14 November 2010

HS1 Sold

The national media here in the UK do not really understand a number of aspects of the national railway network and accordingly when a news story is made that concerns these, only a light dusting of coverage is made. The sale of our only high-speed railway line to the Canadians was one such event. It made the papers but not in the "government sells more of our family silver to Johnny Foreigner" as would have happened had Royal Mail been flogged to, say, the Indians.

Which is surprising as HS2 (London-Birmingham) has been extensively reported in all newspapers - especially the locals in whose area the line is to pass. At a time when we commemorate two train crash anniversaries and report on pending prosecutions over safety failures, I've not read any articles detailing how selling HS1 (London St. Pancras-Channel Tunnel) to a consortium of Canadian Teachers' Pensions and Borealis Infrastructure for a 30-year concession could affect safety.

That's probably because it won't (though they wouldn't stop the red tops from stating otherwise) because despite recent sombre anniversaries, the state of the national railway is in excellent condition - far removed from a decade ago. The amount Network Rail has spent to ensure this condition is open to criticism (not least its recent dividend payment to shareholders), but throwing money at a problem can occasionally bare fruit and in its most basic term, this, along with improved working conditions, has seen HS1, along with the rest of the rail network, as safe as it can be. Network Rail will also continue to physically maintain the track and signals along HS1 in a deal that ends in 2047, though the infrastructure company would answer to the new HS1 Limited, not the government and would be required to pay out the first £3 million in compensation to train operators as a result of poor performance that it can be blamed for.

We shouldn't get hung up on the line's performance though as it really is the jewel in Network Rail's crown: the average delay to any train on HS1 (which includes both Eurostar and Southeastern services) is currently just 7.04 seconds. An aspiration exists to reduce this to just 6 seconds.

What will the new HS1 Limited company get for its £2.1 billion? Well, they have full operational control over the line with absolutely no direct government subsidy of any kind. We understand the only guaranteed cash to come indirectly from the DfT will be the guarantee to buy Southeastern's 1,024 paths used by their Class 395 'Javelin' trains currently. HS1 will play a key role in promoting rail's lead in reducing carbon emissions as more air passengers choose to travel out of the UK by train. This is happening now, albeit at a rate more sedate than is forecast when new destinations are added, being provided by new operators, such as Deutsche Bahn.

Plans are afoot to have wireless Internet installed, with transmission points located along the length of HS1 so that equipped trains travelling along its 68 miles can offer this to passengers. It is seen as being a massive boon in attracting business travel in first class. Such travel and its associated price tag actually help in ensuring leisure travel is kept more affordable and that Eurostar's £59 return to Paris/Brussels continues to be offered. It is likely new operators to the route will follow a similar business model, provided the infrastructure is in place.

In the longer term, inter-modal traffic is expected to rise, with passengers travelling to St. Pancras using HS2 to Euston and then onto, say, Geneva (a proposed route by Eurostar) or Frankfurt (mooted by DB) or even to towns and cities in France using their domestic TGV network. Rumours that new services would quickly maximise the line's capacity have been strongly denied by HS1 Limited's MD, Paul Chapman, who believes the introduction of DB's full timetable in around 4 years would still afford 25% capacity for other operators and freight companies.

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