HS2 can deliver for the regions. Growth in intra-regional travel has been spectacular in some cases, and HS2 can open up new growth opportunities – writes Chris Cheek

In rail terms, there is no doubt that the needs and requirements of London and the South East tend to dominate policy considerations.

This is not to be wondered at: after all, movements in and between London, the South East and East of England regions accounted for almost 72% of all passenger journeys on our trains in 2011/12. London commuters are hugely important to the economic well-being of the capital, and – perhaps even more importantly – they have huge amounts of influence:  politically, in the media and in the City. In other words, the majority of the people who determine policy, write about events and determine share prices are rail commuters.

In acknowledging the importance of passenger movements in the south east, however, it is important not to ignore the trips in the rest of the country, and in particular the trends in demand. The latter is particularly important, because of the growth in regional demand on the rail network over the years since the turn of the century.

Growth in intra-regional travel has been spectacular in some cases – particularly in the regions destined to be affected by the plans for the new high speed rail line, HS2. For example, ORR statistics show since 1999/2000 rail trips have: have trebled within the West Midlands; more than doubled in the North West of England; virtually doubled in Yorkshire; and grown by over a third in the North East and the East Midlands.

As well as intra-regional journeys, passenger numbers travelling between these regions has grown in total by 85%.

In total, therefore, rail travel within the Midlands and the North is up by 123% since the turn of the century. Differential growth means that whereas these areas accounted for just 12.7% of national demand in 1999/2000, this proportion had reached 17.2% by 2011/12.

Thus, it can be seen that rail is already making an immense contribution to these communities, and has the potential to do more – in terms of a contribution to the economy and to the relief of congestion in both urban areas and on key inter-urban corridors such as the M5 and M6.

Lurking in the background is the environmental imperative to achieve more modal shift from private to public transport, and the consequences for growth in demand for bus and rail services if the policy succeeds. Each 1% reduction in car demand is the equivalent of a 9.2% increase in rail demand: thus, persuading drivers to switch 5% of their journeys to rail would prompt a 46% increase in passenger kilometres travelled on the rail network.

In the short to medium term, electrification offers a key to providing better services and increased capacity, as well as a step change in public perceptions of what local rail can offer. On key suburban and inter-urban routes into Liverpool and Manchester, plus the TransPennine routes into Yorkshire, the ‘sparks effect’ of electrification is expected to ensure that the spectacular increases in patronage that we have seen over the last 15-20 years will continue. No coincidence that the West Midlands, the regional network with the largest growth since the turn of the century, has the highest proportion of electrified local services – or that some of the fastest growth in Yorkshire has been delivered on the Airedale and Wharfedale routes electrified in the mid-1990s.

The question therefore arises as to what might be done next, and what long term plans ought to be made in order to accommodate further growth in demand for
rail services in the regions. Potentially, this is where plans for HS2, particularly the second phase currently scheduled for delivery in the early 2030s could make such a crucial difference.

A good deal of thinking has already gone into the improvements that might be made to the existing network following successful delivery of the full HS2 project by Network Rail and others. This has already highlighted some big potential improvements that could be made, affecting both local and especially inter-urban services, as well as key relief on routes that are expected to be filled by the mid to late-2020s.

In broad terms, Network Rail’s thinking is that the long distance paths released by providing long distance services to Leeds, Manchester, Newcastle and Edinburgh via HS2 could be used to provide a range of additional services and links whilst maintaining many existing through-journey facilities, albeit possibly with more station calls.

Particularly important would be the release of paths on the West Coast Main Line – both the Trent Valley routes and the key Coventry-Birmingham-Wolverhampton corridor. These would enable more inter-urban services to be operated, providing extra stops at major stations on the route, and extending northwards to Crewe and Warrington/Wigan. They also expect the release of paths on the Euston-Manchester route to open up opportunities to expand cross country services from the Southampton/Winchester/Reading corridor, and for new through journeys from Birmingham to Stoke and Manchester via Walsall and Rugeley.

Centro, the West Midlands Integrated Transport Authority, has also been thinking about this subject, and has already proposed a strategic vision for reconfiguring local rail services around HS2 completion. The vision is based on a “6-4-2” service concept: a six trains per hour turn-up-and-go frequency for main centres and strategic interchanges; regular, high frequency service of four trains an hour for principal stations on main corridors; plus regular, high-capacity services running twice an hour for other centres across the region and for other suburban stations. Under these plans, Wolverhampton-Birmingham-Coventry would rise to seven/eight trains an hour, with four an hour projected to Leamington Spa, and two an hour to Oxford and Reading. Centro also envisages improved services northwards, serving Liverpool, Shrewsbury and Telford. Walsall would gain through services to Birmingham International, Coventry, Leamington, Milton Keynes, Northampton and London, plus new northward links to Stafford, Crewe and Liverpool.

The report also looks to provide a similar expansion of services on paths released on the East Coast Main Line. Four northbound paths out of King’s Cross would be released by HS2 and could potentially used for more through services between London and destinations off the main route. Destinations identified include Bradford via Castleford, Harrogate via York, Nottingham and/or Skegness via Grantham, Scarborough, Sheffield via Retford, Cleethorpes via Lincoln and Saltburn via Yarm, Middlesbrough and Redcar. At the northern end, capacity would be released for improved services between Birmingham and Newcastle, and semi-fast between Newcastle and Edinburgh. Other ideas include improved cross-country links between Stansted Airport/Cambridge and Nottingham/Leeds.

Work commissioned by South and West Yorkshire PTEs envisages a less radical future, with the maintenance of most of the existing ECML services from Newcastle and West Yorkshire to London, though it envisages an hourly Bradford Interchange-London service in lieu of one of the current Leeds-London King’s Cross departures. Not surprisingly, the authorities are keen to maintain the existing half-hourly fast link between Wakefield Westgate and King’s Cross, though it remains to be seen whether the Department for Transport and others share this view.

Network Rail and the Yorkshire authorities both anticipate that capacity would be released on the Midland Main Line, but by reduced loads on existing trains rather than the release of paths, as passengers from the route switch to HS2 at Meadowhall or Toton. Possibilities to improve MML services include extension to Leeds (either direct or via Barnsley), additional calls on MML trains at Bedford, Luton Airport and St Albans, or improved services to Wellingborough and Kettering. The opening up of a new cross-country route via the restored East-West link is also floated in the report, linking the West Country and the East Midlands via Oxford, Bedford and Leicester.


Some 80 years ago, the fortunes of the Southern Railway were transformed under the leadership of Sir Herbert Walker by the introduction of extensive electrification and the creation of a regular interval service of local, semi-fast and fast services. The concept remains at the heart of the London commuter network today.

Sadly, cash-strapped and steam-besotted, the rest of the railway network did not follow suit, and it is only in recent times that the revival of demand and the need to encourage modal switch away from private transport has brought the benefits of electric traction and regular interval services back to the top of the agenda.

Much work is going on to deliver improvements and increase capacity on the network, but all too often infrastructure constraints or the requirements of intercity services impinge on the provision of enhanced local services. The two-track section between Coventry and Wolverhampton is a classic example, as is the constrained Doncaster-Wakefield Westgate-Leeds corridor, or the line through Stockport into Manchester Piccadilly. Other constraints have been created by line closures or reductions in track capacity which cannot now be restored.

Increasingly, it looks as if HS2 is the key that could unlock a huge amount of network potential, creating the paths and the capacity for the network to be reconfigured to provide that inter-locking network of regular, high-frequency services across the rest of Britain. As Centro’s study reveals, the economic benefits that could accrue to local communities from such improvements are huge, and add to or even outweigh the benefits of HS2 itself.

Not all the ideas that Network Rail and others are working on will come to fruition; indeed it is already clear that some of the aspirations already conflict. Not surprisingly, some communities fear the loss of existing links, whilst the true extent of the new opportunities that could be opened up does not seem to be getting across to the public.

What these planning studies show is that HS2 is not just about running faster trains between London and Birmingham, and the case should not rest on time-saving for existing rail passengers. Despite opponents’ claims to the contrary, the changes that the HS2 project would permit to the existing rail network are very significant, and could unlock the true market potential of services in the Midlands and the North in a way that has never been done before. That is a truly historic opportunity and one which ought not to be missed.


This article appears inside the latest issue of Passenger Transport.

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