Here's another article from the UK. By now, you have doubtless become very skilled at separating the verbal wheat from the chaff in HSR articles (including this blog). There's quite a bit of political chaff in this article. But, there's also a lot of wheat.
When Simon Heffer resorts to "neo-socialist" name calling, he's off on his politico-ideological bender. I strongly suspect that Socialism, neo- or otherwise, has little to do with HSR advocacy. I suspect that it's far more crass than that.
On the other hand, when Heffer dismantles the usual environmental HSR panacea, showing the actual inadequacy of the train's capacity to make any difference, he's on much more solid ground.
Then, he cites the ticket costs. Why isn't that receiving much more attention? In the UK, Heffer identifies the second-class rail ticket to be 383 pounds, but an Easyjet seat costs 52 pounts for the same route and distance. This fact has great predictive power for us in California. Right now, the CHSRA is projecting one way HSR tickets at $105. I wouldn't count on that ten years from now, if the train does start operating.
The entire HSR ticket sales pattern, globally, is that those seats are on premium, luxury trains. Speed costs. These seats will be affordable by only the most prosperous of our train users. Which, of course, raises the question about whether this is what President Obama or Ray LaHood have in mind as they promote these trains. Has it occurred to them that they want the federal and state government to pay for a train for the upper classes only since no one else will be able to afford riding on them? Is this a case of income redistribution from the bottom to the top; from the many to the few? I find it odd that the Republicans don't see it that way.
Heffer's proposition about HSR efficacy based on population density is well taken, but it also takes a strange turn. He seems to find it acceptable for France to have these trains because they can run through open country of which France has much more than England. His argument is that England's greater population density, therefore, should discourage HSR. Actually, it works the other way around, since there is no point to the train without customers which can only be drawn from the most dense population regions. Which is why even HSR opponents acknowledge that the NEC is the only corridor eligible for HSR.
And he's right about the fragility of passenger forecasts as a justification for building HSR. Since it's an educated guess at best, and the promoters always inflate those numbers for the sake of marketing and self-promotion, their unreliability has been demonstrated over and over, and have no credibility. Hence the endless conflicts between the CHSRA and their detractors who challenge their inflated ridership figures.
Finally, Heffer offers alternatives to economic stimulus other than this train. He cites "enterprise zones" which have been explored in the US over several decades, without much success. However, there are certainly alternatives to what the British are calling a 'white elephant' and we, with greater bluntness, are calling a 'boondoggle.'
In the US, both the Democrats and the Republicans can have it their way; no tax-wasting HSR for the Republicans. And far better and more effective job creation and economy stimulus for the Democrats, if they only would be more practical and analytical regarding what the high-speed rail vision is really all about.
There's no light at the end of the tunnel for this high-speed folly
Enterprise zones would do far more to revive the economy than a pointless railway line, writes Simon Heffer.
The London to Birmingham line would see up to 18 trains an hour travel through the heart of the Chilterns
By Simon Heffer 5:20PM GMT 01 Mar 2011
Let me begin by declaring a lack of interest. I live about 70 miles from the Chilterns, and therefore from what would be the closest environmentally sensitive point of the proposed £17 billion high-speed rail link from London to Birmingham. It would not be in my back yard.
Yet I can understand the anger of tens, even possibly hundreds, of thousands of inhabitants of that charming part of England as they contemplate this almost-straight line being driven through theirs. It is not so much the scar this would leave across miles of beautiful landscape; it is not just the pervasive noise of it (although the Government is going to enormous lengths to "prove" that it will be largely inaudible: if you'll believe that, you'll believe anything). It is the wicked waste of money and the fundamental pointlessness of the entire operation.
Formal consultation on the plan began on Monday. The public has a right to be wary of such stunts, for they are usually simply the Government ticking boxes before proceeding with what it has determined to do, anyway. I fear this is likely to be the case with the proposed line. It is the only thing resembling a great public project that this neo-socialist Coalition, which manifestly seeks a neo-socialist dimension in order to validate itself, has to offer. There are, however, two even more pressing reasons why it is going down this hideously expensive alley.
The first is the North-South divide. Philip Hammond, the Transport Secretary, has indicated that the line to Birmingham would only be phase one. It would end up as a Y-shaped network, with one branch going to Manchester and the other to Leeds. The final cost would be £32 billion. The seductive prospect is offered of being able to travel by train from these cities to Paris in four hours.
The most pressing argument, however, is that by 2032, when the Y would be completed, the gap between London and the North would be shrunk. Birmingham to London would take 49 minutes; Manchester to London 73 minutes; and Leeds to London 80 minutes.
The second reason is – inevitably – environmental. As you can no doubt tell, we are all slowly being cooked because of our carbon footprint. We are to blame, of course, because of our appalling habit of taking endless aeroplanes from Leeds, Manchester and Birmingham to London. Yet, of course, only an insignificant number of people make such a plane journey (and not even that from Birmingham: it can only be done from Heathrow by changing planes on the Continent, and the flight time is five and a half hours). By the time one has hacked out to Manchester airport, checked in, dealt with security, flown south, come through the other end and hacked in to central London, the existing train service will have delivered you there.
There is also the matter of the astronomical cost of some existing rail services. With no regard for my carbon footprint, but simply because I had an enormous backlog of reading to do, I investigated the other day the possibilities of travelling by train from Stansted airport to Edinburgh, rather than flying. The second-class return trip was £383. On Easyjet, it was £52. How much will that trip to Paris from Leeds cost you? Will the operators try to undercut the airlines? Because if they do, they will go broke. All that infrastructure has to be paid for. The French operator SNCF, whose high-speed line is so lusted after by the likes of Mr Hammond, has a debt of almost 30 billion euros.
Is that the right price to pay for saving, over several years, the carbon belched out by a Chinese power station in a month? Always assuming that the carbon makes a blind bit of difference to anything, which is a big assumption.
If France is our model, though, let us not stop at its financial lessons. If Mr Hammond looks at a map of our two countries, he will quickly notice some differences between us. The main one is that France is big, with more than four times the land mass of England (and I say England because there is no stated plan to extend the network to Wales or Scotland): 212,935 square miles against 50,337 square miles. Distances in France are large. Paris is 489 miles from Marseilles (and, incidentally, the train travels at an average of a mere 163 mph). Manchester is 166 miles from London, which Mr Hammond feels the need to eat up at a top speed of 250 mph. Why?
What the map suggests, and what statistics confirm, is that France has a population density of 289 people per square mile, whereas England's is 1,010. This might explain why the French can find large open spaces to drive their infrastructure through, whereas we simply find residents' groups. The £32 billion cost will, inevitably, rise over the next 21 years. It is projected to bring £44 billion of economic benefits. Road plans bring five times their cost in benefits. Again, why are we proposing to waste so much money in this way?
What a sensible transport secretary should conclude – and let us hope Mr Hammond may yet be such a person – is that the distances involved, the economic benefits to be reaped, the damage to the landscape and the grief to residents mean that some other way of helping the north of England would be preferable to this. Opponents of the line have already succeeded in having various alterations made to the proposed plan, including very expensive tunnels in the Chilterns: but the Government seems not to want to entertain the idea of expanding and improving existing lines, which could be done at a small fraction of the cost and with far less disruption. We are talking only about saving a few minutes on each journey – if one believes the projected journey times, that is.
Passenger forecasts are simply rhetorical; this could end up being the most enormous burden to the taxpayer.
Even if these lines are built, who is to say that their effect will not be to get people more from the North to London, rather than from London to the North? Won't they take a lot of highly paid workers out of jobs in Birmingham, and Manchester, while they whizz down their taxpayer-subsidised railway to work every day in London? Why is the Government so certain that this plan will boost the economies in those cities?
If the Government wants to do something cheap, effective and considerably more immediate to help the North, rather than concreting over a large stretch of England to build a railway, it has the means to do so. It can create enterprise zones in south Lancashire and the West Riding, around Liverpool, Manchester, Leeds and Bradford, around Newcastle and even in depressed parts of Birmingham, to encourage businesses to set up there and to employ people. It can adjust the corporation tax, VAT, National Insurance and business rate regimes to make it more desirable to set up in those parts and create jobs there. The cost of this would be far less than the alleged £32 billion over 21 years – indeed, it would probably increase revenue. But if this argument won't convince Mr Hammond, perhaps a string of Tory MPs along the line of the route losing their seats at the next election – and taking with them any prospect of a Conservative government – might just do the trick.