Thursday, July 21, 2011

What do the Brits. know about HSR that we don't?

The papers in Britain have been full of high-speed rail discussions.  People are very angry and reports are being produced that poke holes into all the advocacy arguments being made by the promoters.  The HS2 will be the second major high-speed rail project, the train that goes to the Continent through the Chunnel being HS1, their first.

This being an article in The Economist, it would, of course be about the HS2, the British high-speed rail project intended to connect London to Edinburgh. That's not going to be a straight shot.  There will be numerous stops along the way, and they will be building it incrementally, in stages.  Here we go again. Promise far too much; low-ball the development costs.

The "Millenium Dome" (Google it) and the Air France/British Airways "Concorde" (Google that, also) are great examples of what will go wrong with HSR in both the UK -- which, after all, is far more RR oriented -- and in California, which barely has an Amtrak system in place. 

So why are we reading about the HS2 in the UK?  Because it's also about us and our HSR project in California in every way.  If I may interpret the author's overarching point, he argues that doing a number of more modest things that address specific problems directly is preferable to building one huge thing that can very well fail and indeed, add to all the problems.  

For example, if HSR ever "reduces" our carbon footprint, well before that it will increase it significantly.  Say, during at least ten years of construction, if not more.  All manufacturing is "dirty."  All Diesel construction machinery is "dirty."  All construction is "dirty."  800 miles of construction "dirty." 

High-Speed Rail is the most photogenic thing politicians can think of supporting.  It has that "WOW" factor that fixing potholes, upgrading Amtrak, adding a runway at some airport, or improving air transit and driving safety all don't have.  Instead of one super-project gamble with extreme and costly risks, we can reduce traffic congestion in our population regions, because that's where it exists; not on inter-city highways.  The way to do that is to address the problem directly; improve or reduce traffic flow, re-direct traffic (sometimes a longer trip can be faster), increase working flex time to reduce commuter peak flow, increase stay-at-home-work, etc. etc.  Incremental growth is always better for everyone than dramatic mega-projects, especially those that don't have universal support.

All these more modest fixes cost far less than HSR, but don't reward politicians who advocate and work for such improvements.

Finally, beware of advocates of grandiose schemes who have rigid but vague ideological visions of fundamentally re-ordering society, obliging us live differently (and travel differently) than we do now.  It's one thing to advocate such changes, it's an entirely different matter to impose those changes on us.  They say, "give us your money, don't ask any questions, and we will build a bright new future for everyone with the construction and operation of a luxury train system."  Shouldn't that kind of thinking alert everyone's "crap detector?"

High speed rail
On a collision path
Jul 21st 2011, 14:05 by R.B  LONDON

A report published this week into the government’s proposed high speed rail link from London to Birmingham makes its argument pretty plain in the title: “High Speed 2: the next government project disaster?”.

Don’t be distracted by the question market at the end of that sentence—the Institute of Economic Affairs clearly thinks the undertaking is both pointless and pricey. 

The suggestion that a large project may cost more and take longer than forecast is hardly surprising. But the authors have made some useful efforts in trying to assess the project. It argues, for example, that the first five miles out of London, from Euston Station to Old Oak Common will add almost 25% to the cost of the project, and deliver little time saving.

The study also questions the basis of the government’s economic assessment and projected demand and savings from HS2, as the high speed project is known (HS1, the Channel tunnel rail link, has already been built). The largest chunk of estimated cost savings in the high speed rail plan comes from saving time for business travellers, for example, as highlighted in an  earlier study for the select committee inquiry into high speed rail.

But this assumes that time on board a train is wasted—which, in an age of mobiles, laptops and wi-fi, it doesn’t need to be. 

This is one of many such reviews of an important and high profile project. One thing that is interesting, though, is that the authors compare HS2 to the Millennium Dome, which cost taxpayers a huge amount with little benefit, economic or any other sort. The authors argue that HS2 is another glamour project whose benefits have not been established.

That is a shrewd comparison—not necessarily because it is right, but because it highlights a more fundamental problem of transport policy: that most of it is extremely unglamorous. And leaving aside the pros and cons of the project for a minute, high speed rail does do one thing spectacularly well: it gets coverage. 

I haven’t kept count of how many column inches have been devoted to HS2. But, though there are a lot of trainspotters in the media, not many people want to write a lot about roads. Yet about three quarters of journeys made in Britain are by road, more for long-distance trips. Policy makers talk about “modal shifts”—getting people to change the form of transport they use to make a journey. But it is extraordinarily hard to achieve this, apart from within very large cities with dense and overlapping transport possibilities (ie, London). Most people use the form of transport that makes the most sense to them, and will continue to do so. And that means travel by road will continue to dominate.

Being stuck in traffic is far more wasteful in both economic and environmental terms than time spent on a train (presuming that the train is not delayed). In terms of transport policy, the greatest savings are likely to be made by clearing up fairly small-scale congestion at traffic hot spots around the country. The solutions are simpler, faster, cheaper—and usually involve less resistance from key parts of the electorate. 

There’s a problem, though. Traffic flow management isn’t sexy, and it doesn’t get stories on the front page of the national press. Big infrastructure projects—like high speed rail—do. That is a challenge for a minister who wants to get his or her department noticed. Here is a quote from Sir Rod Eddington’s 2006 study into Britain’s transport infrastructure: “The UK transport system supports a staggering 61 billion journeys a year. In broad terms, it provides the right connections in the right places to support the journeys that matter to economic performance.” That isn’t a ringing endorsement for change, though he does, of course, go on to point out that those networks are under strain and needs maintaining and upgrading. 

All of this highlights the difficulty that Philip Hammond and his colleagues face at the Department for Transport: small, boring traffic solutions can improve people’s lives and bring significant cost savings, but relatively few people will notice or thank the government. The coalition government has high hopes of radical change. But in transport, the politics of inactivity should be weighed carefully against the politics of activity. Being over-ambitious could yet turn out to be very costly indeed.

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