Letter from India: Is the slow way necessarily the wrong way?

The most remarkable aspect of my trip to India is not that the country has been transformed by massive economic growth, but that it is, in fact, so little different than when I first visited in 1991. Sure, there is now a highway between Mumbai and Pune, cutting the journey from six hours to around three, but even the new highways are rather unlike motorways elsewhere in the world. You can still find cars driving the wrong way, or people wandering on the side.

 But away from the occasional new highway, the roads are still one lane windy affairs that offer plenty of scope of head on crashes and very little for rapid progress. The trip from Sitara to Goa, some 400 kilometres took eight hours even though part of it was on a good four lane road. Transport, therefore, is still a major barrier to the rapid transit of goods, but in a way that was so comforting. The eight hour journey in a coach was, in fact, a joy, with so much to see out of the windows. Getting there was definitely part of the holiday.

 What is more soulless than a trip on a motorway or, indeed, on an internal flight which we took for the return to Mumbai? India is a place where you can still travel, rather than simply whizz through. In terms of economics, too, the slow transport system does not necessarily stymie growth. By limiting the ability of producers to send their goods quickly around the country, local enterprise is encourage. Of course conventional economic wisdom is that this is highly inefficient, but, in fact, it may well benefit many local people who would lose their jobs were there a speedier transport system.

 We are slaves to the idea that rapid transport is the key to economic progress. Yet, having efficient transport systems can leech out jobs from distant areas, rather than creating them.

  • RapidAssistant

    Therefore there is an argument, that if HS2 happened and cities like Leeds, Manchester and Liverpool were suddenly just an hour from London that we’d see the same pheonomenon that the existing railways did which was to turn the Home Counties into one massive commuter belt for one city – just this time it would on a nationwide scale. We got a taste of this already when the HST was introduced when all of a sudden people found they could commute to London from as far away as say Bath, or Peterborough.

    Your argument is valid therefore, that the trend in Britain for the large financial firms to decentralise lower cost functions to regional offices (where the cost of labour is cheaper) would be reversed by HS2 and everything would be taken closer to London, with the requisite effects on those regions, yet equally if you look to France and see what the TGV has done for secondary cities such as Lyon, Lille and Marseilles it has resulted in economic growth in those regions – far from the notion that it would suck everyone towards Paris.

    So it’s an interesting argument which could go both ways.

  • rpjs

    @RapidAssistant: given that the railways would try to market any putative HS2 as a premium service with premium prices, as Southeastern are going to do with their HS1 services, I suspect there’d be a limit to how far out the London commuter belt might extend. Of course it is debatable whether high-speed commuter rail would work as a premium service in the UK – I suspect that Southeastern will get rather fewer takers for HS1 than they expect, even though they’re going to cut the non-HS1 services.

  • KL

    I used to travel frequently between Lancashire and Northumberland, and the volume of lorries on the motorway gave me the clear impression that there were goods being made in Newcastle, being trucked to Manchester for sale, and probably near identical goods being made in Manchester and …… So maybe an economy where people have to rely on local manufacture because transport is poor has something going for it.

  • Dan

    Gets to the heart of the debate about what transport infrastructure might be for. If you no longer want a regional policy that encourages dispersal from the SE you are going to have to deal with overheated infrastructure demand. OR you could lay on cheap HS travel to regions so people can live elsewhere, but access the SE economy if they need to.

    I’ve long beleived that you could, say, bring about some effective regeneration in the coalfield areas of the North Mids / S Yorks (plus help the Sheffield – Rotherham – Barnsley sub region etc simply by putting an HS line broadly on line of route of the M1). Had this been started around the mid to late 1980s it would have saved on much of the ‘regeneration’ money that has no doubt been poured into these areas with generally mixed results.

    Of course it would never have low fares because it would need to be seen to make a profit, which like HS1 it would not be able to do!

  • RapidAssistant: I believe that the French government expressly instructed SNCF to build up a fare structure for the TGV service that would discourage commuters from using them. I assume this means that season tickets, if available at all, are only marginally cheaper than paying each trip individually. I think the timetable is similarly biassed against commuters. Obviously permitting high-salary Parisians to gobble up cheap real estate in the provinces would be detrimental to local economies where locals and local companies would be priced out. Under the current arrangement, the reverse is happening with local companies who are potentially able to produce more cheaply due to lower real-estate costs, having better access to the Parisian market.

    This would never work in the UK of course where public opinion seems to be adverse to any sort of strategic planning or thinking by government.

  • Peter

    Andrew: not sure that’s still entirely true about TGV. Even if the SNCF fares structure is as you say, I understand that property prices in Reims, for example, shot up in advance of the opening of the TGV Est in summer 2007 since it is now only 45 mins or so from Paris whereas before it was more like 90.
    The reason I guess is that property price pressure is so great in central Paris that people will pay more for their morning train (and the TGV Est is expensive compared to other lines) in return for better quality of life in other areas (not having to live in Paris’s suburbs being one factor, and a 45-minute ride to work on the RER is neither unusual nor the longest “trajet” i.e. commute suburbanites regularly undertake).
    That said, I haven’t noticed similar property price escalations in Le Mans, only 55 minutes from Paris Montparnasse. But then Reims is a nicer place to live than Le Mans (IMHO) !