Tuesday, March 1, 2011

The Wall Street Journal - European Edition - Online about HSR in the UK

Let this article drive the point home that high-speed rail is a disaster that they don't want in the UK and we don't want here. The author, Chris Stokes, is a railroad professional, by the way.

Paragraph by paragraph, point by point, this article refutes each and every claim made by the promoters.  And, please let's learn their lessons so we don't repeat their mistakes.

It costs too much, it can't be afforded by the British Government (and we can't afford it either here in the US), it won't benefit the environment, it won't reduce traffic congestion, and even more importantly, it won't have the positive impact on business and the economy that is so brashly claimed by the advocates.  Furthermore, it won't employ those tens and hundreds of thousands of workers, and it won't carry all those projected passengers.  

One major claim hits at a key issue that is pretty much ignored.  The Brits who want HSR claim that their current rail system is overcrowded with too many passengers and not enough trains.  Ordinarily, you would think that having identified the problem, the solution would be to fix the problem. In this case, it would mean improving the existing rail system. And Chris Stokes provides some examples of that.

However, and this is critical, high-speed rail is not an improvement of existing rail in the UK, and more certainly not in the US.  It's an entirely new, from the ground up, start-up rail system.  In a sense, it by-passes the existing passenger rail system and in the US, ignores our current passenger rail Amtrak.  Amtrak is desperate to own this new HSR system so that it will not be by-passed by them.  However, that organizational issue is a long way off from being decided.  

HSR in the US is not an evolutionary improvement of existing rail as in Japan and Europe; it's a totally new and different transit mode.  High-speed rail, especially at speeds over 175 mph+, requires its own, dedicated tracks.  It can't share with either Amtrak passenger or freight. To help understand the difference, HSR is closer to a taxiing aircraft that never takes off than it is to the 75 mph Amtrak heavy rail passenger lines.  It is misleading for us to believe that HSR is merely an upgrade to the trains with which we are so familiar.  That is one reason for the stunningly high costs.

Furthermore, in the US we have no experience in HSR whatsoever.  Acela doesn't really count because it is an upgrade modification on existing rail lines, sharing tracks with freight and Amtrak passenger traffic. 

In the US, the past fifty years have seen a continuous decline in passenger rail service.  It has been supplanted by flying and driving, both having benefited from massive government funding in airports and the Interstate Highway System.  What is being proposed now is a totally different animal.  And we have no history, culture, legacy or tradition to draw on to create it.  That can mean only one thing: going overseas with our shopping cart.

Just as our British cousins are now doing -- re-assessing this rush to judgement -- shouldn't we be doing the same? Can we not cut past the promotional verbiage, the empty promises, the marketing hyperbole and take a hard look at what we are rushing into?  


High Speed, Low Benefit
Why are ministers determined to spend £32 billion on a new train set that few Britons will use much?
March 2, 2011


The cost of a new high-speed rail line from London to Birmingham, and then splitting into two lines running to Manchester and Leeds, is estimated to total £32 billion. That's well over £1,000 for every family in Britain. In exchange, we'll see only the first stage of the so-called "HS2" line, to Birmingham, opening in 2026. 

Even then, the rail line won't have the benefits that its political patrons claim. Indeed, the business case for the high-speed line is weak, and business leaders hoping to win the government's favor by backing this vanity project should think again.

Ministers argue the case on several fronts, citing regeneration, the environment, keeping up with other countries, and a need for additional rail capacity. But none of these explanations stack up, and are all based on wildly optimistic forecasts about growth in rail travel.

The rail line's cheerleaders claim that this investment will tackle England's North-South divide, helping the Midlands and the North catch up to wealthier London and the Southeast. But as Mike Geddes of Warwick Business School, among other noted academics, has pointed out in evidence to Parliament, any regeneration benefits would be small and hard to establish—though HS2 may deliver demonstrable redistribution of economic activity and jobs that would "likely benefit the biggest and strongest cities and regions most."

Bizarrely, HS2's supporters point to Stratford in East London, which has a station on Britain's existing high-speed line to the Channel Tunnel, as a promising example. It's true that there is currently massive investment in Stratford, but that's not a result of high-speed rail, but rather of the prospect of the 2012 Olympics. The Eurostar doesn't stop there, and the stops there for commuter trains are hardly used. Meanwhile, any brownfield site within ten miles of the center of London could be transformed with the funding that politicians have pumped into the area, such as for Stratford's "international station" that has no international trains.

High-speed rail won't drive regeneration in the North of the country either. Manchester already has a train leaving every 20 minutes for London, taking a little over two hours. Does anyone really think that cutting the journey time to an hour and a quarter is going to transform Manchester's economy? As for the incredible forecast that demand for HS2 will rise by 267%, we can't be too surprised by this optimism: Worldwide, 80% of growth forecasts for high-speed lines have ben too high, typically by 50%.

We're told that HS2 will create 40,000 new jobs, but this is misleading. Many of those jobs will be temporary, while others will just represent activity moving from one part of the country to another. The TaxPayers' Alliance has studied the numbers, and found that the £17 billion in public investment necessary just for the London-to-Birmingham stretch of HS2 could, if unleashed in the wider economy, create four times as many jobs.

Nor is the project good for the environment. Even HS2 Ltd., the government-owned company charged with developing the scheme, only claims that it won't increase greenhouse-gas emissions. 

The energy consumption per seat on high-speed trains is inevitably higher than for lower speeds, and any transfer from road and air would be insufficient to outweigh this, even with the extraordinary assumption that domestic air travel would otherwise increase 178% by 2033. In fact, domestic passengers at London's airports have fallen by 8% since 2000.

Another argument popular with ministers is that most first-world countries have built or are building high-speed railways, so obviously Britain must as well. But we already have fast train services, and due to our geography, the average journey time from London to the largest cities in Britain is lower than for equivalent journeys in many other countries, such as France or Germany, where the distances are such that high-speed trains have a much bigger impact. Going to Barcelona from Madrid by rail took seven hours before Spain built its high-speed line, so almost everyone flew; now it takes less than three hours, and most people go by train. But in Britain the difference wouldn't be nearly as dramatic.

When all the above arguments fall flat, HS2 supporters fall back on claiming that Britain's existing rail network is overcrowded. It's true that rail traffic has grown strongly in recent years, particularly from London to the West Midlands and the Northwest. But still only about 50% of the existing seats are occupied, and as of 2012 the government will have lengthened most of the trains on the route anyway, increasing standard-class seating in each train by 50%.

Nevertheless, there is a problem now on the southern end of the route, where peak trains between London and Milton Keynes are regularly jam-packed. Ministers assert that nothing can be done until HS2 is built, in 2026 at best. But this isn't the case: Investment in new, faster commuter trains, together with a flyover to allow them to change tracks without delaying trains in the other direction, could double peak capacity to Milton Keynes within five years, for far less than the £750 million the government plans to spend on HS2 over the same period.

Money is tight for ordinary families and taxpayers. Why are ministers so determined to spend £32 billion they can't afford on a shiny new train set that few Britons will use much anyway?
Mr. Stokes has held a range of senior posts in the rail industry, the British government and in management consultancy. He recently wrote a review of the business case for HS2 for the London-based TaxPayers' Alliance.