We have been explaining, or providing the explanations of others, why high-speed rail is a bad idea in the United States, and an impediment for the repair, maintenance and improvement of all other existing passenger rail service, never mind other transit modalities. Of course, that's not a problem for us in California, since our current existing Amtrak service is, how shall I say, modest anyhow.
We already know that freight rail carriers are assiduously avoiding high-speed rail as much as they can without bringing the entire FRA down on top of them. The freights and HSR are fundamentally conflicted. They can't really be high-speed and share tracks. Union Pacific, for example, doesn't even want to share its corridors for fear of the vast liability derived from possible collisions or derailments.
The basic issue here is that all trains are not the same. Their needs and purposes, and therefore their functioning, are distinct and diverse. Mentally lumping them all together as steel-on-steel transportation is highly misleading and counter-productive.
It needs to be made clear that high-speed rail is not only quantitatively, but also qualitatively very different then regular passenger rail and certainly freight rail One example of this confusion is Caltrain on the Peninsula corridor, and their anticipation of high speed rail on that same corridor. This is a corridor that the Caltrain executives intend to share with both Union Pacific freights running 30 mph and 125 mph high-speed trains. That this is not immensely challenging is an intentionally misleading impression foisted upon the residents of the Peninsula. We'll talk more about that in the future.
What we have in this article is a great example of the process of cutting through all the hype and promotional sales verbiage to get to the real and substantive issues, which are far less rosy.
On the one hand, the British Transportation Secretary, Philip Hammond, the equivalent of Ray LaHood in our neck of the woods, says grandiose things like, "It would "reshape Britain's economic geography", delivering "massive improvements in journey times" and "unquantifiable strategic benefits." Sound familiar?
On the other hand, "After close examination of rail traffic data and the proposed new service pattern, The Sunday Telegraph has established that the very title and central premise of the scheme is wrong. "High-speed" rail will, in fact, almost certainly slow down the journeys of more rail users than it speeds up." Say what? I'll let the article, below, explain the details of this curious turn of events. We never expect the projects the government imposes on us as counter-productive. Well, we have something new to learn.
The point here is that with most projects, beware, there are unintended consequences. With a project of this order of magnitude in California, the consequences can be devastating for far more than the immediacy of the intended rail corridor. Just a few examples:
It can have major deleterious impact on all existing transit systems, draining essential resources for their maintenance, and rather than enabling them further, can reduce their services.
It can provoke undesirable population migrations and create exactly the suburban sprawl the rail promoters have promised to fight against.
And, if nothing else, you can be absolutely certain that the impact on the state's finances, budget, deficit, and debt will be highly consequential and negative.
The great irony is that the rail authority and its PR machine wants us to see the overseas examples of HSR as the seductive exemplars of what we should be building in California. Yet, when we look more closely at, say China, or in this case, the UK, we suddenly realize that like any stage set, it's not meant to be looked at too closely, or from behind.
High-speed rail: running rapidly right off the rails
The Birmingham-London supertrain is being proclaimed as the totem of a new golden age in British transport. Already, however, it looks a safe bet that the reality will fail to match the rhetoric.
By Andrew Gilligan 8:45AM GMT 06 Mar 2011
The trip by the Transport Secretary, Philip Hammond, to Birmingham last week was one of that growing number of rail journeys that could easily have been replaced by video-conferencing without loss to any of the participants.
Mr Hammond's official purpose in Britain's second city was to launch what he called "one of the most extensive consultations in history" – on the Government's proposed new £17 billion high-speed supertrain from the West Midlands to London. The problem, however, is that ministers have clearly already made up their minds.
The very subtitle of the consultation paper was The Fast Track to Prosperity. And down at the launch event, few claims were too large. The new line, said Mr Hammond, "could transform Britain's competitiveness as profoundly as the coming of the railways in the 19th century". It would "reshape Britain's economic geography", delivering "massive improvements in journey times" and "unquantifiable strategic benefits." Pretty much the only thing the Transport Secretary didn't promise was that high-speed rail would help find Shergar.
Yet even as the rhetoric becomes more outlandish, the small print of the consultation documents suggests that the case for HS2, as it's called, is shrivelling. The main argument against the line has never been that it will carve up the Chilterns or blight thousands of homes. It's that it simply does not work, in either economic or transport terms.
After close examination of rail traffic data and the proposed new service pattern, The Sunday Telegraph has established that the very title and central premise of the scheme is wrong. "High-speed" rail will, in fact, almost certainly slow down the journeys of more rail users than it speeds up.
We can reveal that up to 750 trains every day to places not on the new high-speed line are likely to be slowed down, or scrapped, according to HS2 documents. Until now, HS2 has been seen as an issue mainly for people living along the route – but the rail changes will have an impact on a quarter of the country.
Almost 40 million passenger journeys a year will be affected, with no HS2 alternative available to them – and that's on current figures. If rail travel rises as the Government expects, the number could grow to 60 million by the time the line opens in 2026.
The services to be slowed and cut fall into three groups. The first are the existing fast trains from London to the West Midlands and North West, which will be "recast with reduced frequency".
The annexes to the HS2 prospectus, published last year, state that the current 120 fast trains a day between London and Birmingham on the existing line (60 in each direction) will be reduced to about 40. Passengers to Birmingham will at least have a high-speed alternative, albeit at premium fares. But travellers to other destinations on the current line will not.
Coventry, for instance, will lose two-thirds of its fast trains to London and those that remain will be slowed down by 10 minutes. The existing Manchester and Liverpool services will be cut too, by about 50 trains. Stoke-on-Trent will lose half its London service, which will also be slower.
Wolverhampton, Tamworth, Nuneaton and several other places will suffer a similar fate.
According to MOIRA, the rail industry traffic database, Coventry alone is the fourth busiest intercity destination from Euston, with 976,000 passengers making the trip last year. The number of passengers travelling between the smaller Midlands cities and London is collectively a million a year greater than the number travelling from Birmingham to London.
Yet cannibalised transport links will almost certainly worsen the serious economic inequalities that already exist between regional hubs such as Birmingham and their much less prosperous satellite cities.
The second group of passengers affected will be in the London area. Here, the prospectus says, the local stopping service to Watford could be "removed" or diverted to help free up platform space at Euston for high-speed rail. Though scarcely as glamorous as Mr Hammond's shiny new line, this service alone runs 130 trains a day and carries five million passengers a year, twice as many as currently travel from Euston to Birmingham.
The largest group affected, however, is in a completely different part of the country. According to the HS2 prospectus, trains coming into Paddington will be slowed down to stop at a new HS2 interchange at Old Oak Common, just west of London.
The idea is to improve the connectivity of the new route – but this alone will slow down the London-bound rail services of around a fifth of the country, including the whole of the Thames Valley, western England and South Wales. About 500 trains a day currently run in and out of Paddington, carrying more than 29 million passengers a year.
Still, at least people travelling to Birmingham, Manchester and Liverpool will benefit, won't they? Yes – but by nothing like as much as ministers claim. Almost no one will see "massive improvements in journey times" and claims of "reshaping Britain's economic geography" are idle.
The biggest journey speed-up will, of course, be from Birmingham to London. The consultation document published last week says that high-speed rail will do this in 49 minutes, against what it claims is the existing journey time of 1 hour 24 minutes – a claimed saving of 35 minutes.
In fact, however, the fastest journey on the existing line is 1 hour 12 minutes. So the true saving is 23 minutes, not 35. And HS2 will not serve New Street, the current main station in the heart of Birmingham city centre. It will dump you at a new-build terminus on the edge of the centre, 10 to 15 minutes' walk away. That brings the total time saved down to an almost neglible 10 minutes or so.
Besides, most people won't be travelling to Birmingham's centre, but to its suburbs or other parts of the Midlands. These trips will be slower than now because there will be far poorer interchange with local services, most of which will still use New Street. And about a third of Birmingham passengers will still use the existing London service – perhaps because they will be priced off HS2. Their journeys will be slower, too.
Though the Government talks of an "80-minute" journey time to Liverpool and Manchester, this turns out to require 60 or so miles of high-speed track it hasn't yet decided to build. Under the current plans, HS2 trains for the North West would leave their dedicated line somewhere near Lichfield and continue on the existing tracks. Sadly, the prospectus admits, HS2 trains – unlike the current Virgin Pendolinos – will not tilt. So when they get on to the curvy, conventional line, they will travel slower than the trains we have now.
The HS2 journey time from Manchester to London will, therefore, be 1 hour 40 minutes – just 18 minutes quicker than the fastest existing train. The journey time from Liverpool will be 1 hour 50 – a mere 11 minutes faster than the quickest current service.
HS2's economic case – which depends on quite heroic assumptions of long-term demand growth – also appears shakier than it was. The document admitted that "rail demand is now forecast to grow more slowly than we forecast last year".
And as for the claim that HS2 will create thousands of regional jobs, the small print of the documents concedes that 73 per cent of the "regenerative benefit" jobs created will actually be… in London.
If you are starting to think that all this doesn't seem like that great a deal for £17 billion, you are in increasingly good company. Labour, HS2's original parent, seems to have cooled on it, with the shadow transport secretary, Maria Eagle, saying that the party would consider "other options." The green movement has come out strongly against. The authoritative Financial Times has written a doubting leader.
Mr Hammond may have made up his mind, but more and more others are jumping off the train.