The High-Speed Rail Project
The Secretary of State for Transport has put forward a proposal for building a high speed rail network linking London with the major cities of the Midlands, the North of England, and Scotland. The first 120 miles involves constructing a new line between London and Birmingham.
The cost of this segment is projected to be between £15.8 and £17.4 billion. This would be a far from trivial flutter for a country already brought to the verge of bankruptcy by a profligate government. Lifetime experience of over-optimistic estimation of grandiose government schemes just for the sake of getting them started suggests that if the project went ahead, this first instalment might actually cost the tax-payer twice or three times as much.
The chosen route cuts a swathe through the beautiful landscape of the Chiltern Hills. It would:
Not surprisingly, there is considerable local opposition to this scheme.
- have a detrimental effect on the farming operations which contribute significantly to feeding the swollen population of the UK;
- disrupt public rights of way;
- have substantial negative impacts on local amenity and the publicís quiet enjoyment of the countryside;
- entail the building of bridges to maintain the continuity of existing roads.
However, although I live in High Wycombe, a town on the edge of the Chilterns, I am not myself adopting a 'nimby' approach to the proposal which, I concede, must have considerable attractions for a relatively small but politically powerful set of people who for whatever reasons feel they must travel frequently from one major connurbation to another and back again without spending very long away from home. I am nevertheless resolutely opposed to it because I have not yet seen, and cannot imagine, a compelling economic argument for the construction of a new railway line when an infinitely superior alternative is readily, and relatively cheaply, available.
I shall comment on the following quotations taken from Hansard:
"Travel and trade between Britain's major population and economic centres are the lifeblood of our economy and society. They require transport networks that are high-capacity, efficient and sustainable. As we grow wealthier as a nation, so we travel more and move more freight. Nineteenth-century Britain led the world in the development of railways. Serious planning for a national motorway network was begun by the War Cabinet in 1943, and the major motorways were all opened over a 32-year period between 1959 and the completion of the M40 in 1991."
- The emotive reference to "lifeblood" should put us on our guard. It conflates "travel" and "trade", i.e. passengers and freight: but they are by no means the same. The high-speed trains will carry only passengers who, for some reason, are assumed to be in a great hurry. The higher the speed, the higher the cost: and even on the short London to Birmingham segment, the train can have little or no economic advantage over the aeroplane. It seems to me that high-speed fares are likely to be very high and that passenger numbers shall correspondingly be restricted to the few who can afford them.
- I seriously doubt the validity of the bland assumption that we shall "grow wealthier as a nation" any time soon. The burgeoning cost of sustaining a so-called "welfare state" in which the ever-increasing many have to be supported by the taxes of an ever-dwindling few seems to me to be a reliable recipe for continued national impoverishment.
- Some of us remember that the 1943 War Cabinet very sensibly kept asking the question: "Is your journey really necessary?" It is a question Britons will increasingly be asking themselves as the costs of food, fares, and fuel climb steeply.
- Our politicians should reflect that the spectacular Japanese uprating of British railway technology did not save the Japanese economy from falling into a deep and long-lasting depression. Should we not be looking instead to an alternative twenty-first century technology in which the UK is among the leaders and which can both effect a dramatic reduction in the need for travel and promote trade more efficiently?
"Since the 1990s, increases in demand have been accommodated largely by improving existing roads and rail networks, including through motorway widening and the £9 billion upgrade of the west coast main line. The £6 billion roads programme includes investment for the five years to 2014 in widening a large part of the M25 and the extension of hard-shoulder running across the most heavily used stretches of motorway. We are also progressing with plans to electrify the Great Western main line from London to Bristol and south Wales, and with a £250 million investment in the strategic freight network."
- The motorway and road network inter-connects every home, shop, farm, factory, and depot in Great Britain. No one pretends that a high-speed railway network linking only cities will make a significant contribution to freight distribution.
"Our preliminary assessment, published last January, was that substantial additional transport capacity would be needed from the 2020s between our major cities, starting with London to the West Midlands, Britain's two largest conurbations. By then, the west coast main line will be full. By 2033, the average long-distance west coast main line train is projected to be 80 per cent full, with routine very severe overcrowding for much of the time; and there will also be a significant increase in traffic and congestion on the motorways between and around London, Birmingham and Manchester."
- See comments on Quotation A above.
- Is it absolutely certain that, in view of the escalating cost of keeping non-productive people alive, the population of the United Kingdom shall by 2020 not have begun to fall?
"The Government's view is that high speed rail could be the most efficient and sustainable way to provide more capacity between those conurbations, so last January we set up a company, High Speed Two Ltd, to analyse the business case for a high speed rail line, initially between London and the west midlands; to make detailed route proposals for that first stretch of line should the Government decide to proceed; and to outline options for extensions to cities further north and to Scotland."
- It is hardly surprising that a deliberately blinkered analysis of the case for a high speed rail network would concentrate on time-saving for rail passengers because there is nothing else to be said for it.
- No doubt a similar case was made for Concorde, but it no longer flies.
- No study will come to a sensible conclusion so long as it ignores the ancient concept of necessity.
- If it is to avoid an expensive fiasco, the Government must take a wider view than it can get from a train.
When I was a freelance provider of services in connection with the administrative applications of computers, I made several return journeys between High Wycombe and Barry on the far side of Cardiff to assist a client with setting up a system on behalf of the charitable organisation he administered. My client (an old friend) could almost certainly have obtained a similar service locally had he been so minded and adequate information about local providers had been readily available to him. I made the journey at least as much for social as for business reasons.
On these and similar trips to other clients' premises, I often reflected that there were probably quite a few specialists in the same business as myself travelling in the opposite direction to do similar work. Although all such mutually contradictory journeys certainly helped to swell the "gross national product", they contributed less than nothing to the net wealth of the nation. So whenever possible, I visited client's premises only for fact-finding purposes and did most of the creative work at home, often sending the resulting documentation by post in advance of my next projected visit and resolving any immediate problems by telephone when necessary.
The very fact that you are reading this proves that I am currently able to distribute documents virtually instantly as soon as they are ready, and can discuss any matters of mutual interest or concern by email. Even if I were still in business, my expenditure on travel would now be less than it was 25 years ago although the cost per mile has increased about four-fold.
When helping to design a system for an air freight company, I discovered that the single most lucrative category of air cargo was human corpses being feighted from distant lands for burial "near home". Sentimentality bears a very high price tag.
Looking beyond that, it is easy to see that transporting living bodies can be equally wasteful if the sole purpose of a journey is to communicate mental products that could travel far more quickly and cheaply by other means.
Please now refer to Local Empowerment and The Internet, and particularly the section headed Personal Responsibility, for another view of rail travel.
Please, Government, even if you can't stop the building of aircraft carriers without aircraft, at least stop this wasteful expenditure on outdated technology before any new tracks are laid to stop dead in. Instead, spend the money on building a high capacity fibre optic broadband system that can inter-connect every home and hamlet in the land, thus drastically reducing the need to move bodies around and placing the United Kingdom once again among the leaders rather than the laggards.
Taking advantage of the current high population density in the UK would make such a scheme highly cost-effective and ultimately result in significantly reduced congestion on all existing roads and railways as the Internet enabled more and more people to find the most economically accessible sources of necessary products, services, and information.