Labour should commit to build HS2 Phase 2A

The cost of HS2 continues to shoot up.  Sir Jon Thompson, HS2’s Executive Chair, told the House of Commons Transport Committee that the likely cost could be £65 billion, in part because of extraordinary inflation in recent years. The Government, still whistling in the dark, asserts that it should be significantly less.

Despite this, plans for the enormously expensive and disruptive main line platforms at Old Oak Common plough on.  Luke Pollard, the Labour Member of Parliament for Plymouth Sutton & Devonport, recently asked an entirely sensible Parliamentary Question about Old Oak Common:

“What assessment has [the Secretary of State] made of the potential impact of the creation of a mainline station at Old Oak Common on journey times on the Great Western Mainline?”

In contrast, the reply from Rail Minister Huw Merriman MP was, frankly, nonsense:

“The current assumption is that all passenger trains on the Great Western Mainline will stop at the new Old Oak Common station.  Current estimates indicate stopping trains at this station is likely to add approximately 3 minutes onto the journey time to London Paddington, though this would be dependent on further timetable analysis.  Old Oak Common will provide onward connectivity to Birmingham via HS2 and Central London via the Elizabeth Line so we anticipate many customers from the West of England will choose to disembark at Old Oak Common.”

Why would anyone travel from, for example, Bristol to Birmingham via Old Oak Common when there are two direct trains an hour from there to Birmingham New Street taking 1 hour 20 minutes – less time that it will take from Bristol to Old Oak Common?  Also, passengers for the Elizabeth Line can of course change at Paddington, as they already do; and I know of no-one with real experience of the rail industry who believes the increase in journey times will be limited to just three minutes – it will certainly be four, more likely five minutes.

Yet Phase 2A of HS2, which is critically important if the project is to deliver real benefits to the North, has been cancelled.  Mayors Andy Burnham and Andy Street are leading an initiative to rescue improvements from the ashes of Phase 2, with unrealistic press speculation about private sector funding; the best hope would be a commitment from a new Labour Government to proceed with Phase 2A which would give real capacity and journey time benefits.

We are where we are and the priority now is to deliver the greatest possible value from the massive sunk cost in HS2.  However, the project has clearly had a massive opportunity cost, with other investment in the rail network now squeezed out.  If half the expenditure committed to HS2 had instead been invested in the networks in the Midlands and the North, both would have been transformed

There has been a tentative breakthrough on long distance pricing, with LNER again in the lead. The price structure for fares between London and Newcastle, Berwick and Edinburgh has been radically changed, with just three ticket types:

  • Advance – the cheapest option, with train specific fares and a reserved seat
  • “70 Minute Flex” – passengers would have a reserved seat but be allowed to travel on trains which can be up to 70 minutes before or after their booked train
  • Anytime – available at any time of day up to two days from the date shown on the ticket.

The “70 Minute Flex” is priced at £20 above the Advance ticket and isn’t available on the first and last trains as there are no trains earlier or later respectively.

At some times of day, savvy passengers can save by using the flexibility offered by “70 Minute Flex”. For example, to travel from London to Berwick on the 1600 departure in a month’s time, an Advance ticket specifically for that train was £127 but a flexible ticket for the 1500 departure, which can of course be used on the 1600 train, was £88.50, giving a very substantial saving.  The “Anytime” ticket comes in at an eye-watering £193.90 – I doubt whether LNER will sell many of those!

At some times of day. passengers travelling to Newcastle or Berwick might usefully check the price of a ticket to Edinburgh instead, as the LNER website sometimes offers cheaper fares to Edinburgh.  The most striking example was the 0800 from Kings Cross: the Advance fare to Newcastle was £99.60, Berwick was £74.70 – but Edinburgh was £69.50.  Lumo does this too; for one train on the same day, their price to Edinburgh was £34.90 but Newcastle was £47.90.  The competitive position is different in each case, with London to Edinburgh a highly competitive market but with less competition from low cost airlines at Newcastle.  For Berwick, driving is the main, highly unattractive alternative.

Current prices would also indicate that LNER is now pushing for higher yield rather than volume growth.  The new structure being trialled also appears to eliminate price regulation on the route – the previous Off-Peak Return, the descendant of the old British Rail Saver, was the regulated fare.

Media coverage of the latest series of rolling strikes by drivers in the ASLEF trades union has been quite limited.  The only issue that has had significant coverage, mostly in the Daily Mail, has been the failure of the Train Operating Companies (TOCs) to use the recent minimum service legislation.

In fact, LNER gave notice to ASLEF that it intended to apply the new law on the day of the strike. ASLEF promptly responded by calling five days of strike action, then LNER backed off and ASLEF cancelled the extended action.

The Mail and various Tory MPs castigated the TOCs for not applying the new law and Ministers were quoted as saying that the Government hoped the minimum service levels would be implemented but “it was a matter for the employers”. I doubt if that is really the case.

The scope for TOCs to take any sort of action without getting authority from Department for Transport is minimal, so the idea that use or not of minimum service level legislation is left to TOC managers seems highly improbable.  But when has objective truth ever got in the way of a political soundbite?

In the meantime, it appears to be game, set and match to ASLEF in this case – and Labour is committed to repeal the legislation.  It’s also ironic that, on strike days, LNER has provided quite a good service at a level which is not too far off a credible “minimum level of service”.  In contrast Avanti and Cross Country operated no trains at all.

Photo credit: Paul Bigland.

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