Britain: Javelin stretches the London commuter belt

THIS December marks the fifth anniversary of the launch of the full timetable for regional high-speed services from London's revitalised St Pancras International station to the county of Kent in southeast England via High Speed 1 (HS1).

Southeastern, a joint venture of Go-Ahead (65%) and Keolis (35%), operates the 225km/h service as part of the broader Integrated Kent franchise, which encompasses suburban, commuter, and regional operations over a 748km network radiating south and southeast from London. Southeastern operates 170 high-speed services a day, with an off-peak service pattern of two trains per hour from Faversham via Gravesend and Ebbsfleet, one from Dover via Ashford, and one from Ramsgate via Canterbury West and Ashford.

At peak times Dover and Ramsgate trains split and join at Ashford to provide a half-hourly service on these routes. Some Dover trains are extended to Deal while Faversham trains are extended to Ramsgate via Herne Bay and Whistable. A handful of peak trains also run to Maidstone West and there is a limited St Pancras - Ebbsfleet shuttle which operates exclusively on the high-speed line. The off-peak service pattern is maintained at the weekend, with four Southeastern trains per hour running the northern section of HS1.

javelin-StPAll services are formed of six-car class 395 Javelin EMUs, 29 of which were supplied to Southeastern by Hitachi. The fleet is maintained by the supplier at a purpose-built depot at Ashford.

The average peak journey time between Ashford and London (Victoria) was 1h 24min before the opening of HS1, but the introduction of high-speed services slashed the fastest trips to just 37 minutes. Even stations situated furthest from the high-speed line have benefited from significant journey time reductions with London - Ramsgate falling from 2h 9min to 1h 16 min and London - Dover from 1h 56min to 1h 6min.

Naturally given the faster journeys, a high-speed ticket comes at a higher price than a conventional fare, but this has not deterred passengers from switching to the Javelin. For example, 80% of Southeastern passengers travelling from Canterbury West to London now use the high-speed service and 12-car trains operate at weekends on this route to provide sufficient capacity. With demand rising, a half-hourly service is expected to serve Canterbury West in the longer-term.

Average weekday ridership on Southeastern Highspeed services is currently around 34,000 passengers, but growth in the early years fell short of projections. "We signed the franchise agreement in 2005 when the economy was on a high but the launch in 2009 coincided with the global economic downturn," explains Mr Richard Dean, train services director for Southeastern. "A lot of development around the high-speed station at Ebbsfleet, which should be a town in its own right by now, was deferred during this period. Now the economy is picking up and the Ebbsfleet development is back on, but we're behind where we should be at this stage."

Not all passengers have come from the conventional rail network. Dean says that 16% of ridership on Southeastern Highspeed is new to rail and some stations have seen a significant increase in traffic since 2009. With a substantially reduced journey time, Dover - London journeys have increased by 47% since the launch of the service.

New trains and new infrastructure have also brought improvements in reliability, with 93% of high-speed services reaching their destination within five minutes of schedule. The network has also fared well during periods of wintery weather, with the 25kV ac overhead electrification on HS1 proving less susceptible to weather-related failures than the 750kV dc third-rail system used on the conventional network in southeast England.

Dean stresses that the benefits of high-speed have extended go well beyond the Javelin routes. Since it was launched, Southeastern has introduced 130 additional weekday services on the conventional network. "The creation of the high-speed service has had an impact across the whole of Kent and has provided a lot of additional capacity on the conventional network by moving the long-distance commuters onto HS1," he says. "For example, Sevenoaks now has a train every 10 minutes off-peak and nearly every train stops there now, which wasn't the case before high-speed."

Dean says that the capacity benefits of high-speed rail were not widely promoted as a reason for building HS1, yet they are one of the most transformational aspects of the new infrastructure. "We were not as clear with passengers on the benefits of the high-speed line as we could have been, especially those on routes that would not be served by high-speed services," he says. "Residents of mid-Kent or south London might not appreciate that they now have a better service because of HS1, and that's something people need to understand about HS2. Capacity is the big issue, and while people respond to reduced journey times, which can make a massive difference to their lives, increasing rail capacity has a big impact on a lot of people."

As well as providing Kent with more rail capacity and faster journeys to London, high-speed has improved links between the county and destinations to the north of the capital. Previously such journeys would require a change onto the Underground at Victoria, but high-speed trains terminate at St Pancras which, together with the adjacent station at King's Cross is a hub for services to central England, the north east, and Scotland as well as the cross-city Thameslink network which serves Luton and Gatwick airports. St Pancras is also a short walk from Euston station for services to Birmingham, Manchester and the north west.

This enhanced connectivity is reflected in the rise in through journeys from Kent to stations north of London, which increased from 1.16 million per year before the introduction of high-speed services to 1.78 million in the year to August 2014.

High-speed has also had an impact on travel patterns within London.

Passengers arriving in the city from Kent can now change onto the Underground or Docklands Light Railway at Stratford for south and east London and the Docklands financial district, or St Pancras, which is served by five Underground lines for central, northern and western areas of the city. This relieves the Underground station at Victoria, which frequently suffers from congestion in the morning peak.

Stratford and St Pancras are also at the heart of major redevelopments in the capital which are turning these areas into destinations in their own right. Stratford was the location for the Olympic Park during the 2012 Olympic and Paralympic games, and the high-speed rail link is frequently cited as a key reason for London's selection for the event. During the games Southeastern operated shuttle service between St Pancras and Stratford, providing a six-minute journey time between central London and the main Olympic venue, which carried 1.4 million passengers.

Last month Southeastern signed a direct-award franchise agreement extending its tenure until June 2018. This will be a challenging period for the franchise due to the three-year rebuilding of London Bridge - Britain's fourth-busiest station - as part of the £6.5bn Thameslink Programme. In order to minimise the impact of this work on passengers in the southeast, a new timetable will be introduced in January with additional capacity on key routes.

High-speed services to and from London to Faversham, Ramsgate and Dover will be extended through Deal and Sandwich to create a loop service around the Kent coast.

In the morning peak services from Dover and Canterbury currently join at Ashford, forming a 12-car train for the remainder of the journey to London. From January Southeastern will run the Canterbury train as a 12-car set throughout and this will be followed by the six-car Dover train. In total Southeastern will provide 698 additional seats from Ashford to St Pancras in the morning peak and 249 extra seats from Ebbsfleet.

"Running more trains and longer formations maxes out the rolling stock fleet," Dean says. "Hitachi is able to provide us with an extra train during the peak, which means 26 out of 29 trains will be in service, but it's difficult to see how we could go any higher than this with the current fleet size."

With such a short run on the high-speed line, the class 395s spend a lot of their time travelling over the conventional network, and there is still scope for further improvements in journey time through infrastructure enhancements on these routes. Infrastructure manager Network Rail (NR) is planning to implement a programme of line speed improvements between Ashford and Ramsgate which, combined with the abandonment of splitting and joining trains at Ashford, is expected to cut London - Ramsgate journey times by a further six minutes.

In the longer term, NR is considering extending high-speed services from Ashford to Hastings and Bexhill, towns that have relatively slow journeys to London. The Ashford - Hastings line is currently something of a backwater being one of the few remaining non-electrified passenger lines in south-east England. "This is effectively a branch line with long single-track sections, low line speeds, and open crossings, but it has seen a lot of growth in recent years and Bexhill and Hastings would clearly benefit from a direct link into St Pancras," Dean says.

Additional rolling stock is required for any expansion, although Dean says these could be included in an anticipated order for the extra trains required to lengthen trains and run more services on the current network.

With economic growth in London outpacing surrounding regions, and house prices rising rapidly in and around the capital, regional high-speed could bring relief to London's housing market and provide an economic boost to the hinterland. As the economy recovers and plans for Ebbsfleet Garden City gather momentum, it looks as though the best is yet to come for regional high-speed in southeast England.

Spain: from regional trains to regional seats

FROM the opening of its very first high-speed line in 1992, Spain conceived regional high-speed services as a means of getting the best return on the increased capacity offered by the new infrastructure. With the continuous expansion of the network in the last two decades, regional services have multiplied and Renfe currently operates 10 different regional high-speed routes under the Avant brand.

The current Avant services form three distinct groups. Firstly there are pure regional services which are operated using dedicated regional rolling stock and run in alternating paths with AVE and Alvia trains. These include Madrid - Puertollano, Madrid - Toledo, Lleida - Barcelona, Seville - Malaga, and Jaen - Cadiz.

Secondly, a couple of high-speed lines which are still isolated from the rest of the network are operated under a timetable dominated by Avant trains and with only a handful of long-distance services. These include Madrid - Valladolid and Ourense - A Coruña.

Thirdly, there are regional seats on AVE trains. In recent years Renfe has moved away from its "service-equal-to-train" business model and adopted the "regional seats" concept whereby a certain number of seats on long-distance AVE services are allocated to the regional market. This system is used on the Zaragoza - Calatayud, Valencia - Requena and Barcelona - Figueres routes.

The regional high-speed fleet comprises 20 S104 and 13 S114 sets from the Alstom Pendolino family and 29 variable gauge S121 EMUs supplied by CAF. All of these trains are short units, with a length of 107m, have a maximum speed of 250km/h and a reduced capacity compared with long-distance AVE trains, with the Alstom trains seating 237 passengers and the CAF sets 282.

While almost half of the fleet is composed of dual-gauge trains, most of the Avant services operate only on standard-gauge lines, the exceptions being Ourense - Santiago de Compostela - A Coruña and Jaen - Cadiz.

First devised as a means of bringing development and employment opportunities to small cities located in lower population density areas between Madrid and the larger coastal cities, regional high-speed services were initially marketed as "AVE Shuttles" before being rebranded Avant.

Frequent services over the high-speed lines have created new mobility patterns, drawing passengers from their cars and attracting a steady flow of daily commuters into Madrid and Barcelona, while simultaneously inducing new demand from tourists visiting historic cities like Toledo and Segovia.

Renfe's high-speed ridership grew by 8% last year, with the total number of Avant passengers reaching 6.53 million. This means Avant services carried one in five Spanish high-speed passengers.

Spain-AvantAvant figures vary considerably between routes, reflecting not only the population:distance ratio of the towns served, but also the configuration of the entire transport offer. The 179km Madrid - Segovia - Valladolid route was the most heavily-used in 2013 with 1.6 million passengers, followed by Madrid - Toledo (73km, 1.3m passengers) and Madrid - Puertollano (210km, 1.1m passengers). At the other end of the rankings the Jaen - Cadiz and Zaragoza - Calatayud services were each used by fewer than 100,000 passengers.

None of the Avant services are profitable, as ticket prices are kept low to attract frequent travellers, while most operating costs - including track access charges - are similar to those of AVE services. As a consequence, Avant operations have been assigned to Media Distancia, Renfe's passenger sector responsible for loss-making publicly-sustained regional routes. These have been declared Public Service Obligations (PSOs) and look likely to be let as concessions in the near future.

Despite Spain's economy just starting to recover from a deep and prolonged economic crisis and the government struggling to cut its budget deficit, Avant services have so far managed to escape cutbacks. This is due not only to their popularity among regional and municipal politicians, but also Renfe's new flexible extension policy which is benefiting AVE Long Distance, Renfe's commercial branch.

By reserving seats on three selected AVE routes for Avant customers - the most popular of these being the Barcelona - Figueres with 743,000 regional passengers per year - Renfe has cut the unit cost of Avant by 25% and found a new way of improving capacity utilisation across the high-speed network by serving two distinct markets with a single train.

Renfe intends to further blur the distinction between Avant and AVE, and the trains operating these services, by increasing regular ticket prices on regional high-speed trains to bring them in line with the cheapest AVE fares. Subsidised fares will only be available for monthly passes to benefit frequent travellers, with many seats on Avant trains effectively becoming low-cost AVE offerings, with only peak trains retained for pure commuting services.

"Right now, policymakers are not pressing Renfe hard to reduce its deficits but just to keep them static and not to increase them above the pre-2012 levels," a senior Renfe source told IRJ.

"With our synergistic approach Renfe has been able to extend Avant services along the newly-constructed lines, as some local and regional leaders demanded, without incurring bigger losses."

Renfe stresses that the seats-instead-of-trains policy improves the service frequency for commuters while helping to support AVE by improving revenue recovery.

Although the future of Avant services is not questioned, some doubts remain. First, it is unclear if - and how - the blurring of the lines between commercial and PSO services fit the strict separation rules imposed by European legislation. It is also unclear how future PSO Avant services could coexist with free-market operations on the same lines.

Allowing a train operator to run cheap Avant trains under a PSO contract would surely dent a competitors' passenger share on a given corridor. However, if a private long-distance operator is permitted to carry passengers between two stations served by Avant, the PSO contract could be destabilised. The liberalisation of the Spanish rail market, still in its early stages, will surely have to address this potential conflict, along with many others.

Germany: increasing capacity in Bavaria

THE 78km high-speed line from Nuremberg to Ingolstadt opened in late May 2006 for ICE high-speed services, and in December that year high-speed regional services were launched linking Nuremberg with Munich, a distance of 172km.

Uniquely among the German high-speed lines a regional or local service was planned from the outset in the 1990s to serve the towns of Allersberg and Kinding, both of which were severed from the rail network having lost their branch line links.

The route is served by around 20 Munich-Nuremberg Express trains each way on weekdays, and these DB Regio-operated services have been a great success, carrying 8000 passengers per day. New trains are on order and these are due to enter service in 2016.

The two intermediate stations on the high-speed line were built with platforms on loops either side of the main running lines, enabling ICE trains to overtake regional trains. In Allersberg, 25km south of Nuremberg, a bay platform was installed to allow trains from Nuremberg to reverse. The stations are basic with waiting shelters and a ticket machine on the 165m-long platforms, which are connected by pedestrian underpasses. The stations were designed for six-coach trains and platforms are too short for some longer peak trains, a problem that will be addressed with the delivery of shorter (albeit higher-capacity) double-deck trains. Both stations have park-and-ride facilities as they are located near the A9/E45 highway and some distance from the towns whose names they bear.

Munich-Nuremberg Express trains are formed of six-car push-pull sets of former DB long-distance coaches, with 200km/h electric locomotives hired from DB Fernverkehr. These trains are not dedicated to the service but change frequently. The initial contract awarded to DB Regio covered the period 2007-2013 and was subsequently extended for three more years. Service patterns have changed to reflect demand on peak days with additional trains, especially on Fridays and Sundays, when Germany's low-cost national and regional ticket offers provide many longer distance travellers with a cheaper alternative to ICE services.

germanyLocal services operate on the northern 25km section of the line between Nuremberg and Allersberg, which has 290 parking spaces and is served by seven bus routes. Between 2006 and 2013 the Allersberg Express operated with older regional push-pull trains limited to 140km/h but these have since been replaced by the same 200km/h rolling stock used on the main Munich-Nuremberg Express. From 2018 the Allersberg service will be integrated into the Nuremberg S-Bahn network and operated by EMUs. This will be the first time an S-Bahn service has used sections of a high-speed line.

New trains

In June 2013 the Bavarian Railway Authority (BEG) awarded DB Regio Oberbayern the Ringzug West/NBS contract to operate regional services on the Munich - Ingolstadt - Nuremberg high-speed line for 12 years from December 2016. DB has placed a €110m order with Škoda Transportation for new trains, which have a maximum speed of 189km/h due to the increased cost of securing TSI compliance for 200km/h rolling stock. Škoda is supplying six six-car double-deck push-pull trains and six class 102 locomotives.

BEG initially sought an hourly service on the high-speed line, but the bids received from all prospective operators were considered too high as track access charges on the high-speed line are reportedly €14 per train-km, compared with around €4.50 per train-km on the conventional network. This means the previous two-hourly pattern will remain, although the new trains will offer a 20% increase in seating capacity.

Infrastructure manager DB Networks is currently rebuilding the conventional line between Munich and Ingolstadt, where trains join the high-speed line to Nuremberg. The section from Petershausen to the outskirts of Munich was rebuilt for 200km/h operation in time for the 2006 opening of the high-speed line further north. Plans to upgrade the 44.6km Petershausen - Ingolstadt section for 200km/h have been scaled back on cost grounds, but work to increase speeds to 190km/h began in mid-2011. This €200m project should be completed in 2015.

Further north, speed limits on the 23.8km Petershausen - Rohrbach stretch will be raised from 150km/h to 190km/h but the 20.8km section north from Rohrbach to Ingolstadt will be upgraded to no more than 160km/h, eliminating 120km/h restrictions.