TechNote: Why is Staffordshire’s proposed HS2 service such a poor offering?

All express passenger trains on the West Coast Main Line (WCML) are currently operated by the Train Operating Company (TOC) Avanti West Coast, who were awarded the franchise to provide those services by the Government after having beaten the tender submitted by the former franchise holder, Virgin Trains.

Avanti provides a twice-hourly Manchester-Stoke-London service during the day, as well as an hourly Liverpool-Stafford-London service, plus a less frequent Manchester-Stafford-London service. These services are operated using Pendolino rolling stock.

Once HS2 Phase 1 is complete it will enable ‘classic compatible’ trains i.e., trains that are capable of operating on both HS2 and Network Rail tracks, to run from Euston to the end of HS2 Phase 1 at Fradley, near Lichfield, then onto a section of track known as the Handsacre Link. This link connects HS2 to the WCML at Handsacre, south of Rugeley, so potentially allows an hourly train service from London to Stafford, Stoke and Macclesfield to be included in the HS2 timetable.

Immediately HS2 services commence, the West Coast franchise currently held by Avanti will cease to exist. All Pendolino (or equivalent) express train services between London, Liverpool and Manchester serving Stoke and Stafford will then be withdrawn. There are 3 reasons for this:

1) The main purpose in building HS2 is to free up capacity on Network Rail lines, thereby allowing more local and regional services to operate and to provide the opportunity for freight to transfer from road to rail. The Government will not issue a new franchise to any TOC, or even an Open Access Licence, if that TOC intends to run express trains to London utilising the very capacity that the Government has spent billions of pounds in releasing by taking other express trains off the WCML. If it did issue any such licence, that would make building HS2 a pointless exercise.

2) For the first 15 years of HS2 operation (recent reports suggest as little as 5 years), HS2 Ltd and the incumbent TOC that has had its West Coast franchise withdrawn (currently Avanti) will run HS2 services as a ‘joint venture’. This arrangement is designed to compensate the TOC in exchange for relinquishing its West Coast franchise.

3) Neither HS2 Ltd nor the TOC will operate alternative express services on Network Rail lines because those services would compete with their own HS2 services. To make the HS2 business case viable it is imperative that as many passengers as possible travel on HS2. Any extraction of business to other services weakens the case for building HS2.

For Staffordshire that means:

a) We will have no express services (equivalent to the current Pendolinos) to London on Network Rail lines, no matter how much capacity is released by HS2.

b) The only express service to London will be the hourly HS2 classic compatible service that calls at Stafford and Stoke, then terminates at Macclesfield.

c) There will be a much reduced-frequency express service to London than that currently enjoyed; only 1 train per hour instead of 3-4. Stoke and Macclesfield also lose their Pendolino services to Manchester, and Stafford loses its Liverpool/Manchester Pendolino services.

Even that reduction in services, significant as it is, is not the worst-case scenario, because although the indicative HS2 timetable shows that the Stafford/Stoke/Macclesfield HS2 train will run from day 1 of HS2 operating, that timetable is based on all HS2 services to every destination starting from Euston.  In January 2021 it was announced that Euston HS2 station, which originally had a theoretic capacity of 18 HS2 trains per hour, will be scaled back from 11 to only 10 platforms and therefore won’t be able to handle as many HS2 trains.

In addition to that capacity reduction, Euston is not expected to be ready until 3-5 years after commencement of HS2 services, so trains will originate/terminate at Old Oak Common station, which has only 6 platforms.

The consequence of that is that capacity is severely reduced further and some HS2 services will not be able to run. The question is which ones? Will it be those to Birmingham, Manchester, Liverpool, Preston, Sheffield, Leeds, Newcastle, Glasgow/Edinburgh or…… Macclesfield? It’s almost certain our service to Staffordshire will be the first to be sacrificed once a restricted HS2 is operating from Old Oak Common.

Our HS2 service is further threatened by the Stone Railhead/IMB-R. The intention is to run the Macclesfield HS2 service between Stafford and Stoke along the Norton Bridge to Stone line. That’s exactly where HS2 Ltd is proposing to build the Railhead/IMB-R. That means that once Phase 2a is operational, all infrastructure supply trains conveying maintenance materials to the IMB-R will use the Norton Bridge to Stone line. Those trains create capacity problems on that line because of the complex and time-consuming conflicting moves they need to undertake in order to enter and exit the IMB-R.

If the Macclesfield service is cut from the initial HS2 timetable it will be almost impossible to have it re-inserted when Euston becomes available and capacity on HS2 increases, because the risk of the IMB-R’s supply trains interfering with HS2 trains and causing delay to the very tight timetable will be too great. Therefore, the IMB-R will be the cause of us not having our HS2 service reinstated into the timetable.

That will be disastrous for Staffordshire’s economic future and is one of the reasons why it’s imperative that we move the Railhead/IMB-R away from the Norton Bridge to Stone line.

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