A report by a high-speed rail lobby group is calling for improved links between HS1 and HS2 in London to encourage more people to switch from planes to trains.

The High Speed Rail Group (HSRG) looked at rail travel in the UK as a whole and into the European mainland to see what routes could encourage fewer flights and more train trips.

The rationale put forward is the environmental impact of rail vs planes, which has been fairly clear for some time. Data from the European Environmental Agency (EEA) shows that air traffic accounts for 14% of emissions while handling 8% of passenger-kilometres. Rail accounts for just 1% of emissions while handling 6 percent of passenger-kilometres.

Across mainland Great Britain, in the years before Covid, there were an average of 16,700 air passengers each day, and nearly 60% of domestic flights are between London and Scottish airports. In order to reduce domestic flights, and the attendant climate change pollution, the HSRG is calling for improvements in rail links, more direct services between Scottish cities and London, and more competitive prices.

That should lead to more people taking the option of switching from planes to trains, especially if supported by a sizable marketing plan to promote the benefits, factoring in the fact that railway stations are usually in city centres, unlike airports, which are on the edges of cities, or in the case of budget airlines, sometimes in totally different cities.

This is not aspirational based on blue sky thinking hoping that improved rail links will lure more people to the trains. There’s been a marked decline in flights between London and Manchester ever since the West Coast Mainline was upgraded between those two cities. This built on the impact of the Eurostar and HS1 service linking London to mainland Europe, where rail has dug deep into the volume of flights across the Channel.

One of the “obvious once it’s said” facts that comes out of the report is how little additional rail capacity would be needed to replace domestic flights. The report notes that if, for some reason, all domestic flights between London and Scotland were shut-down, it would take just 2 additional trains per hour to absorb all the displaced passengers. It’s a measure of how crowded the UK’s railways are at the moment that banning domestic flights is not an option. Not until HS2 opens anyway.

Another factor is improving speed on existing railway lines, and stripping out the intermediate stops for intercity travellers would make the switch from plane to train more appealing. The rail upgrades needed to enable that would be significant, mainly adding tracks to allow fast trains to pass through stations when a slower train is at the platform and some doubling up in places for overtaking but could be delivered relatively quickly if given political backing for a clearly defined “plane to train” project.

More regionally, the HSRG suggests there are also options for improved faster cross-country rail services, such as connecting, for example, Cardiff and Bristol with Darlington, Newcastle and Edinburgh.

The biggest thing holding back the expansion of inter-city travel is the lack of capacity on the railway. That’s what HS2 will solve in many areas, by removing north-south intercity traffic off the old railways so they can carry more regional services, and removing bottlenecks at junctions so more east-west intercity services can fit onto the tracks.

But that’s a decade away, but at least it’s being built, and isn’t an aspiration waiting for approval.

Looking outside the UK, according to the report, over half of the 18 million air passengers on existing ‘Eurostar routes’ were flying to and from a single destination: Amsterdam, comprising around 5 million using London area airports and 5.5 million using airports elsewhere in Great Britain. Now that Eurostar is travelling between London and Amsterdam, we can expect a reduction in London flights, as has happened with flights to other areas served by Eurostar, but less of an impact on people outside London who will find flying more convenient.

That’s because using trains to Europe from, for example, Manchester is not an obvious or particularly easy option. Improved links to London when HS2 opens will help. However, something that was ruled out on cost grounds when HS2 was approved was a direct connection to HS1. Although the HSRG is not calling for that decision to be reviewed, in order to make rail travel more appealing for people living in the Midlands and beyond, they say something needs to be done to improve the connection in London between Euston (HS2) and St Pancras (HS1).

At the moment, the intention is for an enhanced street level route between the two stations rather than say a dedicated travelator link. The significant issue at the moment is that switching between the two services adds time to the journey because part of it is in a public area, so for example, putting passport/customs at the start of the journey in Manchester would not be possible unless there’s a secure link between the two London terminus stations.

There’s just about enough time to change the design of the Old Oak Common station tunnels to add a provision for a future rail link to HS1. Although the changes at Old Oak Common are costed at just over £100 million, it’s much cheaper and easier to add it now than to try to add it in say 20 years time.

(There is an existing link between the West Coast Mainline and HS1, but that would limit European trains to UK mainline sizes, and that would be a major constraint in expanding across mainland Europe)

One of the potential limits on reaching deeper into mainland Europe is a 1000km journey distance, as that’s optimal for the train operator as it can run there and back in a single day. The HSRG says that still leaves an addressable market of 26 million airline passengers who could be lured to rail travel. Extending rail links further, where trains have local stabling in mainland Europe so are not required to return on the same day expands the addressable market to 44 million flights that could be replaced with trains.

An expansion of the night train market in Europe is already something that’s happening, but if there were a direct link between HS1 and HS2, that opens up a huge UK market in the night trains, with the potential to leave Manchester in the evening and wake up in, for example, Barcelona the next morning.

I am sure many people will approve of the idea of sleeping away the journey in a bed instead of squashed into a plane seat. If the rail industry can deliver that.

The full report (pdf) is here.

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15 comments
  1. ChrisC says:

    All very well and good but the government keeps hacking off bits of HS2 like this which was slipped out on Monday evening.

    https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2022/jun/07/rail-bosses-outraged-as-hs2-golborne-link-quietly-scrapped?CMP=Share_iOSApp_Other

  2. John says:

    If the political will was present, we could replace a significant chunk of air travel with rail travel *without* any new infrastructure. Requiring “security” checks and immigration to take place before boarding adds significant costs, delays and most importantly barriers to new services.

    Removing security checks (if long tunnels in Switzerland and under-sea tunnels in Japan don’t require them, why do we?!) and moving immigration processing to take place while the train is moving (even a 15mins mandatory stop for all trains at Calais to remove anyone not meeting the requirements would represent a large time saving to all passengers from the current check-in times).

    It says something about the state of our politics that such a procedural change is *less* likely than spending billions on infrastructure to facilitate a likely smaller increase in rail travel than could be achieved by removing procedural barriers on travel through the Channel Tunnel.

    I use Eurostar as much as possible for trips between UK and the rest of Europe. However, each time I go through the process of check-in, security and immigration that is modelled on airports I compare it with any other cross-border service in Europe (even those outside Schengen) and think about how massive a barrier we’ve introduced which *prevents* people choosing rail travel.

    If/when the political will is present to remove these barriers I am certain that additional services directly connecting locations in UK and the rest of Europe would begin very quickly. The market is too large not to. Without the extremely onerous requirement to create a new “terminal” for security/immigration at each station, the start-up costs for operators would be slashed. The overheads would be reduced too without needing to pay for all the check-in/security infrastructure. Even if new trains with smaller UK loading gauge were required to connect Birmingham, Manchester, Leeds, etc it would still be viable once this major procedure barrier is removed!

  3. LMonroe says:

    HS2 and other high speed rail projects are for benefit of elites, not ordinary people.

    Commuter routes should be prioritised. Non-London affordable and automated local train routes connecting neighbouring towns and cities are much more useful per pound spent than the HS bonanzas for lawyers and consultants which naturally appeal to Islington chatterati on spurious green grounds.

    Commuter trains are used by nurses, factory workers, receptionists and tradesmen, whilst the HS white elephants will always go tens of billions over budget, and just suck up infrastructure funding from more beneficial transport investments.

    • ianVisits says:

      I am glad you support HS2, as the primary function of HS2 is to create a massive increase in regional and commuter traffic by transferring intercity traffic away from suburban lines to their own dedicated railway.

      I am a bit confused as to why you think intercity traffic is for the elites though – as the majority of intercity traffic is social, for people travelling to meet friends and family, for holidays, to football matches and concerts, to weddings, and funerals. Shouldn’t ordinary people get a decent railway as well?

  4. Bones says:

    Is it possible for HS1 to be linked to HS2 in the future?

    This would have created so many benefits, not least reducing congestion in the Euston St Pancras Kings Cross stations and general area.

    • ianVisits says:

      Anything is technically possible if you don’t mind the cost and disruption.

      As the report linked to in the article notes, adding a link later would cost a lot more, and likely mean the closure of HS2 between Old Oak Common and Euston for 6-9 months. So much better to build the OOC bit today to avoid that sort of disruption tomorrow.

  5. Bones says:

    Sorry, I meant the railway lines themselves.

    Can they be joined up in the future for a direct service eg Birmingham to Paris?

  6. Julian says:

    Even passive provision for a future HS2 -> HS1 link at Old Oak Common would be better than nothing.

  7. James G says:

    As I understand it, a lot of the concern about linking up HS2 and HS1 is that it’d involve the destruction of much of the Camden markets for the junction box underneath (in terms of a short link). And that a long link tunnel to and from OOC would be too expensive.

    Looking at the maps, I’m wondering whether an overland route would be possible. HS1 connects to the NLL, which as it stands connects to the WCML. Which is good for sleeper trains, but not fast connections.

    In contrast, say you do a small but simple connection west of West Hampstead station, pulling the trains up off the NLL and onto the Chiltern line. They then travel along that, taking another jump onto HS2 after West Ruislip.

    Looking up, I’d say the train transition would take 30 mins or so… With maybe 10 mins or so for HS2 to take the same journey. So, 20 mins extra time compared to a ‘short’ connection, but that’s almost certainly saved by the getting off, walking over, and getting on again.

    You’d likely be able to get one train per hour into the schedule… Most likely the best option would be a double 200m unit that goes up to Birmingham (maybe the 7th platform is the international one), splits there with two trains going up each leg. You could then have the trains splitting at Lille, one going to Paris, the other Amsterdam via Brussels.

    Looking up, Birmingham has two flights a day to Paris. Manchester three. One from Leeds. So this small service easily covers much of the demand, with capacity left over to divert flights down to Cologne and Germany. While hopefully not causing much of a problem with scheduling. Meanwhile, using the high speed networks you’d be able to run sleeper services connecting the UK to the major spanish cities.

    The one flaw with this is of course that you limit yourself to the UK loading gauge, but it’s a minor niggle in the grand scheme of things.

  8. MilesT says:

    Clearly the aspiration of “single seat” travel is very costly

    The low cost solution is properly coordinated timetables, through ticketing (including a free tube journey or above ground dedicated shuttlebus from St. Pancras to Euston with good luggage space, or maybe dedicated express shuttle from St. Pancras to Old Oak Common in the style of the Heathrow Express).

  9. Paul says:

    Passive provision for an onward HS connection from OOC would be very, very sensible. This link could in future go to HS1 North of St Pancras, or it could go somewhere else – perhaps South towards Croydon and Gatwick. Either way, it would support “levelling up” by addressing the London-centric constraint on the new railway.

    Putting passive provision in now feels like a no-brainer, but with the current hopeless mob in charge, it seems unlikely to happen!

    Worth noting too that there is an unused, fully grade separated link to HS1 going rusty in Southfleet. Making use of this would allow a new connection into HS1 without any disruption to existing services.

  10. Alex says:

    The best way to get people to choose the train over flying is to get fares down for turn-up-and-go passengers. It’s fine knowing you’re travelling on train X in 3 months time and getting a cheap fare for doing that but that’s not how travel is in reality.

    Also the country needs more east-west conventional lines case in point, I live in Rugby so I can go north to Birmingham, Crewe or south to London. That’s fine but if I want to go elsewhere I would benefit from a new direct line to Leicester, Peterborough or Matket Harborough as that’s where I actually want to go. The direct lines to those places closed in the 60s and the corridors were lost (the true folly of the Beeching plan) so to avoid a pathetic hour long journey to do just 17 miles I drive. (Hapf that time is the wait at Nuneaton as the trains miss one another by minutes there)

    • ianVisits says:

      Why would turn up and go fares reform result in more people switching to trains, considering that the turn up and go market is not a significant part of the airline market?

    • Alex says:

      Because that’s the bread and butter of ticketing. Sure you have commuters holding season tickets. As far as I’m concerned the ability to go into the booking office and buy a ticket to your destination there and then by any train is fundamental, especially if you have to travel at the last minute. You shouldn’t be penalised for doing that.

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