow the running of some extra trains.

New plans add some further projects which again will improve reliability. One big one will make timetabling very much easier. This is the intention to restore four tracks between Peterborough and Huntingdon. This will keep the outer suburban service largely separate from the East Coast Main Line and that will be a huge benefit, especially when Thameslink opens in 2018.

With trains running across London between places like Brighton and Cambridge or Peterborough there is a great risk of troubles south of the river affecting north of the river.

There’s also the plan to introduce the European Rail Traffic Management System on the southern end of the East Coast when the signalling starts to be renewed in about six years’ time. That again could knock a few minutes off the schedule because it enables a more reliable railway, though this is as much about removing the current padding as about real accelerations.

On a good day one can run between York and London non-stop in about an hour and 45 minutes but the actual schedule in the up direction is two hours. This is because there’s an awful lot of padding – extra time allowed for operational delays. In recent years it has become a way of fiddling the performance statistics by giving the operator a higher chance of reaching targets. It is not good railway operating practice.

There is finally the possibility of introducing Pendolino trains running at 140 mph instead of the current maximum of 125mph. And of course the more these gradual, and possibly dramatic, improvements go on, the weaker becomes the case for HS2 to come to Leeds and on to York.


The risk is that, with a continuing increase in traffic – if that does happen – the franchisees and possibly the open access operators as well will say, the railway is more reliable, that means we can run more trains. Then some of those benefits could be lost because we’re running too many trains.

There is some evidence that the timetable change in May 2011 introduced more trains than was entirely sensible, and the East Coast route is operating at its maximum now. There will need to be some firm discipline not to dissipate the benefits of these projects in terms of reliability by running more trains. That needs a more coherent approach to timetable planning than exists at present.


Will York suffer while Leeds thrives?

There is no reason to believe that York will suffer relative to Leeds from the overall industry plan for the ECML and HS2. Moreover the whole Transpennine route is going to be electrified, including the section between Leeds and Colton Junction where the Leeds and East Coast lines join.

Two trains per hour to Manchester Victoria going on to Liverpool and two per hour to Manchester Piccadilly going on to the airport, spaced at regular 15 minute intervals, would be an excellent service from which York will benefit as much as Leeds.

The places that could lose are Scarborough and Middlesbrough because their lines may not be electrified, so people will have to change trains. Instead of the Scarborough service running through to Manchester, it will continue as a diesel service and be joined with the York-Leeds-Preston-Blackpool service. This is probably inevitable in the short run.

However this is not a definitive plan because much depends on what franchise bidders offer – the Department For Transport has a rather naive belief that the franchisees when they bid will come up with bright ideas that no one else has thought about, and that twenty different franchises sum up to a national railway. I don’t think they do. I would have much preferred a stronger national plan.


Regulatory confusion

Another document contains new guidance from the Department of Transport [DfT] to the Office of Rail Regulation [ORR]. This is a curious statutory situation. DfT supposedly plans railway, then ORR does different things. Somebody should grasp that nettle and decide who is in charge.

For the moment the department has blown a torpedo in front of ORR in respect of open access operators because it is concerned about the way in which ORR has allowed such operations which (a) complicate the timetabling of franchise trains by taking up scarce capacity, (b) pay only marginal charges rather than a fair charge for the wear and tear and congestion they cause and (c) transfer revenue from the established operators that DfT is funding.

The department is getting a lot tougher, and this could mean no new open access operations. It might even mean that the shaky finances of Grand Central are undermined (the company is being subsidised for tactical reasons by Deutsche Bahn).

In Switzerland, they know exactly where they’re going. Here we don’t. It’s a recipe for muddle in the railway system

This will not happen immediately because Grand Central has certain rights, but when those rights come up for renewal, then ORR may be forced to adopt a more rigorous policy. This has already been touched on in arcane ORR consultations.

It’s interesting that the franchise operators and independent commentators regard the current scheme for open access as very unsatisfactory, and the open access operators have been saying, understandably, no it isn’t, it’s fine. There will be some sensitive legal issues around just how firm the rights are if ORR changes the rules. Technically these rights are for a limited period and therefore the company is supposed to take the risk that the rights will not be renewed.


Investment and planning

I’m very pleased that significant investment is going into the railways. It would be curmudgeonly to think otherwise, although one has to be a bit cautious when the Government hijacks the proposals in search of easy political kudos.

My principal reservation is that we still have a very fragmented system, in terms of not just daily operation but also planning. My great comparator country is Switzerland. There there is a single planning process with a very strong democratic element. They know exactly where they’re going. Here we don’t – the DfT produces a paper with little explicit scope for consultation, and in any case it is full of references to the fact that franchisees may want to do something different.

That’s a recipe for muddle in something as difficult to plan as a railway system.

Jonathan Tyler runs transport consultancy Passenger Transport Networks from his office in Stonegate. Jonathan has worked for the railway industry for nearly 50 years and is passionately committed to enhancing public transport.

He is a chartered member of the Institute of Logistics and Transport, a visiting research fellow at the Institute for Transport Studies in the University of Leeds and an Honorary Research Fellow at the Institute of Railway Studies and Transport History in the University of York.