The flaw at the heart of HS2’s ticket pricing


Like most rail passengers I am frequently baffled by the ticket pricing policies of the train operating companies which range between dirt cheap and good value for money to the ‘you’re having a laugh aren’t you?’

But more importantly in the long-term what does this imply for ticket prices on HS2 should it ever get completed and hence its ability to eventually pay back its huge investment?

At the moment there are plans to have some 20-30 trains a day operating on HS2. The trouble, as any rail traveller knows, is that passenger traffic tends to bunch into a few number of hours each day leaving the rest of the day with half empty trains.

The rail operators respond by trying to drive passengers off peak hour trains by charging ludicrously high fares such as the £95 single from Wakefield Westgate to King’s Cross I took last week at 5.30pm. But sometimes this backfires so that the peak hour trains depart half empty. Last autumn I took a 8.07am peak hour from Euston to Liverpool which was awash with empty seats. A fellow passenger said he travelled on this route and it was often deserted.

A long-delayed Department for Transport report last month admitted that far from being at full capacity many trains leaving London Euston were half-empty even at peak times. Overcrowding, it added, had fallen with the supply of new carriages, and presumably better management of first class compartments – last week it was cheaper for me to travel on the 10am from Euston first class than standard to Macclesfield.

But rather than display my anorak obsession with ticket prices, the point I make is that the whole case for HS2 is based on reducing a level of congestion which if it exists is spasmodic. There is congestion at peak times but outside these hours rail operators have the opposite problem of too few passengers however much they drop the prices. Presumably HS2 will continue the existing operators’ policy of charging eye-watering rates at peak times and then have to drop to bargain basement deals for the rest of the day. If they do not slash off-peak prices passengers will simply stick to existing services.

So HS2, which has a budget of £50bn, will effectively service a handful of business travellers whose employers can afford the sky-high prices. The rest of the day the trains will either be empty or filled at such low prices HS2 will never repay its investment.

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