Posted 22nd May 2013 | 13 Comments

Virgin 'warns ministers' about HS2 capacity loss

VIRGIN TRAINS has claimed that HS2 will reduce the level of service for some towns on the classic West Coast Main Line. The Department for Transport has rejected the allegations, saying that the new High Speed line will improve rather than cut capacity.

Virgin is concerned about the extra paths which will be needed on the classic network for trains which leave HS2 and continue their journeys further north. This would initially have implications at Stoke and Stafford for trains leaving HS2 just north of Birmingham after the first phase opens in 2026, and later for trains to such places as Carlisle and Glasgow when the full 'Y' shaped network has opened in 2032-33.

A further issue is that the new 'classic-compatible' trains running at 350km/h or even more on HS2 will, according to Virgin, be limited to just 160km/h on the rest of the network – 40km/h slower than Virgin's current Pendolino fleet.

Virgin is reported to have voiced its concerns in a memorandum to transport minister Patrick McLoughlin.

The operator claims that one solution would be a new fleet of tilting trains which could run at 217km/h (135mph) on the classic network and up to 360km/h on High Speed infrastructure. Virgin said it did not oppose HS2, but wanted to make sure that there were 'more winners than losers'.

Virgin Trains chief executive Tony Collins said: “We need the extra capacity on the rail lines. Unfortunately the way that HS2 is being done is an engineering solution looking for a problem. If it carries on it won’t properly integrate with the railway system.”

However, a DfT spokesman disagreed, saying HS2 would increase capacity and provide a 'step-change in competiveness'.

Virgin is currently in talks with the DfT about the proposed extension of its Intercity West Coast contract from November this year to April 2017.

Reader Comments:

Views expressed in submitted comments are that of the author, and not necessarily shared by Railnews.

  • matthew jones, wirral

    Ultimately the service pattern is likely to be determined by the franchise holders. Current proposals envisage 4000 seats per hour to (exclusively) Greater Manchester (population 2.5 million), but only 1500 seats per hour to the combined populations of Merseyside, Cheshire, North Staffordshire, West Lanchashire and North Wales (population > 4.0 million). I agree with Chris Neville-Smith that some rerouting of Manchester trains is likely to be necessary - most sensibly via Stockport, Stoke and Stafford. For a similar reason, it would probably make sense to extend the length of platforms at all stations with "classic compatible" services such that they can take 400 metre trains and thus make the most of the limited track capacity south of Birmingham.

  • Gwyn Roberson, Rugby

    When it comes to the issue of WCML then there is a huge problem with capacity. Rugby is one of the bottle necks even after all the work conducted here some years ago. Freight is the elephant in the corner, one of the biggest inland ports in the UK is based at Dirft,and only the intial stages are built. The access built for freight from the eastern ports is now traveling north to leicester and then trying to get back down the WCML to DIRFT or having to be road freighted. The other headache comes from the southern ports.

    What ever the solution we put in place we need to also remember that there is a plan to rebalance the economy this involves industry and inevitably some level of rail freight.

    The passenger services are growning at the seams, with a kitty of 42bn how can we make the biggest difference fastest.

    1. in cab signaling WCML should give upto 250kph ( (current 390's only capable of 225kph) estimate is about 1.2bn - 3 years
    2. expand the GWR via the chilterns to 4 tracks (land, wayleave and provision for grade seperated junctions already in place) - 6bn
    3. add conection through ashenden junction to GCR
    4. Restore GCR Ashenden to leicester - 5bn ( UIC clearances already in place for 40 miles most of the trackbed is in place requires some adjustment around some towns - 6bn

    Restoring the Rugby to Ashenden route delivers 3 major towns back to the rail network, all of which would deliver substantial revenue & traffic when London is brought within a 50 minute train journey. Daventry, Brackley and Buckingham are I think all in Angela Leadsomís constituency, and an intitial spur South to join the Chiltern route North of Haddenham will give them London trains, and revenue with a rapid turn round.

  • Chris Neville-Smith, Durham, England

    Tony Pearce: Precedent says no in both cases.

    The Chiltern line is already hard at work undercutting Virgin Trains on London to Birmingham. There is absolutely no sign of this destroying Virgin Trains. As the business case for HS2 sets fares at the same level as Virgin Trains, I see no reason why they'll be any more successful undercutting HS2.

    If airlines were capable of wrecking the commercial vaibility of high-speed rail, one would excpet this to be happening already in France. It isn't. On the contrary, I believe some domestic air services, such as Paris-Strasbrough, have been axed. And this assumes oil prices in 2033 won't have finished off cheap air travel completely - I wouldn't bank on that.

    Of course, Britain is not France and what happens in one coutnry won't necessarily happen in another. But if we never built any infrastructure on the basis on what might happen, we'd still be crawling along the A6 through Preston.

  • Tony Pearce, Reading

    Will trains on the WCML be able to compete with HS2 by deliberately setting fares which undercut HS2 ? If so they could destroy HS2 before it starts. I think the Government would have to intervene to stop competition between rail companies. Knowing Branson though he will probably run a new Network of planes based on Birmingham Airport deliberately to compete with HS2, - unless of course he gets the franchise.

  • Chris Neville-Smith, Durham, England

    Stephen Cryan, Warrington: Your plan is probably feasible but highly unlikely to be cheap. Four-tracking a two-track line is essentially building a new two-track line. It makes no difference whether you build a two-track line alongside an existing railway or a completely new alignment - the cost is the same. I believe there is also little difference whether or not the line is a high-speed one.

    (This, of course, assumes there's adequate space to build an extra two tracks. If it's a tight squeeze and there's no room for a building site, you have to close the existing lines whilst you're building the new ones, massively pushing the cost up.)

    Then there's the cost of all the extras that don't go away if you switch to four-tracking. You would still need to expand Manchester Piccadilly to accommodate the extra trains, and unless you have a very clever idea for how to avoid this, still have to put these extra two tracks into a tunnel through most of Greater Manchester.

    New construction of extra tracks alongside existing lines is still new construction. Adding an extra pair of tracks between London and Birmingham has already been considered and rejected for all sorts of nightmare reasons. Who knows, maybe someone will have better luck with Birmingham to Manchester. But it's not going to be as cheap as you think. An infinitely better solution that 51m's idea that thinks you can miraculously solve the problem with neither new lines nor new track, but not the solution to everything either.

  • HH, Birmingham

    Virgin just 'setting case' for WCML franchise bid
    Why not take basic Eurostar (North) and re vamp - already classic compat.

  • Stephen Lawrence, Cambridge, England

    I agree with Graham's comments re non-continental gauge trains being more expensive. For the longer term (50-100 years) it makes sense gradually to convert a part of the UK network to larger loading gauge, so we can use standard stock & double-deck stock (and have a second hand market outside the UK). HS1 & HS2 is a good start - so when and where next?

  • Stephen Cryan, Warrington

    It should be said that the HS2 extension from Birmingham to Manchester/Wigan is a completely unnecessary and scandalously wasteful exercise.

    From Lichfield adding extra tracks to eliminate the more pronounced curves to Crewe would give increased line speeds ensuring the whole distance is 4 tracked.This means a track improvement of 18.81kms. between Lichfield and Crewe eliminating 42.19 kms of unnecessary construction.

    Upgrading the WCML all the way from Crewe to Preston to 4 track would bring greater benefits. Yes, an underpass under Crewe is necessary to separate junctions on the flat but nothing else on the line to Preston.This total of updated lines comes to 26.81kms. but no new construction.

    The branch from Crewe to Manchester can de done by 4 tracking the line through Sandbach, Holmes Chapel and Wilmslow the line can branch off left along the existing tracks into the airport to stop at the existing terminal station (rather than an "airport station" some way from the terminals). It would make it better for the line to continue west out of the airport to then turn northwards to follow the proposed HS2 line through Didsbury to Piccadilly. This would reduce the construction costs and eliminate the environmentally criminal line through Cheshire. This would mean just 16.2kms. of new construction as opposed to 77.24kms proposed by HS2 from Crewe to Manchester/Wigan.

    As can be seen upgrading as well as some new construction could provide more benefits and avoid leaving certain towns out in the cold. As an example, Warrington provides more traffic to the WCML than Wigan and is also an important interchange for traffic transferring from the WCML to the Chester and North Wales line.

    You do not ignore your points of traffic provision in the major towns of the North West, only for the sake of speed. Reduction of journey time is done by improvements on tracks - this means improving the whole track from Oxenholme to Glasgow. You have to make money so speed must not be the be all and end all of the HS2, the customers are.

  • Graham, Reading

    In response to Mr Steels comments about the extra cost of the trains to run beyond HS2, these would be the same trains which would be used to run on our conventional lines. Which means that by at least having HS2 where we can buy trains which are compatible with the rest of Europe at least some of our trains will be cheaper to buy than they are to buy at present. Which then provides us with a cost saving over not building HS2.

    Also over the longer term it could well be that some of the existing lines which will be having services from HS2 running on them could be upgraded to allow the "full size" trains to run on them for a lot lower cost than having to convert the whole line from London.

  • Chris Neville-Smith, Durham, England

    Geoff Steel:

    I'm not HS2 ltd or Network Rail, but I think I can have a pretty good go at answering those questions:

    "A separate report has also suggested that Northamptonshire will actually need less services in the future which completely ignores the ongoing growth in the region."

    I don't know what report you're referring to, but I assume this is the service patterns outlined in the explanation of service patterns, which proposed a slight reduction from 55 services a day to 45 services a day.

    Someone who knows more about this welcome to correct me, but as I understand it, at present Northampton has an artificially high level of services, driven not by demand from Northampton, but the fact that the WCML is so crowded that you have no choice but to route all LM services (except the Trent Valley ones) through Northampton. The good news for Northampton is that they get a good frequency of services. The bad news is that they have to share their trains with an insane number of people bound on intermediate stations up to Wolverton.

    I believe the post-HS2 service pattern is be based more on where you'd like the trains to go rather than where they have to go (and where they can't go). Even with non-stop trains diverted on to HS2, capacity on the WCML is not limitless, and balances still have to be made between local services, regional services, freight, and spare paths to ensure reliability. In terms of frequency, Northampton currently loses out slightly, with an average of one train every 26 minutes instead of 22 minutes. But, on the plus side, there will be a massive reduction in crowding as people going to other stations will be spread out over a far higher number of services.

    The service pattern is open to debate, but it's not in the slightest cutting services to pay for HS2. The resources need to invest in a post-HS2 WCML is £0bn - the line and signalling is already there. The only expense we may face is a massive backlog of repairs that are not possible under the WCML's current level of operation, but you won't escape that by not building HS2.

    "I have previously questioned what type of trains will be needed to operate on both HS2 and the existing lines which have a smaller structure gauge. Clearly, unlike in the rest of Europe they will have to be specially designed and will therefore cost a lot more to build."

    Don't see a problem. Plenty of high-speed trains across Europe switch from high-speed lines to conventional lines, including Eurostar prior to HS1. Absolute worst-case scenario would be re-using the Eurostar design. In any case, classic compatible trains are already in the business case at a substantially higher cost than captive trains, so I can assume this is already factored in.

    " Virgin are also right to point out that without tilt and in cab signalling these trains will be limited to 110mph max north of Stafford which surely will increase journey times significantly and weaken the business case further."

    That has also been factored into the business case. The lack of tilting mechanisms of HS trains that share lines with tilting trains is a snag, but it's not the end of the world. For a start, the highest speed you can hope to achieve from tilting is 125mph, not 135mph, because the plan to enable to higher speed through ETRMS (as envisaged in the west coast upgrade) didn't work. That means a speed discrepancy of 15 mph, which I estimate works out as an extra 12 minutes between Preston and Glasgow. A nuisance, but not that big a deal. The only thing we might have to worry about is if we ever try to run, say, 10+ trains per hour, when that speed discrepancy starts to become a problem.

    It may or may not be desirable to put ETRMS on the WCML north of Warrington one day, but it is by no means essential. Unless there is a good reason to believe this would *improve* the business case, HS2 ltd is right to leave this out of the plan and instead take into account the speed reduction from the lack of tilt north of Warrington.

  • Geoff Steel, Northampton

    I agree with Virgin's comments regarding the risk to services on the existing WCML once the new HS2 starts operating. A separate report has also suggested that Northamptonshire will actually need less services in the future which completely ignores the ongoing growth in the region. This appears to contradict the comments by the Transport Secretary so who is right? It also adds weight to my view that with all the investment going into high speed rail that the classic network will just not have the resources it needs to invest in maintaining current line speeds and train service levels.

    I have previously questioned what type of trains will be needed to operate on both HS2 and the existing lines which have a smaller structure gauge. Clearly, unlike in the rest of Europe they will have to be specially designed and will therefore cost a lot more to build. This will inevitably push up the overall cost of delivering HS2. Virgin are also right to point out that without tilt and in cab signalling these trains will be limited to 110mph max north of Stafford which surely will increase journey times significantly and weaken the business case further. To achieve 135mph or more on the classic network after 2026 will require either tilting trains and ERTMS (or both) on the routes wherever high speed trains leave the HS lines and continue on to those destinations currently served by pendilinos. The cost to do this should be included in the HS2 estimates and the business case re-examined to ensure the benefits claimed are still robust

  • MikeB, Liverpool

    Merseyside has also been placed at a disadvantage, compared to other parts of the North West. It is proposed that London - Liverpool services will leave HS2 near Basford Hall and call at Crewe before continuing along the present - slower - route via Weaver Junction, whereas Manchester will have a direct high speed link right into the city centre. It is even envisaged that it will be somewhat quicker to travel between Euston and Preston, than to Liverpool. Hopefully therefore, the Government will authorise construction of a spur from HS2 to Liverpool, at some future date but meanwhile perhaps Network Rail might consider expanding the classic West Coast Mainline north of Crewe to four tracks right through to Weaver Junction.

  • Chris Neville-Smith, Durham, England

    Not sure where Virgin Trains is getting Stafford from. The level of service is currently 1tph London-Stafford-Liverpool, and the proposed service patterns with HS2 are still 1tph London-Stafford-Liverpool. As Virgin trains currently run non-stop between London and Stafford anyway, loss of service to intermediate stations is not an issue. (Oh, and the service probably won't be run by Virgin Trains, but that's not our problem.)

    The only station on this list where I think there's a problem is Stoke.I can't understand why the Phase 1 service pattern doesn't include Stoke as a stop, seeing as trains pass through that station anyway. Phase 2 is a bit more of a problem, because London-Manchester trains will go nowhere near Stoke, which is why I think HS2 ltd should consider modelling services that run, say, London-Stockport, even if it means dropping another service.

    Anyway, what I predict will happen is what usually happens: the government will listen to the case and, if appropriate, modify plans accordingly, as they have done several times already. That's a distinct improvement on 51m whose response to the persistent complaints that the freezes growth on the commuter services that need it the most it to doggedly refuse to acknowledge the problem, let alone do anything about it.