Tuesday, February 8, 2011

UK High Speed Rail: Going very fast in the wrong direction

In the field of transport, no matter how straight-forward the issues may seem to be to the busy citizen, merchant, reporter or policy maker, when it comes to making wise policy it really does take a certain level of time and attention to detail to come to grips with the underlying issues and priorities that shape the outcomes. The awful conundrum encumbering the mobility issues of our new century from a policy perspective is that just about everything turns out upon study to be unobligingly complex, interdependent, complicated and time lagged – no matter how simple it may appear to be on the surface. In the article that follows, the authors  have a go at a lot of the too-easy thinking that is the main currency of the High Speed Rail discussions in places like Britain and the US, where the only experience with these technologies and operations has been that of a far-away time-lagged dream machine. Let's embrace a bit of complexity here.

UK High Speed Rail:  Going very fast in the wrong direction

- John Whitelegg and Eric Britton

Something very unusual is happening at the moment in the political world in the UK. Labour, Conservative, Liberal Democrat and Green politicians are competing with each other to be more enthusiastic than each other in support of high speed rail (HSR). The roar of approval and enthusiasm from political parties stands in stark contrast to the poverty of detail, evidence and justification for this lurch to a London-centric high speed world. So why do they all want it to happen?

Great expectations

High speed rail supporters are excited about the prospect of travelling very fast to and from London. There is something quite seductive about speed. It presses lots of the right buttons and sounds good and economists still cling to the massively misleading idea that saving time saves money and produces an economic bonus that the whole of society can share.

The supporters of high speed rail argue that it will increase the capacity of the rail system to move people and freight, stimulate the economy, steal passengers from domestic aviation and reduce greenhouse gases.

High speed rail will increase capacity especially if it proceeds on German and French models and produces new lines across open countryside. What is not addressed is why we need the increased capacity and whether or not this is the right way to go about it. Capacity is routinely increased in mainland Europe by using double-deck trains for passenger travel. Trains in and out of Zürich in Switzerland are frequently double-decked and give passengers a non-cattle truck ride that we can only dream about in SE England or on Manchester bound platforms at Leeds railway station at 5pm on a weekday. Capacity can be increased by running a 7 day railway and running night passenger trains as is common in Germany. The HSR plan is a very large and expensive sledge hammer to crack a very modestly sized nut.

We could even have a policy about developing strongly independent, high-function cities as is the case in Germany. The “need” to travel to London is a result of decades of public and private policy and cash to centralise functions there and to avoid the idea that Newcastle, Leeds, Manchester, Birmingham and Liverpool could operate very easily as high level attractive financial, cultural, corporate HQ and media centres just as Frankfurt, Munich and Hamburg do in Germany. A more intelligent spatial planning and celebration of all our cities would rapidly remove the need for a few billion pounds of cash spent on yet more travel to London

We do need to move more freight around the UK by means other than road but the links with HSR and better rail opportunities for freight are very tenuous. Alternatives to HSR include re-opening lines closed by Beeching for normal rail running, using coastal shipping and inland waterway and even planning our industrial and logistic sites so that they were located near to ports, waterways and rail logistic centres.

We could stimulate the economy by building 1000 miles of HSR but the sums would not stack up in terms of how many jobs this would create per £million of expenditure. If we really want to create jobs in all local economies rather than drain them away along a very fast railway line we could insulate 20 million homes, make every house a mini power station to generate and export its own electricity, sort out extremely poor quality commuter railway lines around all our cities (say up to 50 kms from the centre of every city), sort out inter-regional rail links and build 10,000 kms of segregated bike paths to connect every school, hospital, employment site and public building to every residential area. These projects would deliver real jobs on a large scale in every city region and local authority area but do not have the high speed sexiness of new railway lines

Despite claims less than certain sustainability

HSR is promoted as something that can sort out nasty carbon producing aircraft on domestic routes. It has done this on Paris-Lyon and Madrid-Seville but this ability to trash a single air route should not be interpreted as something than can dent the growth of air travel itself. Germany has one of the largest HSR systems in the world and has seen an explosion in internal air travel. HSR does not reduce the fuel consumption of domestic aviation or reduce annual carbon emission from aircraft. It allows airlines and airports to recycle much needed take off and landing slots and exploit other market opportunities aimed at making us all fly more often than we do already.

HSR is also a very energy greedy form of transport and produces twice as much CO2 per passenger kilometre as a non-high speed intercity train. If we are serious about reducing our carbon emissions by 80% by 2050 then we should not change our direction of travel towards higher speed, more carbon intensive forms of transport and a deliberate policy of increasing the mass of travel.

Supporters of HSR are happy to talk about the £32 billion cost of the first phase which is a new line from London to Birmingham (See Note 1 below for a correction here). This will reduce journey time by about 30 minutes on a current journey time of 1 hour 30 minutes. The excitement over reducing time eliminates all other considerations. What do we do with the time saving? What will the new HSR service cost the passenger? If the passenger is on a business trip will he or she work or not work on the train (HSR or conventional rail)? If the answer is “yes I will work” then all the calculations of the monetary benefits of time savings are suspect.

HSR is used by relatively wealthy, high income passengers and the £32 billion would represent a public investment from all tax payers (Note 1) aimed at encouraging wealthy individuals to travel to and from London more often and at a higher speed. This is not a good use of public funds and in any prioritisation exercise would come very low down the list and far below sorting out local travel in all cities, a world beating walking and cycling environment in every British city that can deliver the Freiburg results (Note 2) and inter-regional train improvements travel not involving a trip to London.

What should our rail system look like?

Switzerland offers a practical and attractive vision of what a rail system in the UK could look like if it celebrated all our cities, reflected the need to offer attractive rail services to all social and income groups and set out to avoid cattle-truck misery conditions on our urban commuter routes. The double deck trains running from Zürich to Basle 60 times a day offer a high degree of comfort, reliability, no overcrowding and a very pleasant journey on an important commuter route. This could be the future on the Liverpool-Manchester-Leeds route and on many routes in the SE of England but there appears to be no well-oiled machine lobbying for these passengers. We could have high quality rolling stock and frequent services that Swiss passengers are used to on more rural services (e.g. Basle-Dornach Olten) but this too is only a pipe dream in the UK.

We have a question for all the citizens in the UK worried about pensions, energy bills, care for the elderly, school budgets, death and injury on the roads, respiratory disease associated with vehicle exhaust emissions and a future likely to involve severe risks associated with climate change and fuel price increases. Hands up all those in favour of providing a £32 billion subsidy from the tax payer for very rich people to travel very quickly to London quite a lot and then hands up all those who would like a safe, secure, high quality of life for everyone in every city using the same cash?

A final point of a philosophical nature. David Metz in his book “The limits to travel: how far will we go” argues that as we invest in transport infrastructure designed to make sure we can go faster so that we can save time the main result is that we travel further so that we compensate for the time saving by increasing the distances that we travel each year. This is a fundamental insight into transport policies as a whole and especially so for HSR. We seem to operate under a “constant travel time law” so that we spend just over an hour a day travelling. If we can go faster we will but we will also change our travel behaviour so we can go further. This undermines the case for HSR

# # #

Note 1: Official government reports note an additional cost of £2.8 billion for rolling stock.  The same report says that the cost of UK HSR is twice that of HSR in mainland Europe. A detailed analysis of HS1 (the HSR link between the Channel Tunnel and central London) provides an interesting lesson for everyone involved in the debate about expensive  transport infrastructure (Note 2).  All these are of course estimates and yet to be confirmed. Our view is that it would still represent a significant misallocation of resources and be of little value to the majority of UK citizens. We are also concerned about financial crises. The Channel Tunnel was originally a 100% private sector project with no public money. It went wrong and had to be rescued by public money. HS1 was initially costed at £850 million with a clear statement that this would be met by the private sector.  It eventually cost £5.7 billion and the UK government contributed £3 billion of that total as a direct subsidy. Caveat emptor.

Note 2 Freiburg in southern Germany (population 240,000) now has an international reputation for highly effective transport, planning, housing, renewable energy policy and its results in a high quality of life and thousands of jobs created in sustainable enterprises. Currently it has 27% of all trips every day by bike, 23% on foot, 32% by car and 18% by public transport.

# # #

About the authors:

John Whitelegg is visiting Professor of Sustainable Transport at Liverpool John Moores University and Professor of Sustainable Development at University of York’s Stockholm Environment Institute, and is founder and editor of the Journal of World Transport Policy and Practice. John is a local councillor in Lancaster.

Eric Britton: Trained as a development economist, Eric Britton is editor in chief  World Streets and managing director of the New Mobility Partnerships and EcoPlan International, an independent advisory network providing counsel for government and business on policy and decision issues involving social-technical innovation and sustainable development.

A little history: John and Eric first got together in early 1995 to discuss the purpose, shape and method of the Journal of World Transport Policy and Practice under John's leadership with Eric as a Founding Editor. The first issue hit the street a few months later with a collection of articles vigorously contesting mainstream thinking in the sector. For lovers of history, Vol. 1, No. 1 included "The well travelled yoghurt pot" by Stefanie Böge, "The end of the urban freeway" by Peter Newman, "Urban transport policy paradoxes in Australia" by Paul Mees, "How Amsterdam plans to reduce car traffic" by Leo Lemmers, "New roads generate new traffic" by Rudolf H.H. Pfleiderer and Martin Dieterich, "Violence and the car" by Helmut Holzapfel, and "Living without a car" by Michael Glotz-Richter. (To see how they stand the test of time, happily all you have to do is click here.) Like World Streets the Journal is free and does not accept advertising to retain its full editorial independence.

* To subscribe freely to the Journal click here.
* Ditto for World Streets, here.

# # #

An invitation to continue these discussions.

If you have points you would like to make about the HSR discussions and eventual decisions in the UK, this is to invite you to share them with our readers. There are three platforms available for this: (a) add as a comment directly to this piece, (b) via the World Transport Forum at http://groups.yahoo.com/group/WorldTransport/ (to post to the forum: WorldTransport@yahoogroups.com) or (c) the WT Facebook page at http://tinyurl.com/worldtransport-fb.

The idea, if enough interesting ideas come in, will be to organise them in terms of basically: arguments for, arguments against, and ideas for synthesis and moving ahead in an imperfect but needy world. These can then become the main content of a future piece in this series, in which we shall try to combine the necessary attitudes of being open, critical, and creative on an important public policy decision. Hope to see you there.

Print this article