With commuter tickets already costing thousands of pounds, will anyone be able to afford to travel on it?
The government says its proposals for High Speed 2 “assume a fares structure in line with that of the existing railway”. So we can probably expect to fork out an absurd sum for a ticket unless we trawl through websites three months in advance, can be absolutely certain we are going to travel on the 3.42pm on a Tuesday afternoon, and we craftily split the journey half way to Manchester. Get any stage wrong and the inspector will haul you off the train and land you with a huge fine.
It is remarkable that in the debate on HS2 so little has been said about fares. Will taxpayers be expected to pump billions upon billions into a Mitterrand-style Grand Projet then find it’s out of the reach of anybody other than swish executives on expense accounts? The omens, despite the government’s reassurances, aren’t good.
Take the prices for travelling on our only existing high-speed track, HS1, that whizzes through the Kent countryside. If you live in Ashford, the opening of the line promised a huge improvement in train times into the capital. Sure enough, it now takes just 35 minutes into London St Pancras compared to the 61 minutes it takes on the former route into London Victoria.
But at what cost? A season ticket for commuters from Ashford to a London terminal using the old route, plus an onward journey on the tube, costs £4,996 a year. That’s a pretty staggering sum for a 54-mile journey (about the same as London to Brighton). But if you want to take the HS1 trains, and save half an hour, the cost rises to £6,360. A commuter paying 40% tax has to earn £10,600 a year just to pay to get into work (oh, and there’s a £700 to £900 a year bill to park at the station).
The Ashford example suggests that using HS1 costs 27% more than the fare structure of the existing railway, which I think we can rely on as a better indicator of what fares will be like on HS2 than what the politicians are telling us. The – so far – lacklustre economic gains that HS1 has brought to north Kent should also deflate some of the more ambitious claims about the impact of HS2 on northern cities. An analysis in the Economist this week suggests HS1 has brought benefits for London, but little elsewhere.