Fast track record: How Britain’s new high-speed line keeps the trains on time

It’s now ten years since the first part of High Speed 1(HS1) became operational, and nearly four years since domestic services started using the line. It’s an opportune moment for taking stock of developments and seeing what the future holds. John W E Helm visited  HS1 HQ in Euston and spoke to its chief executive Nicola Shaw.

Firstly,  a few words to explain a somewhat complicated set up:

The first (southern) section of the 68 mile double track high-speed line from London to the Channel Tunnel was completed in September 2003, followed by the second (northern) section through to London St Pancras in November 2007. International Eurostar passenger services used the line from the start, but Southeastern’s domestic ‘Javelin’ trains only began full operations in December 2009.

The concession to operate, manage and maintain the line, as well as its four stations (St Pancras International, Stratford International, Ebbsfleet International & Ashford International) runs until 2040 and was awarded to HS1 Ltd in 2009, then a subsidiary of the state-owned London & Continental Railway Ltd. In November 2010, the concession was sold to a Canadian consortium comprising Borealis Infrastructure and Ontario Teachers’ Pension Plan.

HS1 charges access fees for track and station usage (with assets returning to state ownership upon concession expiry in 2040). However, management and maintenance of the line and its stations is entrusted to a special Network Rail subsidiary, Network Rail (High Speed), previously known as Network Rail (CTRL), though the international zones within the four stations are managed by, or for, Eurostar.

Year on year growth

Nicola Shaw, HS1’s Chief Executive Officer, sums up some of the major achievements so far to LTT: “Since completion of High Speed 1 in 2007, international passenger numbers have risen 19% from 8.3m to 9.9m in 2012, and the domestic ‘Javelin’ results are even better, up 25% from 7.2m passengers to 9m between 2010 and 2012.

“HS1 also carried an additional 1,000 trains over the last two years, and we consider our handling of the additional traffic generated by the 2012 Olympics to be one of our finest achievements.  St Pancras has been the nation’s most favourite station for six consecutive years, and we can also boast one of the best performances regimes in the world, with infrastructure attributed train delays of less than four seconds.”

HS1 is keen to attract new open access entrants: “Deutsche Bundesbahn is still planning to run a London- Frankfurt/Amsterdam using two Siemens Velaro D sets, which will combine at Brussels to form a single 400m long train for the London section. DB obtained IGC (Intergovernmental Commission) authorisation to run through the Channel Tunnel only in June, but there are still technical problems to resolve, as the ‘Velaros’ are not yet authorised to operate either in multiple, or outside Germany.

“Prospective international operators face non technical barriers as well, like border and security issues, for instance. It is unlikely that the new DB service will be operational before 2016.”

HS1 also carries a small amount of (non high speed) freight. DB Schenker operates two return night services between London (Barking) and Wroclaw in Poland. However, there are no high speed freight services on the line yet, though the EuroCarex consortium (which includes SNCF, Eurotunnel and various air freight interests) ran a trial high speed TGV postal set through from Paris and Lyon to London St Pancras back in March 2012, and its business case is now being progressed.

“The freight side is continually under review,” says Shaw. “Unlike slower conventional freight trains, high speed freight would run at the same speeds as the passenger trains and could easily be slotted in and moved by day. For time-sensitive and lightweight cargos it is ideal, and competitive with both air freight and road haulage. Potential markets include parcels, newsprint, spare parts, medical supplies and other urgently required non bulky products. However, HS1 is unable to accommodate heavier traffics due to the severity of some of the gradients.

“Unlike the rest of the national rail network, capacity on HS1 is not a problem. We are only running at 50% even during the peak periods. However, obtaining timetable paths can take up to two years. RailNetEurope offers a ‘one stop solution’ to prospective international operators, smoothing out and speeding up things by cutting out having to deal with many different infrastructure bodies.”

Chief executive Nicola Shaw joined HS1 from FirstGroup where she had been director of the European bus division from 2005 to 2010.
Chief executive Nicola Shaw joined HS1 from FirstGroup where she had been director of the European bus division from 2005 to 2010.

Even so, compared to other transport modes, access to run on HS1 remains a bureaucratic and lengthy process, as a new operator needs to obtain 11 separate authorisations from six different bodies.

More national than international

It might surprise some readers to know that Southeastern Trains, not Eurostar, is the dominant operator on HS1, and by a considerable margin. Although the line was conceived as an international link, it is the domestic traffic that provides its ‘bread & butter,’ whether that is measured in number of train paths, or the proceeds from track access charges.

These access charges consist of two main types: The investment recovery charge (IRC), levied to recover the capital costs of building the railway, and the track operations, maintenance & renewals charge (OMRC) which is self-explanatory. Between them, IRC and OMRC account for 80% of the main revenue stream.

Southeastern dominance is self evident from the following breakdown of the main revenue streams for the financial year 2011/12 (Southeastern’s IRC contribution being more than twice that of Eurostar):

HS1 revenue split, 2011/2 £m %
Domestic (SER) IRC   97 36
International (Eurostar)IRC   44 16
Track OMRC (all operators)   73 27
Traction power charges   11   4
Station charges   21   8
Retail & Advertising   17   6
Car parking     5   2
Other activities     2   1
Total 270


Traffic-wise, Southeastern predominance is even more pronounced: HS1 provided 72,026 train paths during the 2012/13 financial year, the ‘Javelin’/’Eurostar’ split being 53,615/ 18,411 (almost 3:1).

Shaw unravels the some of the complexities of the charging system: “Both IRC and OMRC are paid quarterly in advance, and are RPI indexed. Chargeable journey time is based per minute per train (excluding station stopping times) spent on HS1, multiplied by the number of train paths in the working timetable. The IRC charge for both ‘Eurostar’ (class 373) and ‘Javelin’ (class 395) is currently capped at £81.32 per minute per train (at September 2012 prices and subject to indexation). The corresponding figure for the OMRC charge is £56.38 per train per minute for a ‘Eurostar’, as against £43.58 per train per minute for a ‘Javelin.’

“OMRC charges are periodically reviewed by the ORR, and the first control period ends on 31 March 2015. However, IRC charges are not subject to periodic review, though we do offer substantial (time-limited) discounts to stimulate certain traffics. At the moment, for example, the St Pancras International to Marne-la-Vallée service (for Disneyland) enjoys a 75% IRC discount, and the ‘Eurostars’ to Brussels Midi have benefitted from a 60% – 40% four year discount applicable from December 2012.”

However, freight is charged on a completely different basis: “Freight does not pay the IRC charge. Conventional freight on HS1 is charged on distance travelled, not time spent on the line, and it only pays the avoidable costs. Basically, these are the operations, maintenance and renewal costs which would not be incurred in the absence of freight train working. Any shortfall is met by the freight supplement levied on the domestic TOC (ie Southeastern Trains).”

The bill is in turn picked up by the government.

HS2 & the future

At some future stage, HS1 will connect with HS2 (assuming construction of the latter goes ahead), and it is possible that both operations might be combined. Shaw maintains that the single track connecting spur between both high-speed lines (capable of handling three trains per hour, each way) will be adequate to meet traffic requirements, and dismisses any shortcomings on this score.

Shaw describes the ‘Euston Cross’ proposals of Lords Bradshaw & Berkeley – to create an alternative London terminal  to the one proposed – as ‘interesting’, but thinks a more practical solution is required.

All these developments, however, are a long way down the line.

Shaw previously worked for the Strategic Rail Authority (Managing Director, Operations, 2001-5), and First Group (Director, European Bus Division, 2005-10). She is also a member of DfT’s (Rail) Franchising Advisory Panel set up in April.

631/Sep 13

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