Examination of Witnesses

High Speed Rail (Preparation) Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 2:00 pm on 11th July 2013.

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Richard Hebditch and Mike Hewitson gave evidence.

Photo of Annette Brooke Annette Brooke Chair of the Liberal Democrat Parliamentary Party 12:00 pm, 11th July 2013

I remind all hon. Members that questions should be limited to matters within the scope of the Bill and that we should stick to the timings in the programme motion, which the Committee has agreed. I hope I will not have to interrupt someone mid-sentence, but obviously I will do that if need be.

I welcome our new witnesses. For the record, please will they introduce themselves to the Committee with their name and title?

Richard Hebditch: I am Richard Hebditch, and I am campaigns director at the Campaign for Better Transport.

Mike Hewitson: I am Mike Hewitson, head of passenger issues at Passenger Focus.

Q 190190

Photo of Lilian Greenwood Lilian Greenwood Shadow Minister (Transport)

Good afternoon. What fares and ticketing policies would each of you like to see in place for the new line?

Mike Hewitson: For us, one of the big issues is the cost of fares. Typically, if you are going up the west coast main line and you walk up on the day and buy a ticket in peak time, you will pay a fortune. A single from London to Manchester is about £150. You can get a ticket for that same train, if you book weeks ahead, for £20. It is the sheer range of fares. If I am looking for anything, it is affordable flexibility. Quite what shape that takes remains to be seen, because how much HS2 will cost is one of the dark areas at the moment, and cost is quite fundamental from the passenger’s perspective.

After affordable flexibility, you have to have a simple, easy to understand structure. One of the big complaints that we get all the time from passengers is, “I simply do not know which fare to buy at what time.” It is about having a very simple structure with that element of flexibility, as I have said. I understand the use of demand management, airline-style, to get people on when there are seats, but one of the beauties and joys of rail is that “turn up and go” feel. If you put 20-minute frequencies on a route, why make me book 12 weeks in advance?

Richard Hebditch: It is also important that fares are part of the wider network. It needs to be part of an overall strategy towards the railways, which is about growing demand. You could remove the need for HS2 simply by whacking up the fares on the railway network and the west coast main line, but that does not meet  wider economic, environmental or social goals. It is important that HS2 is part of an overall strategy to encourage rail travel and ensure that railways are not simply seen as something for those on higher incomes and who are rich.

Q 191

Photo of Lilian Greenwood Lilian Greenwood Shadow Minister (Transport)

Richard, what steps have been taken to ensure that stations on the high-speed line are integrated with public transport and are accessible to pedestrians and cyclists?

Richard Hebditch: It is an issue that everyone is aware of, but it is not necessarily being taken very seriously. Part of that is about the location of stations. We are more concerned about the parkway-style stations, such as Sheffield Meadowhall, and whether they benefit cities. We would like to see stations located in city centres, so that they have more of a regeneration effect.

It is all about the extent to which high-speed rail is simply seen as a national transport issue. It is a local transport issue, but it is also a local regeneration and economic issue. We are a bit concerned about the extent to which we are looking at the structures in place in the cities and regions so that they can benefit from this.

Where there are links across a region, for example in the west midlands, the structures in place are quite confusing. In the west midlands, there is Centro, and I think you heard from Geoff Inskip on Tuesday. He is dealing with three local enterprise partnerships across his area and three local transport bodies. The question is whether they have the structures and capabilities in place to ensure that there is good access and that we benefit from the released capacity on the west coast main line as well.

Q 192

Photo of Lilian Greenwood Lilian Greenwood Shadow Minister (Transport)

Mr Hewitson, in your written evidence you referred to the potential for more local services. But public awareness about how the freed up capacity can be used seems to be really limited. Would you agree with that assessment and, if so, why do you think the case has not got through to the wider public?

Mike Hewitson: I absolutely agree. It is one of the lost opportunities. The sense is, “The Y does not go through my area so it is no good for me.” If you are in Milton Keynes, for instance, it does not, but look what we can do with the space that is freed up. What do you want that space to be? Do you want it for more commuting services for London? Do you want it for more direct trains to other places? What is important to you? Let us redesign the west coast timetable to fit that.

If we had that debate a bit more in public, people might see how some of the benefits of this railway could be spread out a bit. It has got locked into an issue of cost and speed, when in reality it is about the capacity. If it were framed about capacity there would be a different debate.

Q 193

Photo of Iain Stewart Iain Stewart Conservative, Milton Keynes South

Mr Hewitson, I would like to follow up your point about fares on HS2. I think I am right in saying that on the French TGV network, tickets are issued is entirely by reservation in advance.

Mike Hewitson: Yes.

Q 194

Photo of Iain Stewart Iain Stewart Conservative, Milton Keynes South

Is that something you would be concerned about on HS2?

Mike Hewitson: It is reservation in advance but you can book virtually up to the point of departure if any seats are left. I think that is one of the key differences. At the moment, it is 6 o’clock the night before, possibly midnight the night before. You cannot buy them on the day.

One of the difficulties we have is about flexibility. If you are on a business trip and it overruns by half an hour, it is a whole new ticket. We might be able to convert. In France you can turn up, in a sense. One of the oddities and some advice we have had from the industry was to buy two tickets and throw the one you do not use away. That cannot be a sensible use of capacity.

Q 195

Photo of Iain Stewart Iain Stewart Conservative, Milton Keynes South

To clarify, you would be content with an all-reservation system, provided it could be done up to a few hours before?

Mike Hewitson: I would rather a walk-up railway because I think that is one of the strengths. If it has to be, then if you can book up to the point of departure there is a compromise.

Q 196

Photo of Iain Stewart Iain Stewart Conservative, Milton Keynes South

When the Transport Committee considered ticketing, we were given to understand that the fare structure would not be dissimilar from the classic network’s.

Mike Hewitson: I hope it is dissimilar in the sense that it is simpler to understand.

Q 197

Photo of Iain Stewart Iain Stewart Conservative, Milton Keynes South

Well, there is a ticketing review going on generally. Is it still your understanding that HS2 will not have a premium fare structure?

Mike Hewitson: I do not know is the answer to that. One of the grey areas where we need some more clarity is how much it would be. As Richard said earlier, will they connect with existing networks? Will there be inter-availability or will it be a separate railway? That is another big area where passengers would welcome some additional clarity. Personally, I think it has to be. It has to be part of a national network rather than a railway on its own.

Q 198

Photo of Frank Dobson Frank Dobson Labour, Holborn and St Pancras

Can you confirm that virtually every survey of passenger concerns mentions the price of tickets? Secondly, do you seriously think that HS2 will not charge a substantial premium?

Mike Hewitson: Yes, cost—value for money—features there. It is usually in the top two. Punctuality and cost tend to flip around at times, but it is always there. Will it be a premium railway? I fear that it will be. You will be paying for the speed, but I suppose how much of a premium is the question and what impact that would have on fares on other routes. How will we have it as part of a co-ordinated network? It is no good having fares so expensive on HS2 that everyone stays on the conventional railway. Where is the benefit? You have to have people using it.

Richard Hebditch: I think you will also see a bit more competition in some ways as well. Whereas, at the moment, the west coast main line is very much one provider, you might see a bit more competition from the classic network with the high speed network. Obviously,  there is a role for the Government in terms of regulating the fares. Most fares at the moment are still regulated. We still see a strong role for Government in ensuring that fares are affordable—the walk-up, off-peak fares in particular.

Q 199

Photo of Frank Dobson Frank Dobson Labour, Holborn and St Pancras

If you think the west coast main line, as it is at present, will be sufficiently attractive in terms of time and will compete effectively with the new railway, why are we having the new railway?

Richard Hebditch: There is an issue about how HS2 has been sold. It has moved from, “We are spending x billion to save 20 minutes,” to, “We are spending x billion to tackle west coast main line capacity issues,” to, “We are spending x billion to reduce carbon from transport.” There are cheaper ways of doing all those individual things.

Although we are often quite critical of HS2, it will deliver—I hate using this phrase—the step change in the railways that will achieve a much wider range of benefits. That is what the benefit is. It is not simply about west coast main line capacity; it is about capacity more widely. It can do those things.

Q 200

Photo of Nicky Morgan Nicky Morgan Assistant Whip (HM Treasury)

We might have already exhausted this, but I want to ask about capacity. Perhaps I can start with you, Mike Hewitson. You talked about the need to have a debate. Take us further forward. How do we have that debate? What do passengers—the people you represent—want to hear about capacity, and how do you get across to them what services they will get? For example, they might get a seat on a service, which they do not get at the moment.

Mike Hewitson: We have done some initial research on what we called release capacities on the west coast main line. Basically, we went out and asked people in Coventry, “If you had a choice, what is your priority for extra services in your station? What would you like?” That was joint work with Network Rail to try to build up a model, so we can attach values to the different concepts. That is already there.

Similar work is going on with the second stage as well, so we can build up some options. When we have got something tangible, we can take it to passengers. Invariably, if you ask, “Do you want services to be sped up?” “Oh yes.” “Well, we are going to speed them up by taking your stop out.” “Oh no.” Unless you can provide that detail, it is very hard to have that debate.

We are convinced that if you want to get the best out of the existing railway, you have to ask the people who are using it what they want it to do, and then design the services to match. You have got to ask people to start with, then you need to test the propositions later. It is quite difficult at the moment because you are talking so far ahead. Asking people what kind of service they want in 15 or 20 years’ time is fraught with difficulties. It should be based on what they want now, and then you have to try to project that forward.

Q 201

Photo of Nicky Morgan Nicky Morgan Assistant Whip (HM Treasury)

This is a question for both of you. We heard a lot this morning and on Tuesday about connectivity, the importance of where HS2 will stop and how it will be connected. At the Nottinghamshire stop—the east midlands stop—it is going to be connected by tram. Do you have any views about the use of trams, light rail systems or anything else?

Mike Hewitson: Certainly, when we have looked at non-users, or potential users, it is always about convenience, and convenience is connections. It is, “How much of a hassle is it? If it is too much of a hassle, I will drive.” If you are going to have connections and tram links, they have to be pretty smooth and they have to work. They have to run late enough in the evenings and early enough in the mornings and weekends to provide that link.

That is why, traditionally, railways have gone into city or town centres, which are the hubs of the transport network. Personally, I would like them to go into Sheffield because you would get more benefits out of that. If you cannot and there are very good reasons why not, you have to convince people about how everything is going to work around it. It has got to become a real hub.

Richard Hebditch: I think what trams can do is offer certainty in a way that a bus service cannot. Obviously, buses are a vital part of the public transport system, but people are more worried about the certainty—whether they will be able to catch them—and the frequency of service, than they are with trams. The ease of changing between different modes is important.

Q 202

Photo of Graeme Morrice Graeme Morrice Labour, Livingston

How do both of you see high-speed rail fitting in with a wider transport strategy for the United Kingdom?

Richard Hebditch: For us, the way the economy is changing, the way the environment is changing and the likely rise in the price of energy implies a move away from a car-based transport system to more public transport. Because some 83% of journeys are by car, a small change from that, compared with the 9% of journeys by train, implies a big growth in rail demand. Over the past 10 years, car traffic has actually fallen by a small amount and we have seen a 50% growth in rail traffic. That is likely to carry on into the future.

If you think about where the jobs are likely to be in future, they will often be in cities—the service-based economy. If you think about the rising cost of energy, including oil, and the need to reduce carbon emissions, all that implies a growth in rail. We think that that will carry on into the future. That implies that we need to ensure that high-speed rail is part of that wider national transport strategy and is not simply a discrete railway, separate from wider transport issues, local transport and the rest of the railway network.

Mike Hewitson: I do not think that I would add anything to what Richard has said.

Q 203

Photo of Graeme Morrice Graeme Morrice Labour, Livingston

Okay. Would there be greater benefits to the UK if the project were to extend into Scotland?

Richard Hebditch: We have not really looked at that. I guess it is about how much benefit in terms of journey time savings there is for the extra cost. You have only got significant journey time savings to Scotland from phases 1 and 2. Whether the additional benefits would be worth it remains to be seen.

Mike Hewitson: From a pure passenger perspective, yes of course—more links to more places. If I had to put a taxpayer’s hat on, I might echo some of Richard’s comments about the costs and the numbers and so on. From a pure passenger perspective, having a wider network with more choice and opportunities has obvious advantages.

Q 204

Photo of Caroline Spelman Caroline Spelman Conservative, Meriden

You mentioned the issue of connecting up with other key parts of the transport network. At present, west coast main line trains do not run early enough in the morning to meet flights at Birmingham international airport. That cannot be a capacity problem, because it is off-peak. Because it is a night-flying restricted airport, the first flights out of Birmingham are at 6.10 am, and there are no trains to get people there. Would you envisage the new high-speed rail being able to help with that situation?

Mike Hewitson: Hopefully. On one of the issues, it could well be that they do the engineering work overnight. If you are running an early morning airport connection, you eat into that engineering time. If you do not do it overnight, you have to do it at weekends. It is matter of balance. I would have thought that, with a brand new railway that is designed to be easily maintained, there are opportunities.

Q 205

Photo of Caroline Spelman Caroline Spelman Conservative, Meriden

Could I ask a supplementary question about ticketing? Outside London, in the regions, there is always an aspiration about the possibility of through trains from those regions on to the continent. Clearly, Birmingham airport could be a point of embarkation in terms of clearing passport control. Would you envisage through-ticketing arrangements to the continent? If you have not been asked this question, what do you think about the HS2-HS1 link?

Mike Hewitson: Through-ticketing—yes, you can get through-tickets now, in a sense. You can get combination tickets from UK domestic stations that are under international ticket rules rather than UK ticket rules. You have to ask the question—it is quite hard to find them on websites, but they exist. An extension of that is eminently feasible.

As for direct services, again, it strengthens the attraction of rail. The more journeys you can do by rail as a passenger group, the better. Again, there are cost issues in terms of going through the tunnel and so on, but it is a very attractive proposition. You get people using rail for one journey—for a holiday—and you may bring them on to rail for other journeys during their normal lives.

Richard Hebditch: On the HS2-HS1 link, there is some evidence about the business case being helped if there are some domestic services as well, in terms of justifying the cost of tunnelling or whatever the solution happens to be. If you are able to run domestic services from Kent up to the midlands and so on, that potentially improves the benefit-cost ratio as well.

Q 206

Photo of Nicholas Dakin Nicholas Dakin Opposition Whip (Commons)

Do you have any observations on the effectiveness, capacity or capability of HS2 Ltd?

Richard Hebditch: We engage with them on the environmental issues, in discussions with other environmental groups, and they are a relatively easy operation to engage with. It is difficult for them always to respond to all the demands placed on them. I know that you have asked this question of others as well.

The organisation has grown very rapidly and for us it is often very focused around the community engagement work that they are doing, through the Chilterns in particular. I understand how difficult it is for them to grow so rapidly. They have been a good organisation for  us to work with, but I understand the difficulties they have. If I were campaigning against HS2, I would try to make HS2 Ltd’s life as difficult as possible so that it made mistakes, so I sympathise with the challenges they face.

Mike Hewitson: I echo that; they have a difficult job. In terms of our engagement, yes, we have engaged. We would certainly like to engage more on certain issues, but that is as much up to us to ask and push as it is for them. There is certainly no objection on their side. The work that we have done with them so far we have done well, in the sense that we do not have a concern about being closed out. When we get into some of the more detailed discussions, I think we will have a better feel.

Q 207

Photo of Nicholas Dakin Nicholas Dakin Opposition Whip (Commons)

How responsive have you found HS2 Ltd and the Government to ideas and suggestions coming forward in this process, either at national level or at community forum level?

Mike Hewitson: The research that we did on the release of capacity was after discussions with the Government and at the prompt of Government. Yes, that has fed in there, and our work on passenger priorities is reflected through there. What we are doing is being listened to.

Q 208

Photo of Karen Lumley Karen Lumley Conservative, Redditch

You talked about Meadowhall and the issues facing that. Do you see any issues facing the Curzon Street site in Birmingham?

Richard Hebditch: It is a city centre location site. I know that there has been criticism of it, but for us I think it is near enough to the city centre to work as a city centre station. It is close to Birmingham New Street and to the shops and offices at the centre. It seems to us a reasonable solution.

Q 209

Photo of Frank Dobson Frank Dobson Labour, Holborn and St Pancras

In your discussions with High Speed 2, what have they said about premium rates for tickets?

Richard Hebditch: We have not discussed that issue with them, I am afraid.

Q 210

Photo of Frank Dobson Frank Dobson Labour, Holborn and St Pancras

My other question is: why do you reject the proposals from 51m to improve the services at vastly less expense than the £50 billion for HS2?

Mike Hewitson: I think there are things that you can do for the existing railway, and I think you can get more out of it, but there is a finite capacity as to how many trains you can actually run per hour. If you look at the projections, they say that we will reach that. The benefits of the new railway line—I will call it the new railway line, rather than high speed, because it is about capacity for us—are the step change in capacity, the extra trains you can get down that line and the extra trains on the other track.

The danger of just looking at tiding us over—adding a bit more—is that you put an awful lot of stress on the existing infrastructure. I have been around long enough to remember the modernisation of the west coast main line, and it was a horrible time for passengers. The weekend market was decimated. You look at it now and it is a popular railway, which is drawing in new business.

Building a new house around you is a very difficult thing to do, and I think we need to add that into the debate as well. It would be quite hard and expensive to do an awful lot of track work and everything that has been talked about to get more down at the same time as trying to run a service. The step change for capacity and the level of disruption lead us to the conclusion that the new railway line is the better long-term answer, but it will cost more.

Richard Hebditch: It also assumes that the current west coast main line meets the needs that we want it to meet as well. There is not enough capacity for freight, but there is also the fact that it is a very London-focused railway: it is fine if you want to go from London to the north-west, or if you want to go back into London, but it does not provide good connections between the cities and towns along the route, and much more could be done to develop that. One of the benefits of High Speed 2 is the potential for it to link the cities of the midlands and the north much better. You have heard about the slow travel times between the cities. That, for us, is one of the benefits that HS2 can potentially offer. It is not the only way of doing that; obviously, other investments such as the northern hub are vital, as well as some of the reopenings—things like the reopening of Todmorden curve, which will halve journey times from Manchester to Burnley. That kind of thing is also really important.

Q 211

Photo of Martin Vickers Martin Vickers Conservative, Cleethorpes

Mr Hebditch, in your written evidence on carbon emissions you say that there would be considerable savings over 60 years, but that if the wrong decisions are made it could increase emissions. Have any wrong decisions been taken up to now and which potential wrong decisions do we need to avoid?

Richard Hebditch: One potential wrong decision is about the location of stations. Sheffield Meadowhall is potentially not the right location in carbon terms. If you are developing these stations outside city centres to be based around car travel to them they will potentially add to emissions. Another issue might be about the speed of the trains: there is a good argument to be made for having lower speeds initially, particularly as our energy supply is not decarbonised to any great extent, although you might have faster speeds further down the line when there is more decarbonisation. Those are the kind of issues that are addressed. Then there is the issue of pricing overall, relative to flying and driving. If HS2 is priced at a premium—we hope it will not be—and if that is much higher than the cost of flying, you will not get the benefits in carbon terms that you could otherwise do.

Q 212

Photo of Caroline Spelman Caroline Spelman Conservative, Meriden

Just for a minute, I was reminded of that announcement that is made on the high-speed train in France, “On atteint la grande vitesse.” We have arrived at our top speed.

I wanted to ask you about passenger experience because this is very important for your contribution. I was reminded the other day of the problem for foreign visitors in this country, when a French friend complained that it is difficult for foreign visitors to understand the different train operators on each line. Like the rest of us, when they look online at ticket prices they tend to go for the cheapest ticket. Who would not? But what they often do not realise is that some of those journey times  can be double. For example, if you catch the midland main line service that goes via Northampton, it can take you two hours or more to get to London; if you use the west coast main line it should be an hour and 10 minutes from Birmingham International. Very often those visitors are caught out once they are on the train—I have been there and there is not much mercy given if you have the wrong ticket on the wrong train. What could be done in terms of transferability or making it very clear to people when there is differential pricing, so that they are not caught out?

Mike Hewitson: It starts on the websites and on the ticket machines. They need to be able to do what an old-fashioned ticket clerk would have done, which is ask a few questions and sell you the right ticket. At the moment, particularly with ticket machines, it is entirely down to you asking the right questions. If you do not know what to ask, you get the wrong ticket. That is part of the problem. You could have a blue ticket on a blue train only and a red ticket on a red train only, but it is a real problem. You can get some very good deals, but you have to understand what you are buying. There is just not enough information at the moment. The industry has some suggestions and solutions, things that are being talked about as part of the Government’s fares and ticket review, and they will hopefully point in that direction. If you know what you are buying, then you are fine, but if you are not sure what you are buying, you are in trouble.

That is magnified by a real concern we have about the railways’ attitude towards people who have made mistakes. There is a very fine line between making a mistake and being dealt with as if you are intending to defraud. There is just not enough discretion. Foreign visitors are a prime example. Suddenly being asked to cough several hundred pounds on a train for a simple mistake is just not right. There needs to be some means of taking them out of that situation to begin with, but then dealing with them with that element of discretion. That is a real challenge for the industry.

Q 213

Photo of Caroline Spelman Caroline Spelman Conservative, Meriden

Are you aware that because the national exhibition centre is at Birmingham International, this is a significant problem for foreign visitors travelling from London to the NEC?

Mike Hewitson: Yes, we see it from Gatwick to London and from London to places like that. It has to be simpler. If you make it simpler for domestic use you will make it simpler for international use.

Photo of Lilian Greenwood Lilian Greenwood Shadow Minister (Transport)

Is there time for a quick question?

Photo of Annette Brooke Annette Brooke Chair of the Liberal Democrat Parliamentary Party

We are down to seconds. How quick can you be?

Q 214

Photo of Lilian Greenwood Lilian Greenwood Shadow Minister (Transport)

My question is for Mr Hewitson. Do you expect HS2 to feature in the fares and ticketing review and do you think there is anything to be learnt from HS1’s fare structure?

Mike Hewitson: I think it will be too early for it to feature in the fares and ticketing review. Can we predict what the situation will be in 20 years time? I think it needs to be factored into structural questions—

Photo of Annette Brooke Annette Brooke Chair of the Liberal Democrat Parliamentary Party

Order. I am afraid that that brings us to the end of the time allotted for the Committee to ask questions of this panel. I thank you on behalf of the whole Committee.