High speed evidence is flimsy

 

I love railways. It was only the discovery of girls that lured me away from hanging around on station platforms, notebook in hand, in my teens, and I still love the feeling of settling down to a long train journey, book on my lap. But despite that I am adamantly opposed to the idea of a new north high-speed line that is the subject of a consultation paper being published by the Department for Transport today.

 I should be cheering Philip Hammond’s efforts to win over his fellow Tories in the Chilterns to the need for this amazing £30bn-plus project, but instead I am booing as vociferously as when the opposition score against my beloved Queens Park Rangers. I have, though, no sympathy for his Nimby opponents either. If the line were really needed, then it is the route through the Chilterns that it would have to take. But where were all these opponents when the motorway network’s tentacles spread across Britain?

 No, my opposition is more deep-rooted and principled. Despite my residual railwayphilia, I remain unconvinced that the case for the high-speed line has been made in terms of either the economics or the environment. The ‘business case’ is rooted in the mumbo-jumbo of benefit-cost ratios, and is, even on its own terms, weak. The HS2 report published by the Government last March suggests the benefits are in the order of £2.30 for every £1 spent but, crucially, most of those benefits will accrue to private individuals and companies, whereas most of the cost will fall on the taxpayer. The high speed line to the Channel Tunnel, which cost taxpayers upwards of £6bn has just been sold for a third of that to a Canadian pension fund.

 Indeed, supporters of HS2 privately agree that the economics are a bit dodgy and have started pointing to the regeneration benefits of the scheme, suggesting it is the key to reviving the fortunes of the North. However, being well connected is no guarantee of prosperity and the benefits may well flow south rather than north.

  In any case, high-speed railways do not necessarily deliver economic growth. Japan built the world’s first high-speed line in the Sixties but has struggled economically for decades, while the United States and Australia, have prospered without them. Of course, this does not prove causality, but it does demonstrate the absence of any guaranteed link between high-speed rail and economic success.

 The promoters of the scheme have, too, dropped their argument that it is a Green project, as the HS2 report showed it was pretty much carbon neutral. So what would be Britain’s biggest and most expensive engineering project is being put forward on evidence as flimsy as a Christmas cracker paper hat.

 There is, too, I confess, just a tad of nostalgia about my opposition. The French TGV Est put paid to the wonderful but slow Orient Express by enabling faster trips. If we get a high-speed line, train travel will become as featureless and banal as taking a Ryanair flight to somewhere near Brussels or Paris. Please, anything but that.

  • David Reed

    Linel Judd:

    Crash in tunnel. I think I am right in saying that in 30 years of TGV operation there has not been a single fatality resuting from a crash. In the same period about 150,000 have died in road accidents in UK. The safety case for HS2 is impeccable in that travellers will be diverted from road and air, both massively more risky. By Lionel’s argument we would not have any roads, planes or underground ralways!!

  • Dan

    Lionel – I don’t think all people who oppose HS2 do so because they are selfish.

    However, much of the rest of your post degenerates into just the sort fo things you then criticise those in favour of HS2 of being guilty of!

    Of course it is a ‘gamble’ – all such nation changing infrastructure projects are. Those who built the M-Way netwrok could not gaurantee to anyone it was the right way forward could they – I expect they looked at other countries, saw that it was working for them and gave it a go – of course you could not do that with HS rail could you….or could you? Has it worked anywhere else? No, it’s clearly a failure in every other country, surely…..

    Balance of payments – good point, but no one seems to care about that any more (sadly) – if UK was bothered about that, lets face it, we’d have to ban all the stuff coming in from China to start with. A lot more of the labour for the construction of HS2 will have to come from the UK than will have been used to build the PC you used for your posting! I think Harold Wilson’s electoral fortunes were based around more than a 747 order, surely?

    I like your idea about a freight HSR – but why not build it to the midlands and north 1st and get trucks off the M1 / M40? Migth even have to go through the chilterns….

  • Peter Hooper

    Personally I’m not sure about this freight HSR talk, as a lot of what is shipped to / from our sea ports goes by ship.
    And would you really want to move inert materials like coal, stone, cement, oil etc by HSR or would it make sense to move it by the classic rail lines – particularly as lorries on motorways are limited to 70mph ?

    Though there may be a case for moving high value or perishable items that at present are flown between regional airports.

  • Dan

    Peter – quite correct of course – it’s line built to relevant loading gauge that would revolutionise this – not speed, apart from parcels type next day sort of stuff

    Dan

  • David

    Taxpayers Alliance has today (4th February) released a paper calling HS2 a “£17bn white elephant”.

    Also, bmi has announced it is to stop operating flights between Heathrow and Glasgow; no reasons were given in the report I saw as to why they were pulling out.

  • David Reed

    If you have got this far, you have now read a huge range of opinions and comments on whether we should or should not build HS2

    Lets have a totally unrepresentative straw poll! If you believe HS2 should go ahead, click the green thumb up sign alongside my name. if you agree with CW that HS2 should not go ahead, click the red thumb down sign. (You are voting for or against HS2, not my post). Lets see what happens, no cheating, only vote once!

  • What is so wonderful about HS2 is that none of it needs to be manufactured in the UK or by british companies. The steel can come from Korea or China. The concrete from Cemex of Mexico, the old Rugby Cement Co or LaFarge. The rolling stock from Japan,(we might get to make the wheels.) Electronics from Siemens, British Oxygen welding gas from Linde of Germany, glass from France. I am sure the labour will come from abroad. So we will be able to watch the railway develop as billions of pounds leave the country.

  • What is so wonderful about HS2 is that none of it needs to be manufactured in the UK or by british companies. The steel can come from Korea or China. The concrete from Cemex of Mexico, the old Rugby Cement Co or LaFarge. The rolling stock from Japan,(we might get to make the wheels.) Electronics from Siemens, British Oxygen welding gas from Linde of Germany, glass from France. I am sure the labour will come from abroad. So we will be able to watch the railway develop as billions of pounds leave the country.

  • Paul Woodcock

    Speaking as someone who lives in Japan, I feel like I have to speak in defense of high speed rail. I live close to the Joetsu line, which is reportedly one of the most expensive lines to have been built in the world. However, the Japanese government has felt that the line was worth building as they DO bring benefits.

    For example, the city of Niigata, thanks to the link to Tokyo, has expanded over the last 30 years by an extra 30-40% over what it would have done, without the line. Also, the line has helped many towns nestling in the central mountain ranges to develop from sleepy backwaters with difficult access, to successful resort towns. These towns draw businesses on corporate trips, families, couples, and others all year round now. Most towns are very busy during the skiing season, but also draw crowds during the summer as people head out to take a spa break.

    High speed rail delivers more than sheer black and white numbers that economists like. High speed rail allows people to travel simply, and go further. Before, Tokyoites would stay in the environs of Tokyo for a weekend. Now, thanks to the Shinkansen, running into the mountains is a day trip, or an easy weekend break, hassle free.

    THAT is the true benefit of high speed rail. It is not the black and white numbers one can see over a 10 year stretch, but the real term percentages that can be achieved over its lifetime as it helps change peoples attitude. People will, in the future, be more willing to go that little bit further for a weekend. For that business meeting. 

    In England, high speed rail would make it a lot easier for people to head to London to take in a show, and not have to worry about returning home at a stupid time (should they so choose). I know HSR would be an expensive ticket. 

    But you do have to look at it in the round. HSR would not just deliver economic benefits, but cultural too. I have seen those changes here in Japan. Niigata used to be a backwater, good for only growing rice. Now it is a definite place to visit for tourism, for food, and for agriculture (Japans most popular rice was developed here)

    HSR is not just economics. It is a high speed ribbon of steel binding communities closer together than ever before.

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