Saturday, March 26, 2011

Greater resistance to the British "HS2" high-speed rail project on business grounds.

I would swear that the article, below, from the Telegraph in the UK, was about California's high-speed rail project.  But, I'd be wrong since it's about the HSR between Birmingham and London.  Except for the geography and the politics, the two projects -- California and the UK -- are fraternal twins.

In order to read the article, and to stem the confusion, it is essential to have an introductory lesson in British Politics 101.  I hope I get this right: 

The Tories evolved into Conservatives.  The Conservatives are now the dominant centre-right political party, with David Cameron as Prime Minister. The Conservatives are like the Republicans in the US, and they are affiliated with the Liberal Party, which, in the UK is more like Libertarianism rather than the Leftist Progressive Liberalism in the US (which is where I am).  

Margaret Thatcher, former PM and head of the Conservative Party, was a good friend of Ronald Reagan. To confuse things even more, the Social Democrats have absorbed the Liberals to become the Liberal Democrats, a third Party. By US meaning, the Liberal Democrats are neither liberal or democratic. To the contrary.

The Democratic side, as we understand it, is represented by the Labour Party in the UK.   The Labour Party is the centre-left political Party, with leanings toward Socialism.  It is more like the Liberal wing of the Democratic Party in the US. The distinction and separation between Labour and "management" represented by the Conservatives, is even greater in the UK than in the US. 

So, as you can see, the situation politically is reversed, with Conservatives promoting this rail project in the UK, and the Labour Party opposing it.  But not entirely.  Actually it's really more confused than the United States's clearly distinct Democratic support for and Republican opposition to high-speed rail.  

Nonetheless, there is very aggressive promotion of this project by the British Government, which, although imposing enormously stringent austerity in the present economic struggles, is prepared to spend billions of Pounds (at $1.60 per Pound) on this project. That's the familiar part. 

Also, for an additional bit of confusion, unlike in the US, some of their Chambers of Commerce and other business interests oppose the HS2 project as well. So, maybe we are not so much alike. However, we share with our British cousins an emerging voice in opposition for high-speed rail. Remember, the British invented the railroads as we know them. Unlike us, they are a railroad culture.

Perhaps the most important take-away from this article and discussion is that HSR is being challenged, not only in the US, but in countries that already have had HSR for some time. Furthermore, it's being challenged by both sides of the political fence.  And, the opposition has become more aware than ever of the economic shortcomings that can create far more problems than the train can possibly solve. 

Doubts raised over business case for £17bn high-speed rail link
Serious doubts have been cast on the "business case" for the proposed £17bn high-speed rail link between London and Birmingham.

By David Harrison 

9:00PM GMT 26 Mar 2011
Public bodies including a leading county council have warned they do not believe that the financial predictions made by the Government for the new line stand up to scrutiny.

And senior MPs conducting an inquiry into the Government's flagship scheme have warned that they are prepared to recommend against it going ahead.

In another blow, business leaders in the West Midlands - the region touted to benefit most from the rail link - have criticised the project and said the money allocated to it should be used it to improve existing roads and railways.

David Cameron has declared that the High Speed 2 line, with planned extensions to Manchester and Leeds, and eventually Scotland, can help to close the north-south divide and promote regeneration.

Until now, opposition has been led by campaigners and politicians along the line of the proposed route, which slices through some of England's finest countryside in Tory heartlands.

But Staffordshire County Council has now declared itself against the 250mph trains - and the first to object primarily on economic grounds.

But now Staffordshire council has voted to oppose the plan because it has concluded that the business case is "flawed".

Far from benefiting businesses, HS2 would "actually damage" the economy by making direct links to London slower and less frequent, forcing people to travel to Birmingham to change.

Cllr Philip Atkins, leader of the Conservative-run council, said: "There are serious concerns about the potential harm to our economy.

"Many people don't realise that existing mainline train services from our county would suffer."

The proposed route is now being investigated by the House of Commons Transport Select Committee.

Members last night said they were sceptical of the finances behind the scheme. The cost of building it will be funded by the Treasury and once built, operators will pay to use it, meaning that a return on its cost needs heavy passenger usage.

It is also supposed to act as a boost to the economy, particularly in the West Midlands, generating new jobs and economic growth.

Steve Baker, the Conservative MP for Wycombe in Buckinghamshire, said: "The Government has honourable intentions for regeneration but I think this is the wrong project.

"I am certain that the business case will be found to be lacking but I will approach the inquiry with an open mind."

Iain Stewart, the Conservative MP for Milton Keynes South, said: "I am an advocate of a modern rail network but we have to get this one right. If the business case doesn't stack up then I will not support the project."

Tom Harris, a Labour committee member and former transport minister, said: "We will be as objective as possible. If the numbers don't add up we will say so.

"You can only win the argument for high-speed rail if you can convince the wider public that there is a valid business case.

"As a minister, I was dubious about some of the arguments put forward. My argument was based mainly on improving capacity. But we have got to look at the business case with fresh eyes."

The MPs' intervention came as businesses in the West Midlands expressed concern about the finances of the scheme.

Senior figures in one of the West Midlands' leading business organisations, the Black Country Chamber of Commerce (BCCC), said that a majority of its 1,600 business members in Wolverhampton, Dudley, Walsall and Sandwell were "negative" about HS2.

Paul Coxhead, a member of the BCCC board and chief executive of Dudley-based training firm TTP, said: "It's obscene to spend £17 billion at a time of austerity, when cuts are being made to basic services, just to save half an hour on the journey to London."

John Murray, chairman of Performance Through People, a training provider - and a patron of BCCC - said: "Most members of our Chamber are negative about the high-speed rail project.

"The key is that we haven't seen a proper business plan that shows what it will mean for this area."

Some firms said the rail link would not increase their trade because most of their goods were transported by road.

They called for money to be invested in roads, including an orbital "Birmingham M25" to improve traffic flows and road links to ports.

They also expressed concern that non-stop high-speed trains from Birmingham to London - which would take 49 minutes for a journey which currently lasts 1 hour 22 minutes - would mean intercity services on the existing West Coast mainline would suffer, meaning businesses in the wider West Midlands would actually lose out.

Andy Hawkyard, the managing director of Aire Truck Bodies, a maker of bodies for commercial lorries, in Tipton, West Midlands which has 110 employees and a turnover £8m, said: "HS2 is a white elephant.

"My business benefits when there are new construction projects but I can't see what this will add to our country. Most business people I know think it is a bad idea."

Alan Jones, operations director of Apton Partitioning at Coseley, West Midlands, which makes office partitions and exports them all over the world and employs 25 people, said: "I don't think it will help businesses around here.

"There is a shortage of capacity on our trains now but that can be solved by improving what we have for a lot less money."

And Michael Worley, chairman and managing director of William King, a West Bromwich steel company with 200 UK employees said: "I am not anti-high-speed rail but I am ambivalent about this project. My main concern is the impact it will have on investment in other transport infrastructure projects. We need to improve the existing rail system and our airports. My big fear is that if we put nearly £20billion or so into a single rail project there will be no money for other important transport projects."