måndag 12 november 2007

Does Britain really need more high speed railway lines?

I will be travelling on the new high speed Eurostar line next week. It opens on Wednesday and will knock 20 minutes off the journey time from London to Paris, which means I can have a later start and still catch my connection. It will be quite useful for me as I use the Eurostar service once or twice a year.

The opening of the line, called HST1, prompted an article in Rail magazine (7 November) by the expert Jim Steer, arguing that there is a need for more high speed lines in Britain. What he says is unconvincing, and I drafted the letter below, but had to shorten it to 250 words before I sent it off, so here is the thing in full.

It is natural that the opening of the new high speed line will have whetted people's appetite for more. But the case for more high speed lines does not follow from Jim Steer's analysis.

Continental TGV lines have mostly utilised existing routes into city centres. But Jim Steer's article refers to the looming capacity problems on lines leading into the large conurbations in Britain, and so the option of using existing rights of way is not available. Although, as he says, new lines into cities like London, Birmingham and Manchester will be needed to relieve the congestion, they will pass through densely developed areas, making them very costly. They alone may well consume all the funds available for new rail infrastructure. For this and general reasons of cost-effectiveness, these new lines could perhaps more usefully take the form of new suburban routes for continental sized high capacity commuter trains, thereby releasing extra paths on the existing tracks.

This is why there is a need to examine the overall picture. In thirty years' time, energy will be expensive. This will tell particularly against the private car, which is inherently energy-inefficient, and against air travel. There will be less competitive pressure against rail travel and less demand for fast journeys to attract passengers to the railway. At the same time, the railways themselves will be seeking to reduce energy consumption, and running at top speeds of not more than about 160kph is an important way of achieving fuel economy. Given that 90% of rail journeys in Britain are less than 90 miles long, the time savings gained by running at higher speeds are of little value to the majority of passengers; few people make long distance journeys more than a couple of times a month.

There is also a need to set priorities. People experience transport difficulties most acutely in the trips they make daily - going to work, getting the children to school, etc. Even the simplest of journeys, like walking to the shops or park, or cycling to college, has become problematic - indeed, dangerous - because most British cities have become overwhelmed with cars, trucks and buses. Investment in high speed rail does not address this. Moreover, as Jim Steer notes in his article, long distance travel involves journeys over local networks, and so improvements to these will automatically reduce door to door times and encourage people to leave their cars at home.

As for the argument that high speed rail will improve the economic performance of the regions, this could be achieved at fraction of the cost by reconstructing the tax system to take account of geographical advantage and disadvantage; at the moment, people are expected to pay the same tax per unit of wealth created, regardless of whether they are operating their business in the middle of the City of London or in a marginal location such as remote Caithness.

There may well be a case for new high speed rail lines, but it needs to be made within a balanced set of policies which do not neglect people's mundane day-to-day travel needs, looking ahead to a time when energy is substantially more expensive than it is today.

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