Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Maybe not so high-speed trains are actually superior to very high-speed trains.

This article is from a FORBES blogger.  Anyone who had done some homework and quotes Bent Flyvbjerg 'get's it' as far as I'm concerned.  Tim Worstall is writing about the HS2, the high-speed project in the UK that's been under so much fire from a variety of sources.  It's also, like the California one, being pushed down peoples' throats.   Worstall quotes Virginia Postrel's article, which we provided several blog entries ago.

The basic point turns out to be that these projects almost with no exception, are developed as scams for pulling in huge amounts of money, which in turn gets distributed to major industrial/corporate organizations who in turn are, shall we say, very, very nice to the politicians who have orchestrated all this. Meanwhile, these projects help push their host countries into ever deeper debt. And then, these trains don't deliver on any of their promises. That's a definition of a scam.

But, this isn't the central point of this article.  What is the central point is "What's the damn hurry?"  By that I mean that one of the big selling points of riding HSR is that they provide all kinds of services not unlike the offices that the train riders have just left, or are going to.  We've been making this point for some time now.  If you can work on your laptop on the train, then it's certainly not wasted time; to the contrary, it's productive.  In which case, how much difference does it make whether you work on your computer on the train or at your desk.  Remember you have your smart phone right next to you. 

Therefore, a whole new question has to be asked.  A fast express train, running at around 100-125 mph compared to a true HSR at 200 mph costs far less than half as much to build and operate.  Why isn't that good enough?  (Don't let the perfect get in the way of the good.)  Train time is not wasted time; therefore five hours is five hours of productivity, and at far lower cost. Shouldn't cost/effectiveness be an intrinsic part of our thinking about whether to build these trains or not?

Shouldn't this issue be part of the major equation of justifying what is and isn't built?  In which case, aren't we really building the infrastructure for these 250 mph capable trains (which we must buy from overseas) merely to show off; sorry, for prestige?

How dumb is that?

Tim Worstall

Why We Shouldn’t be Building Large Infrastructure Projects

Jul. 13 2011 - 6:55 am 

This is applicable around the world but in the UK particularly so at present for the high speed train project. This is the idea that the country would be made so much better if only we had a high speed rail link between the North and the South.

Virginia Postrel details nicely one of the major problems with such projects:

“Cost overruns in the order of 50 percent in real terms are common for major infrastructure, and overruns above 100 percent are not uncommon,” Bent Flyvbjerg, a professor of major program management at the University of Oxford’s Said Business School, writes in the Oxford Review of Economic Policy. “Demand and benefit forecasts that are wrong by 20-70 percent compared with actual development are common.”

Essentially, those who promote them are less than transparent about the costs of building them and then further less than transparent about the benefits of their being used: or even about how many people will use them. Worth reading the rest of her piece as it is a general worldwide problem about such projects.

It’s here that I get to make my by now almost ritual point about infrastructure. It’s neither the having of it nor the building of it that makes us all rich. It’s the use to which people put it which does. And if fewer people use it, gaining smaller benefits from doing so, than the costs of our having built it, then infrastructure does not make us richer it makes us poorer.

Which brings us to the specifics of the HST project. In the details of those benefits there’s a large number which does much of the justifying of the costs of the project. This is the time saved by those people using high speed instead of medium speed (and the current rail network between the proposed points is medium, not low, speed) transport.

It is true that time saved is a benefit, just as time spent is a cost. However, inside these numbers again we have a much higher value assigned to the time of those business people making the journey than we do to the tourists or day-trippers in the cheap seats. There’s nothing wrong with this again, standard cost benefit assumption.

Except, well, I’m not sure. The time value for these terribly important people is based on the idea that while they’re travelling they can’t be doing the very valuable things that very important people do. Thus their travel time is a dead loss: and reducing that travel time becomes a very valuable and major benefit. But let us be honest here: does anyone really think that these days people on trains are doing nothing?

Laptops and mobile phones mean that at least a modicum of work can be done while travelling. So the value of time saved by fewer hours travelling should fall. In fact, we can almost certainly go further. Sitting with a laptop, a phone and a decent internet connection in a comfy seat on a train is, these days, almost as productive as being in a nice office in a comfy chair with a computer, phone and decent internet connection.

In which case the value of the reduced transport time for these very important people collapses down to almost nothing. Something which rather explodes the cost benefit analysis of having the fast trains at all for the benefits rely so heavily on the high value of the time of these very important people not doing anything.

In short, forget making the trains faster and just install decent in carriage Wi-Fi. We get the same benefits at vastly reduced cost: and what can be bad about that?

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