The latest “report” from the so-called Taxpayers’ Alliance, High Speed Rail [.pdf], which I first inspected yesterday, managed to ignore one major factor driving the need for new network capacity, while erroneously introducing another. This post considers these: the rail network’s F and C words.
The F word on the railway is Freight: this is the kind of traffic where the C word – Competition – works, and moreover is profitable. Network Rail (NR) would like to be able to accommodate more of this, and the operators would like to run more, but their aspirations are often frustrated by that lack of capacity.
Nowhere is this more evident than on the West Coast Main Line (WCML) out of London to the North West: intermodal and other container trains occupy every free path on weekdays, and more capacity is being won by new layouts at Nuneaton and (in the near future) Stafford, yet it is not enough. The suggestion in yesterday’s TPA report that the WCML could take as many as fifteen Inter-City services each way every hour would squeeze capacity even more, and either commuter or freight services would be pushed out.
Hence the push for HS2, a new railway that will take much of that Inter-City traffic off the WCML – and, as HS2 continues towards Leeds as well as Manchester, off the East Coast Main Line (ECML) as well – leaving capacity for better local and commuter services and more freight. Yet the TPA report does not mention freight even once: this is an unforgiveable omission.
However, the TPA do bring on the C word – Competition – with regard to passenger services [p15]. Their report infers that the use of spare capacity by “open access” passenger service providers is A Good Thing. What it does not mention (again) is the need for freight capacity, or that “open access” operations have succeeded only where they are able to stop at major stations served by franchised (and subsidised) operators, and abstract traffic from them.
The idea that passenger services can be run to compete with one another is not part of anyone’s vision for the NR network, and even in the past it never happened. Sure, it was once possible to have a choice of express services from London to Birmingham, the West Country, Sheffield, Leeds, Merseyside, and Edinburgh – but by different routes and between different stations.
Today, there are different providers who offer a train service from, say, London’s Euston terminus to Birmingham, Stoke-on-Trent, Crewe and Liverpool, but these are different kinds of services – Regional versus Inter-City – and are complementary, not competing. It will be the same with HS2 and the services that remain on the WCML. It’s not that passenger rail doesn’t compete: it does – with road and air.