HS2 considers scrapping first-class seats to maintain passenger capacity

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First-class seats could be scrapped on Britain’s new High Speed 2 train line as officials look for ways to avoid a drop in passenger capacity on the troubled rail link after Rishi Sunak tore up much of the planned route.

The UK prime minister in October cut the northern leg of HS2 from Birmingham in the Midlands to Manchester to rein in spiralling costs on what has been the most expensive infrastructure scheme in Europe.

A new high-speed rail line will now only be built from London to Birmingham, with HS2’s custom-built trains shifting on to existing tracks the rest of the way to the north of England.

Sunak’s revised plans mean passenger capacity will drop because the HS2 trains are smaller than the existing stock of trains that currently use the West Coast Mainline from Birmingham to Manchester.

An internal government document seen by the Financial Times said capacity would drop from 1,690 to 1,530 seats per hour between London and Manchester, undermining the original aim of HS2, which was to hugely increase capacity on the railway system between the north and south. 

HS2 Ltd, the company in charge of the project, is now looking at ways to change the specifications for the trains it has ordered to tackle that drop in capacity, although no contracts have yet been amended, according to three industry and government figures.

One idea under discussion is removing all first-class seats from the new trains, which would return the seat capacity on the line closer to previous levels, they said.

“They are serious about ripping out the first class, it’s another nail in the coffin of this being some kind of superior rail service but it’s probably less embarrassing than ending up with lower capacity,” said one senior rail industry figure.

A senior industry executive also confirmed there had been discussions about getting rid of first class, which they said could be a “short-term solution” to the capacity problems.

But they added that would be “another downgrade” for the line and turn it into a glorified commuter railway.

The loss of lucrative first-class seats would also lower the potential revenues on the line, the person added, which could make the contract to run HS2 trains less attractive to private operators.

Avanti West Coast, which operates intercity services between London, Birmingham and the north-west, has three first class coaches on its 11 coach Pendolino trains, for example.

One person close to HS2 said it was a widespread view that it was “better to maximise the number of seats rather than keep the first class”.

The Department for Transport insisted the government was still planning for first-class seats: “The contract to design and build HS2 trains includes both standard and first-class areas for passengers.”

HS2 did not comment.

The new HS2 rolling stock built by a Hitachi and Alstom joint venture will be 200m long, shorter than the current Avanti rolling stock on the West Coast Mainline by about 60 metres.

Under the initial vision for HS2, the trains would have run entirely on their own dedicated line and into purpose-built and upgraded stations. Trains would be “tethered” together to make a single 400m unit with 1,100 seats.

Existing stations, which HS2 trains will have to use north of Birmingham under Sunak’s new plans, do not have platforms long enough for the tethered trains.

Sir Jon Thompson, executive chair of HS2, told MPs on the transport select committee this month it was likely there would be “fewer seats on the route from London to Manchester”.

He said one solution was to “reconfigure” the trains at 250m long to make them roughly the same length as the current Avanti Pendolinos.

But this too would reduce capacity as it would make the tethering model unviable even for the new HS2 stations in London and Birmingham.

“Two 250m trains [tethered] would be 500m, which wouldn’t fit in any station,” said an industry figure.

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