Monday, September 26, 2011

British White Elephants and American Boondoggles

What we call a "Boondoggle," the Brits. call a "White Elephant."  "HS2" is the British proposed high-speed train from London through Birmingham to Edinburgh.

What's important about this story, and the opposition has been vocal and widespread, is that it's in the UK, one of the European countries with a long history of being railroad transit based.  'Everyone' takes trains everywhere in Great Britain. 'Everyone' knows the train timetables by heart.  Therefore, if the train loving British object to HSR for many of the same reasons we do here in California, it bears paying attention to.  

It should go without being said that, wherever HSR runs in Europe, including the UK, it is being subsidized by the government. Why should that be an issue?  Is anything that the government subsidizes (with our tax dollars) necessarily a bad thing?  Actually, not. Not if it provides the most benefit to the most people.  One major example with which each and everyone of us is familiar is public-school education.  

Let it be said that most Republicans in the US oppose this also and would wish all education to be privatized.  In this case, while I certainly agree with the Republican opposition to HSR, I oppose the Republican opposition to public education. 

Why?  Because of the very low cost/benefits to the Nation's taxpayers derived from costly high-speed rail which serves only the affluent, unlike public education which clearly serves each and every child in our country. While HSR is being falsely portrayed as a major economic engine, when in fact it will be a debt burden, education is the preparation for each and every one of us to enter society and its economy; the more education, the healthier the economy. 

California has had its trains since the mid to late 1800s. In this state, we have Amtrak passenger trains now.  But, they remain a miniscule fraction of the modality we use to travel. In that context, one of the weakest arguments the HSR promoters make is the replacement contention. They claim that they will replace automobiles and flying with HSR.  That, on the face of it, is absurd. As in Europe with a major continuous investment in high-speed rail, the highways and airways will remain crowded regardless of the rail advocates' contentions. 

One reason it's ridiculous is that the rail promoters also claim an immense population increase.  The logic appears to be that the more people come to California, the more they will take high-speed rail, while flying and driving less.  The fact is the burden on all modes of transit will possibly increase, depending upon the economic and professional levels of those increasing the population.  HSR certainly will not be a critical variable in that complex equation. 

One last comment.  I don't know how to say this mathematically, but there are cost/benefit ratios derived from the speed of trains. And, there is an optimal speed.  That is to say, ever faster is not ever better.
Perhaps it is an asymptotic (somewhat S shaped) curve. 

At some point on the speed curve, the costs (expressed in the broadest terms) far exceed the benefits.  I propose that what we intend to build in California, a 220 mph train, is speed 'over-kill.'  The costs of upgrading existing rail systems to higher speeds, say 125 to 150 mph, remains far more cost/effective than higher speeds. 

That concept runs counter to the universally held myth in the US that more of anything is better.  And, that is just not true.

Tory grassroots rebel against HS2 plans
A Conservative grassroots revolt against the Government's high speed rail plans will erupt into the open at the party's annual conference next weekend.

Members of STOP HS2 with their 10 foot high inflatable white elephant outside parliament Photo: PA

By David Harrison
7:00AM BST 25 Sep 2011

A Conservative grassroots revolt against the Government's high speed rail plans will erupt into the open at the party's annual conference.

Tory MPs, council leaders and activists will join campaigners in calling on ministers to abandon a £33 billion project to build new line between London and Birmingham then on to the North of England.

They will launch a "rail manifesto", arguing that the benefits promised by the scheme could be achieved at a fraction of the cost by improving the existing rail network.

The move will add to pressure on the Coalition to rethink its support for the scheme, with a final decision on whether to go ahead expected in the next few months.

The Government wants to build the London-Birmingham link by 2026, for an initial cost of £17 billion, then extend it to Manchester and Leeds by 2033.

It says the project, known as HS2, will help to bridge the North-South divide by cutting journey times and fuelling economic growth in the Midlands and North - where business leaders have backed the plans.

However, the opponents' manifesto, drawn up by railway economists and engineers, argues that upgrading current services would be a quicker and more cost-effective way to solve overcrowding and congestion problems.

The document, A Better Railway for Britain, proposes improvements which it says would cost just over £2 billion and bring immediate benefits.

It urges the Government to abolish its "vanity project" and instead commit to upgrading trains, tracks and services across the country to create jobs and boost Britain's economy.

Smaller regional improvement projects would be more likely to use British firms and British workers than a "grandiose infrastructure project", campaigners will tell a fringe meeting at the Conservative conference next Sunday.

Martin Tett, the leader of Buckinghamshire county council and head of a coalition of 18 local authorities which contributed to the anti-HS2 manifesto, said: "It is crazy to think about spending over £30 billion on a project with a flawed business and environmental case when there is a much cheaper and better alternative, and at a time when the country is deep in debt."

Critics claim that HS2 will bring no overall economic benefit while destroying stretches of fine countryside.

Far from narrowing the gap between North and South, opponents allege that the high-speed rail link will suck more business into the capital.

The rail manifesto says that relatively small improvements could double capacity on many services into London, Manchester, Birmingham and Leeds as well as large towns and cities in Scotland, East Anglia and south west England.

Chris Stokes, a former director of the Strategic Rail Authority and a co-author of the manifesto who will speak at the launch, said: "There are serious capacity problems on commuter lines into big cities, especially in the Midlands and north of England.

"But these problems could be eased quickly and relatively cheaply by adding rolling stock and perhaps converting one first class carriage to standard class. This would double capacity."

Mr Stokes said that upgrading the network would bring "far more benefits far more quickly" to the regions than high-speed rail. "Building a shiny new high-speed railway would be a mistake," he said.

Mr Tett said: "We need to start investing in local infrastructure, and especially the northern hub, in a way that gives the taxpayer value for money.

"High-speed rail is a vanity project that would not be finished for years, yet we could start on local projects today.
"The Government is using HS2 symbolically, to show that it is doing something about rebalancing the regions, but HS2 will do nothing of the sort."

A decision on whether to go ahead with the high-speed link, which is backed by David Cameron, the Prime Minister, and Phillip Hammond, the Transport Secretary, is expected towards the end of the year.

It will follow publication of the results of a Government consultation and a report by the all-party Transport Select Committee. If approved, the project will be included in a hybrid Bill, probably in 2013.

Steve Baker, the Conservative MP and member of the transport committee, whose Wycombe constituency is on line's proposed route, said: "HS2 should be scrapped. It is not about economics because the business case for it is at best unclear.

"It is a totally unrealistic vision of the future of public transport, and verges on the irrational. It cannot be right that taxpayers take the risk and private companies take the profit."

Jerry Marshall, the charman of Action Groups Against High Speed Two (AGAHST), who will chair Sunday's meeting, said: "It will cost £800 million just to plan HS2 during this parliament - enough to pay the wages of 19,000 police officers."

At the Labour conference, campaigners will launch their "ad-van", a mobile advertisement that will ask whether spending on HS2 should be a priority at a time of cuts to public services.

On October 13, Andrea Leadsom, the Conservative MP for South Northamptonshire, will lead a debate on HS2 in the House of Commons.
"Like many people I thought HS2 was a brilliant idea when I first heard about it. But the more I have looked into it the more it has become clear that it is not the answer," she said.

"It is not green or economically beneficial and we simply can't afford it. The Government has to accept that the game has changed and scrap the project as soon as possible."

But supporters of high-speed rail rejected the manifesto and said its proposals would result in fewer services and seats than HS2, while allowing no room for future growth in passenger numbers.

Prof David Begg, director of the Campaign for High-Speed Rail, said: "The alternative would be a disaster for British transport and the economy."

He said HS2 was a more viable and long-term solution because alternatives were a short-term fix and would make services less reliable. Upgrading would also cause disruption for commuters, he added.

1 comment:

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