By Ed Butcher, Head of Business Development, HS1 Ltd.
As I look on in awe at the massive endeavour HS2 embarks on, I cannot help but wonder what lessons HS1 might have learnt along the way, that could help HS2 deliver more when trains start rolling. On reflection, my key tip from what I have learnt from selling HS1 capacity, is be bolder at construction and future-proof for growth and opportunities.
HS1 and our partners has transformed the lives of hundreds of thousands of people. From those now employed in new highly-skilled and highly-paid jobs created by French companies based in London to the thousands of families that can afford a home with a garden because of improved journey times and employment opportunities unlocked by our high-speed connection.
The route has become the transport backbone of the South East delivering £427m of economic benefit last year. However, just ten years after opening we are already reaching capacity constraints on domestic high-speed services that might have been addressed by bolder thinking at the outset – most notably on the needs for domestic rolling stock. With roughly 11% passenger growth a year, HS1 services have been wildly successful and helped change the economic growth trajectory of Kent. Working with government and Southeastern, we are thankfully devising solutions that will ensure these rolling stock constraints are overcome.
Scope creep is the blight of all major infrastructure schemes, threatening viability, and fundability. Therefore, I respect the discipline of keeping a tight lid on costs and a single-minded vision to make a project the scale of HS2 happen. But as we have learnt, single-mindedness can come at the cost of future development and opportunities.
In the case of HS1, residents of Folkestone and Dover now live with slower journey times today because planners did not opt for a connection near the Channel Tunnel mouth to the conventional network. We are busy working with our partners to correct this, but the costs and logistics are an order of magnitude greater to what they would have been at original construction.
Similarly Birmingham, Manchester and Sheffield will be denied a direct service to Paris for want of a connection between HS2 and HS1. I suspect the business case is poor for a sparkly new and expensive tunnel between the two, but for a tenth of the price, you could secure passive provision on the conventional networks between the high-speed routes, weaving across North London – as Eurostars used to to Waterloo before HS1 opened. Last year over 400,000 air journeys were made between Birmingham and Paris. With a direct link, an equivalent journey by high-speed train would take just over three hours and would be a seriously competitive offer in this market. When your competing against air, every minute counts. The current solution for HS1/HS2 connectivity is therefore problematic. To me, it seems unlikely a ‘broken’ journey by foot between Euston and St Pancras will make serious inroads in this market. By way of evidence, journeys to the east of France are currently possible from London with a similar short walk between the Parisian termini of Gard du Nord to Gare de l’Est. My guess is you could count in single percentage points the market share of rail over air, since customers opt for the seamless air offer between London and Strasbourg.
Covid-19 brings into harsh focus not only investment decisions, but recovery and more importantly what type of recovery we want. High-speed rail uses 80-90% less carbon dioxide than air. Yet, we are on the cusp of not future proofing this greener option in the consideration of how our nation’s high-speed networks interact. HS2 is as shovel-ready stimulus package as you can get. Its construction will support jobs and livelihoods for years ahead. What cannot be lost in the drive to make economic decisions now, is that infrastructure decisions have an incredibly longtail, as the challenges we face today with rolling stock capacity and track configuration demonstrate. To aide this stimulus, but also unlock future green growth, my lesson for HS2 from its older brother is future-proof and go bold.