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Why we don’t need HS2

The government, HS2 Ltd and the rail industry continue to use smoke and mirrors when they say that the West Coast Main Line (WCML) will be full in the next 10 years and is near capacity now. When you look at the number of people that use the WCML Virgin services compared with the seats available, there is plenty of capacity.

There are two aspects to determining whether the WCML is full and whether it can accommodate future growth. First, one must consider current and future demand versus capacity and then, second, the potential future growth in the market.

Data from Network Rail’s London & South East Route Utilisation Strategy (July 2011) shows that the WCML into Euston is the least crowded of all lines into London with the exception of HS1. The truth is that other routes such as the main lines into Waterloo, Victoria and Liverpool Street and key commuter routes into cities such as Birmingham, Manchester and Leeds are full now — and in many cases the government has no long-term plans to provide extra capacity.

The government’s own figures released in the High Court in December 2012 showed that in the evening peak the Virgin WCML trains were on average only 52 per cent full. What this really means is that they have an average of 229 passengers on each train. The recently lengthened WCML Pendolino trains (to 11 cars) have a seating capacity of 589 seats per train and can easily be extended to 12 cars (except Liverpool) to have 693 seats per train, which is more than three times the number of passengers who use the Virgin WCML trains today. It is implausible that the WCML will run out of capacity in the foreseeable future and certainly not before all the other lines into London will have come to a grinding halt.

It is fair to say that you could not double the number of trains on the WCML but the number of trains you run is not the correct measure of route capacity: it is the number of seats that you provide. As an analogy, if an airline uses a 220-seat aircraft (say a Boeing 767) on a route from London to Boston and the flights become full, its first response is to change to a bigger aircraft (say a Boeing 777), not to put on a second flight.

The Department for Transport (DfT) forecasts that demand on the WCML will double by 2033 and supporters of HS2 point to the huge growth on the WCML over the last few years to justify this position, but again I must bring people down to Earth. Yes, there was 20 per cent growth in demand on the WCML in 2009–2010 and that was  not surprising as there was a step change in the level of service following the upgrade. Taking London to Manchester as an example, for years there had been just one train an hour, taking two hours and 40 minutes, but there is now a train every 20 minutes, taking two hours and eight minutes. However, the most recent figures show that growth on the WCML has now tailed off sharply.

The same pattern occurred when the WCML was electrified in the 1960s: initial rapid growth, and then passenger numbers plateaued for many years.


As outlined previously, the WCML can cater for any foreseeable future increase in demand on inter-city services without the need for any upgrade of the line. However, there is a major overcrowding problem today on the fast commuter trains to Milton Keynes and Northampton: the DfT states that three of the 10 most overcrowded trains in the country last year were on this route. The fast commuter capacity on this route can be doubled by building a new flyover south of Milton Keynes and introducing faster rolling stock, and this could be done in five years, as identified in the alternative solution to HS2 proposed by local authority group 51m.

The work required to deliver the above extra commuter capacity would cause little disruption to the WCML. Construction of the flyover near Milton Keynes would be similar to the Hitchin flyover recently completed by Network Rail on the East Coast Main Line. Indeed, the disruption would be far less than that caused by HS2, which would reduce the number of platforms at Euston for many years during construction and require no less than five new grade-separated junctions connected to existing mainline. It is totally wrong to suggest that providing sufficient future capacity using the existing WCML requires a major upgrade and disruption similar to the WCML upgrade between 2004 and 2008.

Rather than spending £50bn on HS2, which is not needed, the government should focus its attention on solving the real problems by investing in infrastructure in the regions, bringing benefits to the many rather than the few.

Michael May is director of May Associates strategic transport consultancy.

Readers' comments (19)

  • Capacity on every line can be more cost-effectively introduced by a much more creative focus on the underlying engineering aspects of the rail network. In terms of signalling and track usage the railways are still in the 19thC. At present - and for the past 100 years - there has to be a THREE minute gaps between high-speed trains, why ? Because the trains are so heavy. The braking systems are so last century. There is no electronic, smart-signalling train- navigation management systems in use that would remove the need for drivers to DRIVE the trains allowing them instead to manage al aspects of the journey.

    If only train design technology had run at half the pace of change of airlines, Formula 1 racing cars etc the capacity issues would long ago have been resolved with lighter, faster trains - less wear and tear on track - better braking systems, efficient KERS technology, high-tech telemetry signalling ... the list is endless the capacity could be doubled and time gaps between trains cut inhalf where required. But no section of the industry is ken to innovate in any way and their only answer is more tracks and yet more tracks.

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  • In response to the anonymous comments about modern signalling and headways, that is already being done across the wider network, but it works best where trains are of a common performance standard. This is simply not possible over long distances unless you intend banning commuter services and freight from large areas of the network. By giving modern high speed trains a line they can use separately from the slower services one frees up far more capacity than possible any other way, and without the huge disruption caused when trying to modernise an existing route.
    You achieve far more for less cost by building a new line. The industry is far more innovative than you claim. Why has freight traffic boomed to such an extent when in the early 1990s it was thought to be in terminal decline? Why have UK operators expanded into Europe with such success and beaten the incumbent operators in open and fair competition? Why are UK passenger operators now operating franchises in Germany, in the same way that German operators are in the UK?
    The benefits of HS2 are that you do get a common standard of performance, you can use double deck trains for HS2 services and UK sized trains for serving many other places not directly served by HS2 but employing it for part of the journey, but both types of train have a common performance 'envelope' and then you can have the closer headways you describe employing the in cab signalling and advanced control allowing more trains into the 'pipe'. 18 high speed paths per hour is the plan, France manages 16 with TGV, the UK is building for AGV.
    It should be noted that SNCF and DB have been very praiseworthy of the UK plans in future-proofing their design, something their networks will find very expensive to do if they are to take full advantage of AGV train speeds and energy efficiencies. AGV trains use less energy, have a much smaller noise footprint, yet are faster than TGV and ICE trains. AGVs are now entering production.

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  • The thing that fascinates me most about the HS2 argument is that we are still trying to come up with new justifications for it at this late stage. IF (big IF!) HS2 is the answer to our future transport needs then, surely, the best and most persuasive arguments would have been put forward right at the start of the process. i.e. before we spend £millions on design etc etc. What seems to have happened is that certain arguments were put forward (the cost of the time saved, for instance) and as these arguments have been shown to be flawed then more arguments are found. It simply looks like a case of "we have decided that we want this" first, and find reasons to justify it later. This is the exact opposite of the way engineering works. Engineers identify a problem and devise a solution. HS2 looks like an exciting solution in search of a problem to solve.

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  • You'd think so. But we've been saying that the case has been poorly presented for some time now. And talking to people involved with the project 18 months ago yielded different arguments to those the government has favoured until now (ie London to Birmingham journey times) eg

  • No-one who regularly travels to London from Milton Keynes (either as a commuter or off-peak) would doubt that more capacity is needed to serve the growing population of the New City. Virgin Trains are irrelevant to this argument, because when buying a ticket in MK, you have to choose between Virgin and London Midland. Virgin do not pick up passengers from MK in the morning peak, so of course their trains are not crowded in the evening peak, because commuters can't use them. On the other hand, London Midland have banned day return ticket holders from evening peak trains (as well as morning ones) to prevent over-crowding becoming even more gross.

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  • In response to Martin Petchey, Network Rail's connectivity documents outline a tripling of 12 coach commuter trains serving CMK post HS2.

    For Rob Hill, the reasons have never changed, in all the consultation documents since day 1, 5-6 years ago capacity was the main reason. When the initial hearings took place before the Parliamentary Transport Sub Committee while Labour were in power, Lord Adonis spelled out the capacity gains. It is the general media that have gone on about speed and ignored everything else.

    What has been utterly bewildering, to those of us in the industry, is the total failure of HS2's PR department to even try and counter all the disinformation being circulated.

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  • I have to say I have been against HS2 but reading Michael Mays article has persuaded me, to a significant extent (perhaps now an HS2 agnostic?) by his use of statistics. A direct comparison with the Electricity Power supply industry would in his terms only need to supply as a maximum the averaged power requirements of a 24 hour period. Ouch!

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  • As HS2 will be reliant on electricity, perhaps it would be prudent for our government to build new power stations, before committing to such a costly venture. The power supply industry will be bending under the strain to supply within a few years.

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  • If its all about capacity as claimed, why the emphasis on ultra fast trains. Its the planned speed which is the major problem, requiring a dead straight line that cannot deviate for significant economic, environmental, cultural and community assets.

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  • Why much about a traditional railway? If we are going to spend so much money, why not have a grand vision and use Elon Musk's vision of a maglift train running in a near vacuum.
    If Brunell where around now, that is the kind of vision he would have had

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