torsdag 6 september 2007

More on high speed rail - does Britain need it?

There was a long discussion thread this week on the Guardian's web pages, following the test run of the Eurostar train over the newly finished route into London.

First. The entire conventional rail network in the UK is sub standard. Britain has a narrow gauge railway running on standard gauge track, with sharp curvature. This precludes double deck trains entirely and results in all other trains being cramped and uncomfortable. Compare Eurostar with the TGV to see the difference.

Therefore to get proper value out of new high speed lines, they cannot use existing routes into city centres, though there may be some alternatives such as the line into London Marylebone.

Second. What counts is door to door journey times. Within the UK, people are concentrated into an area bounded roughly by Leeds, Manchester, Bournemouth and Dover - over 85% live and work there. But within that area they are quite dispersed - it is a pattern of development that cannot be served efficiently by public transport. But it means that a high proportion of journey times are both too short for significant savings to be made by high speed rail and are not in any case city-centre to city-centre.

Third. The same reasons also make it very difficult to define acceptable routes especially in the approaches to cities, and when a route is established, land acquisition costs are vast.

Fourth, there is the general and unresolved question of paying for infrastructure. If it is worth having it will result in an overall enhancement of land values. But the government has no mechanism for capturing land values and so, unsurprisingly, the Treasury is lukewarm.

But assuming money were to become available for public transport investment, probably the best priorities would be (1) local transport improvements (2) gauge enhancement and platform lengthening and grade separation of junctions to improve passenger and freight capacity; it is absurd that, eg the busy junctions at Reading and Didcot are still flat and not flyovers.

These are in any case essential preliminaries in order to make effective use of high speed trunk routes, which come third in any sensible list of priorities. And at the same time the government needs to switch to a system of land value taxation so that the return on the investment does not end up in the pockets of landowners who happen to have owned property in the right location. Just watch Folkestone as an example of the process at work.

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