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.