An HS2 train crossing a modern bridge countryside

No first class seat and shorter trains, the HS2 cuts that were not expected

A view of a bridge. CGI of the current design of the River Blythe Viaduct HS2

A British newspaper claims to have seen documents from within the UK government. The internal memo suggests that passengers might not be sitting so comfortably on the HS2 high speed railway project. The cancellation of much of the planned HS2 network has led to unintended consequences, and a squeeze on passenger carrying capacity. Officials are looking at ways to avoid that embarrassment on the new Birmingham – London route.

It is not the fault of HS2. However, a combination of factors may come together to actually reduce passenger carrying capacity between London, Birmingham and Manchester. Once the long awaited high speed line opens, the intention is to direct long-distance traffic onto the new line. However, with the UK government cancelling the line north of Birmingham, an internal memo has flagged up problems with meeting demand on the remainder of the multi-billion pound line.

Trains shorter than the current formations

The famously pink Financial Times newspaper has published a report which claims to have seen internal UK government documents. They examine the problem of reduced capacity after the HS2 railway opens. The issue is not entirely unexpected. At a recent meeting of the cross-party Transport Select Committee, where elected members of parliament can cross examine senior industry figures and their own parliamentary colleagues, the problems were aired.

Sitting in front of the committee, Sir Jon Thompson, executive chair of HS2, said there would be fewer seats on the London to Manchester service. Reported on the television news service of ITVX, he explained that the trains specified for the HS2 service are actually shorter than the current formations that use the existing West Coast Main Line. HS2 is being built specifically to address capacity issues on this, the busiest mixed traffic route in Europe.

160 fewer seats – every hour

Sir Jon explained that the 200-metre long HS2 trains were shorter (by 60 metres) than the eleven-coach formations of ‘Pendolino’ tilting trains currently operated. Shorter trains equal fewer seats. That would be no problem – if the original plan were still in place to couple pairs of HS2 trains together. However, that’s not going to work, now that there’s no HS2 line north of Birmingham. Existing stations are not big enough, and extending platforms is a notoriously expensive proposition – even if it can be implemented.

Nighttime overhead view of viaducts being built in Birmingham
HS2 taking shape. Curzon Street Viaducts under construction in Birmingham

The whole point of HS2 is to take long distance passenger traffic off the WCML. If that is still to work, and Manchster is to be served at least as well as it is today, then more seats need to be found on HS2 trains that will have to use the WCML infrastructure to reach their destination. The internal government documents, reported by the FT, claim there would actually be fewer seats available once operations start on HS2. The newspaper says there would only be 1,530 seats available per hour between London and Manchester. Today there are 1,690.

No stations long enough for even longer trains

Solutions aired in the select committee and in the documents seen by the Finacial Times, include reforming the HS2 train sets by adding coaches to roughly match the length of the Pendolino fleet. This was actually a solution implemented early in the working life of the Pendolino fleet, when patronage of the London – Birmingham – Manchester route increased well beyond expectations.

Longer trains would however be expensive to procure, and cause problems for the ‘tethered’ operations model. No station on the planned HS2 route is designed for 500m-long trains. Thethered pairs would be around 100m shorter, if a 400m passenger train can be described as shorter. The existing network, north of Birmingham certainly does not have any stations with platforms long enough.

Every journey starts with a single step

A less expensive quick-fix solution suggests scrapping any first-class or premium seating provision. That would just about equal the existing capacity per train, but it would make HS2 a fast, but no frills option between London and Birmingham. It would also mark a significant step down in choice for Manchester passengers, and interferes with the business case for HS2. It seems unlikely the service could charge a premium if all that is on offer is a low-cost level of travelling experience.

All this rather defeats the purpose of providing a step-change in capacity for the UK network. Government sources have responded to the reports, claiming that ‘first class’ is still on the agenda. The Department for Transport responded with a short statement to that effect. “The contract to design and build HS2 trains includes both standard and first-class areas for passengers”, they said to the FT.

However, there remains one issue, not addressed by either the media nor the government. From the buffers at Birmingham Curzon Street or London Old Oak Common, your seat in Coach A could be the best part of two laps of an Olympic running track down the platform. Comfortable footwear required. Hopefully there’s a comfortable seat after that trek, no matter what designated class.

Further reading:

Author: Simon Walton

Simon Walton is UK correspondent for RailTech.com and Railfreight.com

5 comments op “No first class seat and shorter trains, the HS2 cuts that were not expected”

David Sands|31.01.24|15:52

Well done, everyone!

Peter Lee|31.01.24|16:50

Yet more dumbing down Time it was scrapped completely and a much better return found easily elsewhere on the rail network. Second-rate trains make no sense at all on what is supposedly a premier line.

Brian Jones|31.01.24|17:54

How about Chiltern using the Blue Pullman HST hired from LSL set as a “First Class only” service between Moor Street Birmingham and London Marylebone.This would fill the niche for customers who value comfort over speed and I am convinced it would be a winner.

Nigel Lovell|03.02.24|14:24

Nigel Lovell
Decades ago, as a boy, I remember watching the First Class only Bristol Pullman running non-stop, I think, between Bristol Temple Meads (and Bath?) and London Paddington on a weekday morning, and back again in the evening. A service like that between Birmingham and London running on HS2 track, say, every two hours every weekday,
would provide that premium service, whilst creating spare capacity on other (“non-business” trains).

Joachim Falkenhagen|05.02.24|20:48

Adding another train every hour or just at peak time would solve any capacity issues.

However, do existing trains from Machester on the WCML also carry passengers between Birmingham and London, that would in future not use that capacity?

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