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HS2: with passenger numbers averaging 96% of pre-Covid levels, and growing, we need more rail capacity in future, not less

In response to reports that HS2 Phase 2 between Birmingham and Manchester may be scrapped, the Railway Industry Association (RIA) has been reviewing the Department for Transport (DfT) data on rail passenger numbers, which shows that passenger numbers today are significantly higher than when HS2 was originally approved in 2012, and also shows positive news on the return to rail since the COVID pandemic.

From April 2022 to March 2023 overall rail passenger numbers were the same as in 2012, when the UK Government first confirmed support for HS2. Rail ridership since April 2023 has been around 15% higher than when HS2 was approved, with the original business case focusing on the need for extra capacity for a growing railway.

Rail passenger numbers have continued to rise as we come out of the pandemic. The DfT figures, which include the new ridership on the Elizabeth line, show that over the last year average daily passenger levels – when compared with 2019-20, which up until the effect of Covid had the highest ridership on record – have risen from 83% in calendar year 2022 Quarter 4, to 91% in 2023 Q1, to 96% in 2023 Q2 and Q3. In April this year, passenger levels had reached over 100% on 14 out of the month’s 30 days. 


Darren Caplan, Chief Executive of the Railway Industry Association, commented:

“One of the reasons cited by critical politicians for scrapping HS2 Phase 2 is that passenger numbers are significantly down and people will not travel by train in future. This is plain wrong, and all of us associated with the railway industry should be out there publicly refuting this assertion. In fact, today’s passenger levels are already significantly higher than when the business case for HS2 was approved, and have been growing back strongly since the pandemic.

“Using the DfT’s own statistics, which includes the phenomenal success of the Elizabeth Line, it is clear that passenger numbers are returning to close to pre-Covid levels – and we should remember the pandemic only ended in 2022. In the last six months, passenger numbers have been averaging 96% of pre-Covid levels, despite strikes and poor service levels on some parts of the network, and including the quieter summer months.

“In short, passengers have been returning in droves around the country and there is no evidence this trend upwards will not continue in future. With a growing population, and a generally agreed need to level-up and decarbonise, now is clearly not the time for the Government to be scrapping major project like HS2 Phase 2, the main benefit of the scheme being it frees up much-needed capacity on the West Coast, Midlands and East Coast Mainlines for the increasing numbers of passengers we are going to see in the years ahead.”

Speaking to Radio 4 Today at the weekend, Sir John Armitt, Chair of the National Infrastructure Commission, said: “

Curtailing HS2 “would be a tragedy”. “In Birmingham we have already seen the consequences with major investment, 20,000 new jobs predicted and 2,000 new homes predicted. But what we have to do is get a grip on the costs.”

“You look at whether you have done some gold-plating. Railway engineers always want to do the absolute ideal and you have to challenge that and ask whether that is absolutely essential – can we silver-plate this rather than gold-plate it? You might slow it down a bit, that gives you some savings on the alignment.”

“You have to really have costs as your focus, day in day out where you are constantly challenging and saying how can we make sure we keep costs down and keep within our budget. We owe that to the whole project. There are massive benefits to come from this… the benefits from Birmingham to Manchester are £55bn… and you are increasing the benefits across the whole of the north west because in fact it will connect in to the improvements that government has announced between Manchester and Leeds, so you have a whole connected railway.”

“You control the costs, you don’t run at the first whiff of gunfire. You buckle down and you address those cost issues and you address them on a daily basis across the whole project.”

“The existing West Coast is the most densely used and heavily used railway in Europe. By freeing up some capacity you’ll get more benefits for freight, which we want to do. We want to get lorries off the roads and we want to increase rail freight.”

“There are massive benefits to the economy by continuing this. If we don’t continue what are we saying to the rest of the world? What are we saying to all those investors who we want to bring into the UK. Here is a country that sets itself ambitions and then runs away when it starts to see some challenges. We have to meet the challenges.”

Photo credit: Shutterstock

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