Misleading claims that the West Coast Main Line will soon be full distract from more immediate problems with our rail network, says Michael May.
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.