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Thursday, 8 September 2011

A New High-Speed Line, An Old Victorian Assumption?

There is a debate going on in the world of all things ‘railway.’ The building of Britain’s second high speed line, or HS2 as it is more commonly known, fills the pages of newspapers, magazines, blogs and websites, with those in the ‘yes’ and ‘no’ camps fervently arguing their corners. Indeed, such is the storm that has been whipped up that some campaigners use fall into trap of using emotional arguments to try and win the debate, disregarding evidence and research. However, the emotion involved can some times obscure  the central question at hand; does the nation need a high speed line to accommodate future passenger traffic growth?

The response of those who oppose the line to the projected passenger growth centres on the idea that the existing rail network will be able to be upgraded to accommodate the increasing traffic. This may have some credence, and the network does have the capacity to be modified to allow faster, longer and improved trains, as the West Coast Main Line was in 2008. On the other side of the argument, the supporters of the line argue that routes between London and Birmingham, Manchester and Liverpool will start to breach their capacity before 2030 even with modification. Indeed, they believe that while upgrading the West Coast main line is an option, this can only go so far given that the Victorian network’s twists and turns prohibit high speeds. Thus, HS2 is not just desirable, it is a necessity.

Yet, for all this back and forth debates, I believe a central issue has been overlooked and ignored by most involved. Simply put: will passenger traffic actually continue grow at all? Clearly, those who support HS2 think it will. But even those who oppose the line, and dispute the pro-HS2 camp’s predictions of how quickly traffic will increase, still accept that more and more passengers will ride the rails.  Indeed, most accept future passenger growth is a reality on the basis that passenger numbers have grown between 1994 and last year from 735 million in 1994 to 1320 million (see graph below). But, I have seen very little in my reading that even mentions the idea that passenger numbers will plateau or even decline in years to come. I have seen projections of how passenger numbers could increase, but this simply isn’t the same as saying they will increase. Therefore, everyone in every camp is making a massive assumption.

However, this assumption isn’t new, has been made before by railway mangers, directors and commentators. A conversation with anyone in a position of influence in the late Victorian railway industry would have elicited no inkling from them that the massive traffic growth of the period would slow. The graph below shows that between 1870 and 1900 passenger growth increased at a rate at which not even the most astute railway mystic could predict, from 337 million to 1115 million. Indeed, the idea that traffic and revenue growth would never slow was the premise upon which almost all railways invested and embarked on new projects. Thus, those deciding current transport policy, as well of those not deciding it, have fallen into the same mind-set: “Passenger numbers will grow, so let us prepare happy in the knowledge that our assumption will pan out as expected.”

But this reasoning fails to appreciate that traffic growth is not always assured, as Victorian railway managers found out to their horror. The ever-increasing passenger (and goods) traffic numbers of the 1890s deceived railway companies’ managements. They thought that whatever investment they made in their networks would, in time, give healthy returns to shareholders because of the continually increasing traffic and revenue. Consequently, capital investment in the late Victorian period was large, including the myriad of light railways, the rebuilding of stations, a multitude of small works at stations and yards, and the Great Central Railway’s expensive extension to London.

Yet, as the graph shows, passenger traffic growth on Britain’s railways slowed after 1900 and started to decline beyond 1911, as the railways’ trade came under attack from new forms of transport such as trams and motor transportation. Indeed, after the First World War Britain’s passenger numbers went into further free-fall. Thus, all the major capital projects that had been started and finished before 1900, as well as those that were continued on with after it, were building capacity into the network that was simply not needed.

But there was another problem after 1900 that affected the railway industry. In the 1890s railway companies’ costs had risen and their profitability had fallen, making their shares were less attractive to investors after the turn of the century. Consequently, their access to capital was diminished.  This meant that the progress of many major capital projects had to be slowed. But, more importantly, because capital costs were already high the railways’ could not easily invest in the infrastructure to counter the new forms of competition. Thus, the casual acceptance by railway officials before 1900 that traffic and revenue would continue to grow, weakened the industry's financial position after it.

Of course, I am not necessarily saying that the current upward inertia of passenger numbers will slow in the years to come. Indeed, there is an important difference between the trading environments of the Victorian period and those of the current day. Before 1900 the railways had a virtual monopoly in inland transportation, the competition they had was negligible, and their officials found it much harder conceptualise that any external threats that would challenge their long-established hegemony. Contrastingly, in the current trading environment the railways’ competition is already in existence (unless some Star Trek-esque transporter equipment is developed) and transport policy is directed by the Department for Transport. This makes future passenger growth easier to predict.

Yet, the fact that current policy makers and others continue to ask the question of ‘how much will passenger traffic grow,’ while completely ignoring the question ‘will passenger traffic grow at all,’ suggests that the same assumptions that their predecessors had over a hundred years ago may have set in. This is a worry, to be sure.


  1. Surely the idea that rail passenger numbers will go on growing sharply is primarily based on the assumption that there will be significant modal shift from car to rail, as oil prices continue to rise and roads become ever more congested. This has started happening already and seems likely to continue. The point to grasp is that it would take only a quite small percentage of modal shift from motoring to produce at least a doubling of rail passenger numbers -- if there were the rail capacity to accommodate them, which at the moment there isn't. That's why we need a lot more rail capacity.

  2. I believe that passenger numbers will continue to rise until commuters are priced out of the market. This is what HS2 seems designed to achieve - HS1 doesn't travel to capacity because of the extortionate costs.

  3. If economic performance continues to remain stagnant, its quite possible to suggest that passenger numbers will be held back by that.

    But this is a great idea for a post - in the midst of such a rapidly changing external environment its a difficult proposition to base a 20 year construction project on a flimsy prediction.

  4. That's a really interesting article. (It looks like you've got some other good stuff, like the Female Waiting Room Attendents post.)

    Do you have an email address I could contact you on? Your graph might be useful for a project I'm working on.

  5. It could, of course, be less a case of "we're assuming rail use will grow" and more "we want/need rail use to grow". The government has got to tackle the problems of road and air travel, but can't do so without increasing capacity on and attractiveness of the alternatives (or committing political suicide).

    Not that this explanation applies to the current petrolheads in Whitehall, or accounts for the obsession with high speed mainlines while ignoring local transport.

    (P.S., have you considered a less eye straining colour scheme? :|)

  6. I think the lengthy lead times for projects such as this force us to make forecasts of some kind, and the only defensible forecasts are probably that current trends, dictated by economic growth, population growth and demand for travel will continue unchanged in the immediate future.

    The only other alternative would be a wait and see approach, which if followed could lead us to a position in 2020 or so when the system is so severely overcrowded that it becomes unusable and people are justifiably asking why nothing had been done. This is often the British way.

    As people have said, road and air transport have grown massively, and rail is seen by many as a more efficient and environmentally friendly way of catering for the undeniable demand for travel. It requires only a small demand shift to rail to result in a large percentage change in rail demand.

    I have travelled from Warrington in the north west to London on peak hour trains quite a few times recently, and on several occasions found myself sitting in doorways and corridors. Train lengthening can combat some of this, but higher frequencies are the only solution, and we are led to believe that this really isn't possible in many areas.

    I recently sat in a meeting addressed by Philip Hammond on the subject of HS2. One thing he stressed was that many people are getting hung up on the HS element, thinking that the additional speed was the be all and end all of the scheme. He stressed that capacity is a much greater issue than speed, and I think we all realise this. Again two options were put forward. One to increase capacity by doubling up the existing tracks, the other to build an entirely separate new route. Although the former seems the most sensible option in many ways, it could be that it is the most expensive, with the need for the modification of massive amounts of existing infrastructure, and thus the new route becomes the more attractive option.

    Now I haven't investigated this in fine detail, and I'm sure many have, but I accept the capacity issue argument, and so if this new route is the best solution then I would support it. The follow up then is whether, given that we are building a new route should we to build a 19/20th century standard or to a 21st century standard seems a redundant question.

    The arguments over whether HS2 would aid the redistribution of economic wealth towards the north, or attract even greater shares to the south also seem to crop up. I am firmly of the belief that improving transport links between the north and south must inevitably benefit the north. Companies are going to require headquarters in London for the foreseeable future, but the movement of back office and production facilities out of London makes complete economic sense and improving transport links between north and south will make the relocation of service to the north easier to manage. primary argument for retaining head offices in London is the ease of movement between that office and those of other suppliers, competitors, collaborators &c &c, if ease of movement wins here, then surely it must also support the argument in favour of high speed rail links too.

    So, in summary, at present, as someone who would hope to use and benefit from the service I do support the development of HS2. Yes we can argue the minutiae of forecasting for the next 10 years and find ourselves no further forward, most times we have to take decisions on imperfect evidence, but considering the most likely scenario, and this I feel is such an occasion.


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