07 August 2009

Gather thee all at the altar of the train

Idiot Savant once again swallows hook line and sinker the totem of railways always good in supporting the unaffordably ambitious plan to build a bespoke high speed railway network in the UK. The existing network of lines that sustain speeds of 200 km/h not being truly high speed in the European context.

Let's see where he makes mistakes and avoids facts:

1. No high speed rail network could eliminate short haul flights in the UK. All plans are largely to connect London with one corridor going to Birmingham, Manchester and Scotland. I wont be pinning hopes on people flying between Aberdeen and Norwich, Inverness and London or Southampton to Manchester getting trains. Many who use domestic flights connect at Heathrow for long haul flights, which is less convenient if done by rail then air. Indeed, whilst many air routes have competition, rail services curiously don't - but funnily enough when it involves trains, those on the left don't seem to care about competition.

2. He blames the lack of high speed rail on privatisation. How odd. Privatisation of rail in the UK started in 1994. The first TGV line in France opened in 1981. The first Spanish AVE line in 1992. The first German ICE trains in 1991. The first Italian high speed line in 1977. So get the picture? What stopped it happening in the UK when it was state owned? The nationalised British Rail was a bastion of disastrous investment decisions, like the high speed APT train, that was abandoned with the technology sold onto Fiat, which has since made a commercial success of it (so that it made the trains now used for the UK's West Coast Main Line between London and Birmingham, Manchester and Glasgow). Indeed, getting new rail lines built in the UK is partly a problem of a planning process that is glacial due to prolific NIMBYism. The truth is that British Rail took passengers for granted, and subsidies, and just let its market share of domestic travel erode over decades. Funny how rail patronage since privatisation is now at its highest level since 1956.

3. He claims this will tackle climate change, but this buys into the myth that a subsidised railway with half empty trains most of the day is better for the environment that privately owned commercially operated flights. Airports are privately run and commercially operated. Airlines equally so. A high speed railway in the UK would be government funded, commercially run and carry considerable subsidies. Its major users would be business people, those willing to pay for fast travel. Why should their movements be subsidised? Is it not better that all users of transport pay for whatever the market charges, regardless of how high it is?

4. To top it off he says "its something we should start thinking about now" . By we he means the New Zealand Government, he wont be setting up a private company, seeking investors and borrowing money to do it (how absurd!), he wants to force you to pay some consultants to start thinking about it. A high speed railway in New Zealand, where most lines are already unprofitable and unviable, and where the highest speeds achievable at the moment are 105 km/h on short segments(whereas the UK reaches 200 km/h on it's NON-high speed lines), and with a topography that is obviously unsuited to long straight and flat pieces of infrastructure, is utter nonsense.

However, when you drink from the religion of the railway, then all spending is an "investment", all new lines are "great ideas", and everyone should be made to pay, whether they use it or not! The cost of this idea for the UK is conservatively put at £30 billion, but is likely to be far higher. The government's own Eddington Report criticised the idea of building high speed railways as poor value. He said:

"Given that domestic aviation accounts for 1.2 per cent of the UK’s carbon
emissions, it is unlikely that building a high-cost, energy-intensive very
high-speed train network is going to be a sensible way to reduce UK
." and

"However, new high-speed rail networks in the UK would not significantly change the level of economic connectivity between most parts of the UK, given existing aviation and rail links. Even if a transformation in connectivity could be achieved, the evidence is very quiet on the scale of resulting economic benefit, and in France business use of the high speed train network is low."

You see the faster the train, the higher the carbon footprint, and building very long new strips of bespoke infrastructure in itself is a very carbon intensive activity. However, my argument is more simple. If the private sector wont invest in it, why should taxpayers be forced to?

At a time when the Labour government has squandered hundreds of billions of future taxpayers' money on growing the state and unnecessarily nationalising banks that should have been left to fail, this is just more wishful thinking by a government keen to bribe voters with the taxes of others - before it gets consigned to history in the 2010 election.

Meanwhile, the economically and environmentally illiterate rail junkies will cheer on pillaging other people's pockets to pay for their pet projects, not letting facts get in the way of their excitement. Much like what has already been happening on rail in Auckland.

UPDATE: It seems all three main UK political parties are ignoring quality advice and choosing to support this cargo cult of high speed rail. One consultant has already noted that 49% of UK domestic flights are to other islands or to destinations like Aberdeen and Inverness which couldn't conceivably have a high speed rail link. The Conservatives are stupidly claiming that cutting this small number of flights will remove the need for a third runway at Heathrow. Another case of flaky Labour lite?

An aviation lobby group fisks the idea further
, and points out the hypocrisy of a Liberal Democrat MP flying instead of going by rail, because of speed. The Lib Dems are like the Green-lite party of the UK.

Even rail expert and enthusiast Christian Wolmar is sceptical, and this is in the traditionally socialist (and pro-Labour) Guardian. So is this the Transmission Gully of the UK? A massively expensive project that politicians get overly excited about, make wild claims about the benefits it will bring, but the truth is that it is largely an illusion?


John Macilree said...

I came across some interesting recent research from academics at UC Berkeley in California comparing the life-cycle environmental impact of aviation versus rail and other transport modes (See: http://www.sustainable-transportation.com/).

Anonymous said...

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Libertyscott said...

John, that's fascinating stuff, thank you.