The West Coast problem: ‘not enough seats’, or ‘not enough empty seats’?
MVA Consultancy’s April 2012 Demand and Appraisal Report HS2 London – West Midlands included diagrams showing Passenger Travel (All Modes) and Total Passenger Travel by Rail in Great Britain in the period 1980 – 2010.
But, given the title of the report, there was surprisingly little discussion of rail demand in the London – West Midlands corridor. Beyond diagrams of all-day load factor, scant information was on offer about actual demand between origin and destination pairs.
MVA’s obfuscation of peak and off-peak demand is notable, given that HS2’s intention is to run 200-metre (rather than 400-metre) trains from London to Birmingham and Manchester across most of the day. Such trains would have fewer seats than the Pendolinos currently running between those cities.
Commercial airlines aim to maximise seat occupancy, with some low-cost carriers aiming for 90% or more. And according to French rail chief Guillaume Pepy, “we have a load factor of 83%, which is comparable with the low-cost airlines.”
Curiously, however, MVA report’s report for HS2 Ltd saw high seat occupancy as a problem, not a benefit.
[MVA report, section 3.2.11] In 2010 there were approximately 62,000 long distance passengers per day using inter-city trains on the southern section of the WCML. By 2037 long distance demand on the WCML is expected to approximately double. Although approximately 70% of Pendolino trains currently running on the WCML will have been lengthened to 11 cars, the average train loading at arrival/departure at London would have increased from 54% in 2010 to around 86%. This is an average figure, with trains during the peak times likely to have even higher loadings, many greater than 100%.
As can be seen from page 4 of Lord Ahmad’s letter to Lord Hollick, the Department for Transport seems to view load factors above 60% as undesirable. That implies an objective of running each 200-metre (550-seat) HS2 train with 220 empty seats (or more). To stop passengers ‘beginning to feel negative effects’, a full-length 400-metre HS2 train should run with 440 empty seats.
The seating provision of an 11-car Pendolino in its current configuration is 589. So, the MVA report suggested that without HS2, the average number of empty seats would fall from 270 in 2010, to 82 in 2037, and viewed that as a ‘problem’.
If the average 265-metre Pendolino carried 507 passengers in 2037, that would suggest those same passengers would occupy 71% of the 715 seats of a 260-metre IEP train. So, if MVA’s figures were correct, using IEP-type trains on the West Coast route — without a need for lineside or platform interventions — would result in a year 2037 load factor well below that claimed by Monsieur Pepy for current SNCF services.