Thursday, March 3, 2011

If they do it wrong in the UK, does that mean we have to do HSR wrong in the US?

Here is today's lesson from The Economist about what's going on in the UK.  We can learn a lot from Great Britain's trials and tribulations.  I've made the key passages of this article in bold.  The article isn't optimistic, fearing that there is an inevitability to HSR in the UK, despite all the data that argues against it.  

The typical projection in high-speed rail demand and use is, in the British case, an astounding 133% increase by 2033.  That sounds like the California example wherein the CHSRA projected 117 million annual riders.  In our situation, that number has gone down to the mid 40,000s but is still far too high.  The CHSRA refuses to revisit their grossly inflated numbers which have been refuted by the independent research group at Berkeley, the ITS. 

The article also makes the point that ridership will be the "better off" travellers who can afford the top priced tickets, and there is a good likelihood that the traditionally anticipated travel increase with an economic recovery will be the case no longer.  Indeed, there is considerable speculation that business travel has peaked and is in a structural decline due to permanent lower numbers of jobs and the increased productivity derived from information technologies.  All of this is as true for California as it is for the UK.

Finally, there are those in the UK, just like here in the states, who argue that we should fix what's broken first before venturing out to build something so enormous, so expensive and that will underperform. They could upgrade and increase existing rail services, increase speed incrementally, and improve those services based on demand. All this would cost far less than creating a whole new rail universe at the level of Rolls-Royce motor cars.

But, unfortunately, even a clear demonstration of the unsatisfactory business case seems not to deter politicians from gathering and spending as much of the treasury as they can, regardless of the lack of benefits.

Although I am hopeful, I am certainly not optimistic about slaying this dragon in the US which has so many of our government under its spell.  That spell must be broken to free all us villagers.
The need for speed
Doubts about the business case are unlikely to derail high-speed trains
Mar 3rd 2011 |

BRITAIN’S railways were built by the Victorians, and it shows. Large parts of the network remain un-electrified, for instance, more than 100 years after electrification was invented. But it will one day have a futuristic side, at least if the government gets its way. On February 28th it revealed more details about its plans for “High Speed Two” (HS2), a 225mph, £32 billion super-quick railway line from London to Manchester and Leeds by way of Birmingham (see map). Assuming the project goes ahead, construction should begin in 2017, with the first trains running in 2026.

A smorgasbord of benefits will reputedly follow. Journey times between London and other cities will fall; a capacity shortfall on one of the main north-south rail routes will be avoided. The link will even speed the geographical “rebalancing” of the economy that the coalition has pledged to engineer, which will see activity less concentrated in the South East.

Not everyone is impressed. People whose houses face demolition complain about stingy compensation. Aesthetes worry that the line will deface some rather pretty parts of the country, particularly the Chiltern Hills, officially designated an “area of outstanding natural beauty”.

Others question the business case. The plans for HS2 project a 133% increase in demand for long-distance rail travel between now and 2033—over twice as big a rise as most other analyses, even though there is considerable evidence that demand for transport no longer rises with economic growth. Better-off travellers, who would use the line most, would reap most of the benefits. And a large chunk of those purported benefits rest on the assumption that businessmen are unproductive while in transit, which seems questionable in an age of laptops and mobile broadband.

There are also doubts about high-speed rail’s ability to boost regional economies: the government itself expects the scheme to generate almost as much benefit inside London as outside it. And the plan contradicts a report in 2007 by Sir Rod Eddington, a former boss of British Airways, which was meant to lay down the rules for transport spending for decades to come. Sir Rod advised using relatively small sums of money to alleviate individual transport bottlenecks, rather than blowing billions on grands projets. Although HS2 seems to have a positive cost-benefit ratio, there are other projects, chiefly in roadbuilding, that would provide a better return. Incremental upgrades to existing lines could keep the railways from clogging.

Admittedly, forecasting and cost-benefit analysis on big, long-term projects such as this amount to little more than complicated guesswork. But history counsels caution, too: Britain’s only existing high-speed line, from London to the Channel Tunnel, has never come close to achieving its projected passenger numbers. The assumptions behind high-speed lines in other countries, such as Taiwan and France, have often turned out to be over-optimistic too.

Still, the economic arguments are sufficiently tangled that, in the end, they might prove irrelevant. Super-fast trains are politically appealing. They are gratifyingly high-tech; other rich countries have them; and they allow a government committed to drastic public-spending cuts to tell at least one happy tale of improvement and investment. 

High-speed rail is one of the few issues on which all three big political parties agree. For all those reasons, and regardless of whether it is a good idea or not, HS2 is beginning to look unstoppable.