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Monday essay: knowing when to stop

They are not too happy in Kent, because Eurostar has announced that its trains are not expected to call at Kent’s two international stations at Ashford and Ebbsfleet again before 2022. Sim Harris wonders whether they will ever return.

THE reason, says Eurostar, is that it must ‘take action to reduce our costs so that we protect our business for the future. In 2021, therefore, we will reduce our timetable focusing only on our core routes and destinations where we see the highest demand’.

That statement neatly sums up the dilemma facing any high speed rail operator.

Railways have always sold speed as their number one advantage, whether it was a remarkable 30mph between Liverpool and Manchester in the 1830s or 300km/h between London and Paris in the 2020s. A century ago, the railways were advertising ‘it’s quicker by rail’, and between the wars the Great Western Railway was proudly describing its ‘Cheltenham Flyer’ as the ‘world’s fastest train’.

The headline figure promoting a high speed service is always the end-to-end journey time between one major station and another. Sometimes the maximum speed is also featured.

A press release dated 30 July 2003 said: ‘Eurostar, the fast train service linking the UK with France and Belgium, today shattered the speed record for the fastest ever train in the UK. A Eurostar train reached 208.0 mph (334.7 km/h) running through Kent on Section 1 of the new Channel Tunnel Rail Link.’

That was an exceptional speed, only permitted while testing was still under way, and the normal maximum between London and the Channel Tunnel (on certain sections) has always been 300km/h.

It was another test run on the East Coast Main Line in 1938 which had achieved the world speed record for steam, when the LNER’s A4 ‘Mallard’ briefly reached 126 mph (203 km/h), while descending Stoke Bank on 3 July. There was no question of running trains in service at that speed (the locomotive was slightly damaged by an overheated bearing), but the LNER was still able to gain plenty of useful publicity.

If you are planning a high speed service, this is the dilemma. You will achieve the best end-to-end journey time if trains run non-stop between the termini. If intermediate stations are ignored, however, some traffic will be lost. The answer is usually a compromise. Sacrifice a little time to call at the busiest intermediate stations, but ignore the rest.

Sometimes, there are odd results, such as the misnamed Stratford International, which has never enjoyed an international service. Only a few minutes short of St Pancras, it had been hoped that Stratford International would be the railhead for the Docklands financial district, where trains to the continent would pause to pick up London business people bound for Paris or Frankfurt.

In the event, Eurostar decided that the business people could grab a domestic high speed train and travel into St Pancras. The few who would not be willing to do this were not worth a five-minute time penalty.

It did seem that the Olympics in 2012 might provide Stratford’s first international trains, because the main Olympic Park was not far away. Illustrations were even produced showing Eurostars at Stratford. But it was not to be. Eurostar decided that Olympic spectators from the continent could travel into St Pancras like the business people. During the Olympics, there was a frequent service of ‘Javelin’ trains back to Stratford, and this was the chosen solution.

A similar debate has started on HS2, where there is currently no station planned between Old Oak Common, near London Paddington, and Birmingham Interchange, which will be the out-of-town railhead for the airport and the National Exhibition Centre. It will also provide a link with regional trains at the nearby Birmingham International station.

The argument in favour usually places an intermediate station at Calvert/Claydon, where the new high speed line will intersect with East West Rail. Its supporters say an interchange station here would provide direct connections with many places between Oxford and Cambridge, and beyond.

It would also provide a high speed station reasonably close to many towns in the Chilterns, an area which has been passionately opposed to HS2.

The argument against says a station at Calvert/Claydon would less helpful than it might appear (a passenger from either Oxford or Cambridge would reach London more quickly on existing services), while it is not clear whether there is much of a market from High Wycombe or Amersham to Manchester. A call at Calvert/Claydon would, however, increase the London-Birmingham journey time on HS2.

The issue is not decided, but there is no doubt that high speed operators are cautious about intermediate station calls.

Whether Ashford and Ebbsfleet do see the return of Eurostars in 2022, or indeed ever again, must remain to be seen.

The September print edition of Railnews, RN283, was published on 3 September. The new edition and some previous issues can be obtained by calling 01438 281200 from UK numbers or +44 1438 281200 internationally, and selecting Option 2.

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