As the cost of HS2 continues to rise at an alarming rate there needs to be far more detailed analysis over its benefits. With wider time savings negligible, the project’s only real raison d'être is a much needed boost in capacity. The existing ‘West Coast Mainline’ which connects Scotland, NW England and the West Midlands to London is currently running close to capacity threatening future growth without new lines.
The current tender for the new West Coast franchise incorporates both existing and new HS2 services into one single operation giving an even bigger monopoly than is currently the case. Given the eye watering cost of constructing HS2 the government is keen to claw back as much fare box revenue as possible from the winner of the incorporated franchise bid through hefty premium payments totally undermining potential for competition. Given HS2’s limited time saving - owing to the relatively short distance – maintaining the status quo let alone improving services on the existing line could prove financially disastrous to the government’s proposed franchise model.
When trains from East Kent to London transferred to HS1 in 2009 fast services on the existing route were axed. Passengers from Ashford to London had the choice of either accepting an increase in journey time of 44% or paying a 24% premium to travel on HS1.
If this framework was adopted on HS2 - and I strongly suspect it will – there is a real risk that competition will be further undermined. Whole swathes of the NW of England and Scotland will be left paying significantly more than Virgin’s already grossly inflated ‘walk on’ fares. Manchester to London currently costs £338 for a standard class peak return; add 24% and this becomes and eye watering £419 standard or £600 first class.
If the classic route becomes 44% slower - roughly 3hr from Manchester to London vs the current 2hr - we will have the worst of both worlds. Many other locations along the existing route such as Warrington, Stoke on Trent and Coventry risk coming off even worse with the loss of fast direct services to London without an HS2 replacement. In Lancashire and Cumbria there is talk of no direct trains at all. With the 2nd phase of HS2 only being constructed as far north as Wigan, trains will then have to transfer to the classic route onward to Scotland. To compensate for the slower line speed the current plan is to largely omit intermediate stops.
To enhance HS2 new operators need to be granted access to the existing 125mph line through ‘Open Access’ agreements. On the East Coast route this model currently works well even though it’s limited to only a few stations. Where head to head competition exists fares have fallen and passenger satisfaction has risen. HS2 provides a golden opportunity to scrap the unpopular franchise system on the West Coast route and replace it with a system that delivers real choice for passengers.