No, High Speed 2 isn’t really about capacity

Some anti-HS2 protesters in 2013. Image: Getty.

By his own admission, this month’ Conservative conference saw transport secretary Chris Grayling again try to sell HS2 to a less than enthusiastic audience. His approach was to chide us all for focusing on the speed of HS2 rather than capacity.

Not that anyone does. And speed is hardly a separate issue: it determines the basic design of HS2. The faster the trains are meant to run, the lower the threshold for any flexibility in choice of route or of station location. The speeds require a route that is as straight as possible. This rigidity, in a country of exceptionally dense settlement, is what makes HS2 the most expensive railway on earth.

To bolster the new narrative Grayling invoked the issue of freight: “Do you want to get more lorries off the roads and on to the railways?” This would be a laudable aim, but sadly the more honest version would be: “We want to get freight off the roads, so we’re building a railway that won’t carry freight.”

HS2 Ltd has admitted that only half the freight paths of the West Coast Mainline are actually used. Last March half of all UK rail freight paths, 4702 of them, were relinquished because they weren’t being used. As Network Rail said at the time: 

“It is important the whole rail industry works together to make best use of existing capacity, to minimise the need for additional expensive capacity enhancement schemes.”

Whilst politicians insist that there is simply no room to fit more trains on the tracks, this freight path release, and the fact that London Midland have twice recently increased the number of trains they run out of Euston simply by changing their timetable, are the reality – as is the fact that Virgin artificially supress Euston's capacity for commercial reasons.

But where the capacity argument really comes unstuck is in passenger statistics. Some 23 per cent of passengers coming into London in the morning peak are standing. But the Virgin West and East Coast franchises, those very services that HS2 is designed to alleviate, are the only ones into the capital with no standing passengers, according to DfT figures.

Proponents of HS2 would of course point to the crowded London Midland services into Euston: if the intercity trains were on different tracks, they’d argue, there would be more room for local services. That’s what ‘freeing up capacity’ means: cutting existing inter-city services which, unlike HS2, have intermediate stops. Bad news for the likes of Coventry, Stoke and many more.

The value of the savings made by cutting these existing rail services crept up to £11bn in the latest HS2 business plan. Spending £56bn to solve the commuting problems of Milton Keynes, through additional price of nationwide service cuts, seems rather disproportionate. 


Grayling also stated passenger growth forecasts dictate the need for HS2. But, wherever Fyou look across the world, high speed rail projects never attract the grossly inflated passenger numbers used to justify their construction.

And what’s more, the forecasts only demonstrate the total incompetence of the Department for Transport. It has predicted that, over the next five years, London would see an increase in passengers of just 0.049 per cent, with other major stations netting a 0.026 per cent: hardly enough to justify building HS2.

But the real world figures for just one year show a 0.5 per cent drop in London passengers, and a 3.8 per cent increase for the rest of the country, the vast majority of which would not benefit from HS2. In other words, the discrepancy between the real-world figures and the DfT forecast is a factor of 726.

Now, Philip Hammond has announced £300m of projects to plumb HS2 into the network, just after Chris Grayling cancelled long awaited electrification programmes. It’s these much needed but non-sexy projects which would alleviate the crush-hour conditions faced by short-distance commuters – and which are the opportunity cost of HS2. 

If HS2 was about capacity it wouldn’t be a dedicated high speed railway. In return for the extra cost, the taxpayers don’t get intermediate stations, don’t get integration with the rest of the network, and don’t get a line with the ability to carry freight. High speed means paying a premium to minimise flexibility and capacity, whilst vastly increasing running costs and not having the budget to spend on anything else for 20 years.

The capacity to see this reality is what we desperately need.

Joe Rukin is campaign manager of StopHS2.

 
 
 
 

To build its emerging “megaregions”, the USA should turn to trains

Under construction: high speed rail in California. Image: Getty.

An extract from “Designing the Megaregion: Meeting Urban Challenges at a New Scale”, out now from Island Press.

A regional transportation system does not become balanced until all its parts are operating effectively. Highways, arterial streets, and local streets are essential, and every megaregion has them, although there is often a big backlog of needed repairs, especially for bridges. Airports for long-distance travel are also recognized as essential, and there are major airports in all the evolving megaregions. Both highways and airports are overloaded at peak periods in the megaregions because of gaps in the rest of the transportation system. Predictions for 2040, when the megaregions will be far more developed than they are today, show that there will be much worse traffic congestion and more airport delays.

What is needed to create a better balance? Passenger rail service that is fast enough to be competitive with driving and with some short airplane trips, commuter rail to major employment centers to take some travelers off highways, and improved local transit systems, especially those that make use of exclusive transit rights-of-way, again to reduce the number of cars on highways and arterial roads. Bicycle paths, sidewalks, and pedestrian paths are also important for reducing car trips in neighborhoods and business centers.

Implementing “fast enough” passenger rail

Long-distance Amtrak trains and commuter rail on conventional, unelectrified tracks are powered by diesel locomotives that can attain a maximum permitted speed of 79 miles per hour, which works out to average operating speeds of 30 to 50 miles per hour. At these speeds, trains are not competitive with driving or even short airline flights.

Trains that can attain 110 miles per hour and can operate at average speeds of 70 miles per hour are fast enough to help balance transportation in megaregions. A trip that takes two to three hours by rail can be competitive with a one-hour flight because of the need to allow an hour and a half or more to get to the boarding area through security, plus the time needed to pick up checked baggage. A two-to-three-hour train trip can be competitive with driving when the distance between destinations is more than two hundred miles – particularly for business travelers who want to sit and work on the train. Of course, the trains also have to be frequent enough, and the traveler’s destination needs to be easily reachable from a train station.

An important factor in reaching higher railway speeds is the recent federal law requiring all trains to have a positive train control safety system, where automated devices manage train separation to avoid collisions, as well as to prevent excessive speeds and deal with track repairs and other temporary situations. What are called high-speed trains in the United States, averaging 70 miles per hour, need gate controls at grade crossings, upgraded tracks, and trains with tilt technology – as on the Acela trains – to permit faster speeds around curves. The Virgin Trains in Florida have diesel-electric locomotives with an electrical generator on board that drives the train but is powered by a diesel engine. 

The faster the train needs to operate, the larger, and heavier, these diesel-electric locomotives have to be, setting an effective speed limit on this technology. The faster speeds possible on the portion of Amtrak’s Acela service north of New Haven, Connecticut, came after the entire line was electrified, as engines that get their power from lines along the track can be smaller and much lighter, and thus go faster. Catenary or third-rail electric trains, like Amtrak’s Acela, can attain speeds of 150 miles per hour, but only a few portions of the tracks now permit this, and average operating speeds are much lower.

Possible alternatives to fast enough trains

True electric high-speed rail can attain maximum operating speeds of 150 to 220 miles per hour, with average operating speeds from 120 to 200 miles per hour. These trains need their own grade-separated track structure, which means new alignments, which are expensive to build. In some places the property-acquisition problem may make a new alignment impossible, unless tunnels are used. True high speeds may be attained by the proposed Texas Central train from Dallas to Houston, and on some portions of the California High-Speed Rail line, should it ever be completed. All of the California line is to be electrified, but some sections will be conventional tracks so that average operating speeds will be lower.


Maglev technology is sometimes mentioned as the ultimate solution to attaining high-speed rail travel. A maglev train travels just above a guideway using magnetic levitation and is propelled by electromagnetic energy. There is an operating maglev train connecting the center of Shanghai to its Pudong International Airport. It can reach a top speed of 267 miles per hour, although its average speed is much lower, as the distance is short and most of the trip is spent getting up to speed or decelerating. The Chinese government has not, so far, used this technology in any other application while building a national system of long-distance, high-speed electric trains. However, there has been a recent announcement of a proposed Chinese maglev train that can attain speeds of 375 miles per hour.

The Hyperloop is a proposed technology that would, in theory, permit passenger trains to travel through large tubes from which all air has been evacuated, and would be even faster than today’s highest-speed trains. Elon Musk has formed a company to develop this virtually frictionless mode of travel, which would have speeds to make it competitive with medium- and even long-distance airplane travel. However, the Hyperloop technology is not yet ready to be applied to real travel situations, and the infrastructure to support it, whether an elevated system or a tunnel, will have all the problems of building conventional high-speed rail on separate guideways, and will also be even more expensive, as a tube has to be constructed as well as the train.

Megaregions need fast enough trains now

Even if new technology someday creates long-distance passenger trains with travel times competitive with airplanes, passenger traffic will still benefit from upgrading rail service to fast-enough trains for many of the trips within a megaregion, now and in the future. States already have the responsibility of financing passenger trains in megaregion rail corridors. Section 209 of the federal Passenger Rail Investment and Improvement Act of 2008 requires states to pay 85 percent of operating costs for all Amtrak routes of less than 750 miles (the legislation exempts the Northeast Corridor) as well as capital maintenance costs of the Amtrak equipment they use, plus support costs for such programs as safety and marketing. 

California’s Caltrans and Capitol Corridor Joint Powers Authority, Connecticut, Indiana, Illinois, Maine’s Northern New England Passenger Rail Authority, Massachusetts, Michigan, Missouri, New York, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Texas, Vermont, Virginia, Washington, and Wisconsin all have agreements with Amtrak to operate their state corridor services. Amtrak has agreements with the freight railroads that own the tracks, and by law, its operations have priority over freight trains.

At present it appears that upgrading these corridor services to fast-enough trains will also be primarily the responsibility of the states, although they may be able to receive federal grants and loans. The track improvements being financed by the State of Michigan are an example of the way a state can take control over rail service. These tracks will eventually be part of 110-mile-per-hour service between Chicago and Detroit, with commitments from not just Michigan but also Illinois and Indiana. Fast-enough service between Chicago and Detroit could become a major organizer in an evolving megaregion, with stops at key cities along the way, including Kalamazoo, Battle Creek, and Ann Arbor. 

Cooperation among states for faster train service requires formal agreements, in this case, the Midwest Interstate Passenger Rail Compact. The participants are Illinois, Indiana, Kansas, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, North Dakota, Ohio, and Wisconsin. There is also an advocacy organization to support the objectives of the compact, the Midwest Interstate Passenger Rail Commission.

States could, in future, reach operating agreements with a private company such as Virgin Trains USA, but the private company would have to negotiate its own agreement with the freight railroads, and also negotiate its own dispatching priorities. Virgin Trains says in its prospectus that it can finance track improvements itself. If the Virgin Trains service in Florida proves to be profitable, it could lead to other private investments in fast-enough trains.

Jonathan Barnett is an emeritus Professor of Practice in City and Regional Planning, and former director of the Urban Design Program, at the University of Pennsylvania. 

This is an extract from “Designing the Megaregion: Meeting Urban Challenges at a New Scale”, published now by Island Press. You can find out more here.