In defence of HS1

I know this is going to be controversial but I LOVE the high speed train that runs from Faversham (and occasionally Broadstairs) into London St Pancras. I just can’t imagine ever going back to how my life was before it came. I commute daily from Whitstable to London for work, and I have been doing so for 13 years now. Before HS1, I would rarely get home before 8pm, more normally 8.30. Since HS1, I regularly get home before 7, and hardly ever any later than 7.45. HS1 has given me (at least) an hour per day of my life back, which is priceless.

Why am I saying this? It needs a bit of history to explain what’s going on. Bear with me, this might get a bit “trainspotter-ish” for a while.

The “standard” trains on this line run into London Victoria, and always have done. There are a few rush hour trains that go to Cannon Street via London Bridge for city workers as well. When HS1 came along, the Victoria services were degraded slightly to make more room – they stop at more intermediate stations, and thus take a bit longer. Understandably, a lot of people who do the Victoria commute are annoyed about this.

I share their annoyance, to a degree – in the years I’ve been commuting, there has been an increase of roughly 15-20 minutes journey time between Whitstable and Victoria. When I first moved down in the mid 1990s, it was around 1hr 15 minutes but It seems every other year another minute gets added to the journey time, whether as padding to improve reliability (Southeastern are fined for late trains), or, in this case, extra stops to account for a slight reduction in slow trains due to additional services elsewhere. These days you’re lucky to find a train that can do it in 1hr 30 min and they are often slower.

In contrast, the new High Speed trains don’t call at Whitstable, except a few in the rush hour (like the Cannon St ones), but you can change at Faversham and get to St Pancras from Whitstable with a total journey time of around 1hr 30 min even including the change. The few direct trains to and from Whitstable take only 1hr 15 minutes and there are three up in the morning, and three down in the evening.

The catch is: the St Pancras trains run on the new HS1 rail network for the last 20 minutes of the journey, from Ebbsfleet. This is a premium line, built for the Eurostar so that trains can run quickly into Paris and beyond through the Channel Tunnel. As a result, Southeastern charge a supplement for this part of the journey, which works out a few pounds more per trip than to Victoria. The extra supplement doesn’t sound like much, but on a daily commute it adds several hundred pounds to an already stupidly expensive annual season ticket, so most people choose to stick to the old Victoria service. To make it clear: the so-called “high speed” trains are not actually allowed to run faster on the normal rail network, only on this last section of new track.

There’s a further sting in the tail – Southeastern have been allowed to increase their fares by a significant amount above the national average for the last few years, in order to pay for the new infrastructure, which seems largely to have been focussed on the HS1 trains (this is asubjective, I don’t know what they spent the money on. But it’s the most obvious new shiny thing, so I assume that’s where the money went). So people feel, probably rightly so, that they’re paying more for the privilege of having their trains slowed down by the premium service.

 

The service has been running for almost exactly two years (almost to the day), and it seems that anger amongst the Victoria commuters has reached a head, with Thanet MP Roger Gale stating that the service is of “no use at all to those travelling from the whole of East Kent particularly along the Kent coastline”

 

Sorry Roger, you’re wrong, And here’s why:

 

If you work near Victoria, clearly you want to go into Victoria. Your journey now takes a bit longer, you will be annoyed. But, not that many people work within walking distance of Victoria, so this is not the majority of commuters. Most of us work elsewhere, so a tube journey is required, whichever major London staton we arrive at. St Pancras actually has better tube connections than Victoria, as well as Thameslink (for what it’s worth!) so in terms of time, there’s either a small improvement, or no substantial difference for the majority of commuters. The St Pancras line also offers the extra choice of stopping at Stratford, with good connections into Canary Wharf, which are not available on the Victoria route. If you work in the City, you’re already using the Cannon St service which hasn’t been greatly affected by the change, as far as I can tell. For these reasons, the additional St Pancras trains are a significant benefit to those of us living in East Kent. We now have far more options than we used to, and many more trains into London in total.

The only issue I can see is that the St Pancras journey costs more. This is what has to be addressed. You can rant, and rail about slower services all you like, but the High Speed service is a good one, it’s more reliable, especially in the Winter, and the principal reason that people still use the slower services is because they don’t cost more. The problem is not the High Speed trains, they really do improve the train service from East Kent substantially. the problem is, as usual, all about money.

So, how to solve this: Southeastern can’t run trains on HS1 without paying more money to the people who own the network. They also did make a substantial investment in buying these new trains. That money has to come from somewhere. So, either prices go up across the whole network to pay for it, or they charge a supplement.

The trouble is that they seem to have done both – put prices up across the network *and* charged a supplement. In my mind, the supplement is justifiable from Ashford, where people get a vastly improved service with journey times into London not much over 30 minutes now, but it’s barely justifiable for the Faversham line, where the High Speed is only quicker because they slowed down the existing services.

I think Southeastern should look again at the supplement for people commuting from the East Kent coast. They could reduce the season ticket price for those of us coming from the Medway towns and further out, without losing the premium of people starting their journey at Ebbsfleet. This way, people could pay the same price for a ticket that worked on either HS1 or Victoria lines, and make their choice based on the bit of London they want to get to, rather than on cost. From my experience, a substantial number of people using HS1 actually get on at Ebbsfleet, so as long as they retain the supplement from there, they won’t lose a lot of money – and, after all, these season ticket holders have already paid a premium through fare increases.

Perhaps what Roger Gale might want to look at is brokering an agreement with Southeastern on HS1 pricing for East Kent tickets, rather than throwing the baby out with the bath water.

HS1 is great, it’s a massive benefit to everyone in Kent. Don’t destroy it, work with it, make it better.

 

 

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s