Jan 2012

Against High Speed Rail

Over in the UK the government has just thrown their weight behind a High Speed Rail (HSR) project to connect London and Birmingham. The project is backed not only by the Tory government (including their sycophantic whipping-boys the Liberal Democrats) but also by the opposition Labour Party. Indeed, with the exception of a few rebellious members of the main parties (mostly from constituencies through which the new rail line will run, but who don’t get any obvious benefits because trains won’t actually stop there) along with parties on the fringe, this HSR project has universal political support.

High Speed Rail (HS2)This contrasts with the striking lack of support from people living in those aforementioned constituencies which will be negatively impacted (some in reality, some perhaps just in perception) by the scheme. Homes will be torn down, the countryside will be cut through (despite parts of the route going underground, there will still be plenty of trees felled and habitats destroyed – 160 important wildlife sites according to unnamed “wildlife groups” in the BBC report) and idyllic rural villages will find their peace and quiet periodically shattered by the thunderous whoosh of a high speed train passing through.

The government, as has become de rigeur with these kinds of project, held a “public consultation” on the matter. These public consultations are one of the most annoying developments in modern political theatre. Basically the government of the day makes a decision, asks the people affected by the decision to agree with it – in the hope of sharing the responsibility if something goes wrong – and then completely ignores the results of the consultation if it turns out that people don’t agree with the decision. It’s the sort of craven and cowardly strategy that shouldn’t surprise anyone, given how craven and cowardly our political classes have become, but still manages to frustrate and annoy because of the magnanimous manner in which these consultations are generally announced. “Why yes, we will let you little people have your say on this matter… just don’t expect us to actually listen.”

In the case of the London to Birmingham HSR project (known as ‘HS2’; ‘HS1’ being the Channel Tunnel link) almost 90% of the 55,000 responses to the public consultation objected to it. Whether you agree with the project or not, this surely demonstrates that the actual consultation was a waste of time and money carried out in the vain hope it would provide positive PR. It makes no sense whatsoever for there to be a legal requirement to hold a public consultation unless there is also a legal requirement to actually listen to the results.

Of course, just because a majority of people along the route of a rail line object to it, does not itself make the project A Bad Thing. The concerns of those directly affected by any infrastructure project must be factored into the decision making process. But they should not – necessarily – over-ride all other factors. Major projects like HS2 have an impact far beyond the route itself. They provide economic benefits that radiate out from the project for quite a distance. And they may offer environmental benefits should the trains reduce the use of more damaging transportation. So it may often be the case – as with wind farms, for instance – that the objections of local residents must unfortunately be over-ruled in the knowledge that the wider benefits to society outweigh those objections. The impact on local residents should be minimised as far as is practical, and compensation should be offered where necessary.

The Question

So the question becomes: Does HS2 provide sufficient benefits to outweigh the negative impact on those directly affected and upon the countryside through which the line will run? Over on twitter, John Band made his position pretty clear when he wrote: “I think HS2 has now officially joined bendy buses on my List Of Transport Things Where It’s Fair To Assume An Opponent Is A Dick.” Now, I like John. Even if he is calling me a dick.

Because, frankly, I think the HS2 project is a ridiculous and damaging waste of resources.

Don’t get me wrong, investing UK£33 billion (almost €40 billion) in rail infrastructure is a bloody marvellous idea [UPDATE: As John points out in the comments, the 33bn covers the entire HSR network rather than just the London-Birmingham line, though this doesn’t affect my basic position]. It’s exactly the kind of thing that governments should be doing right now (and it’s a crying shame that our government here in Ireland is pouring money into zombie banks; money that could be upgrading our public transport network… or building hospitals… or employing teachers… hell, spend the billions on beer and pies if you must, it would still be a better use of the cash than pouring it into Anglo-Irish Bank). But investing money in the rail network is not necessarily synonymous with spending a massive lump-sum on a vanity project.

And that’s what it is. A vanity project. Railways are a great idea. High Speed Rail is a terrible one. A recent US study (High Speed Rail and Greenhouse Gas Emissions in the U.S.*) of the carbon emissions of various modes of transport suggests that travelling on HSR produces 20% more emissions than going by conventional rail, and almost double that of coaches. And that’s without factoring in the environmental costs of the actual infrastructure (which are high thanks to the large amounts of concrete and steel used).

And it’s not as if it’s providing a massive time saving either. HS2 won’t be teleportation. It’ll be more expensive than conventional rail and will reduce journey times by a shade over 40%. So the average saving between London and Birmingham will be roughly half an hour. Are the Tories really spending a fortune to cut up the countryside, screw up the lives of local residents and increase the cost of train travel, all to save a half hour? With WiFi available on UK intercity trains these days, it’s not like it even needs to be a half-hour “away from the office” for a lot of people.

Yes, from an emissions standpoint HSR beats cars and planes – by a considerable margin it should be said – but it’s really not in competition with them. Most people who make the journey by car are unlikely to switch to train without a major incentive. That incentive is on the way, of course, in the form of peak oil. But because HSR carries far less passengers than conventional rail, it makes much more sense to absorb any large switch from car to train using conventional rail [UPDATE: In the comments John points out that this is not the case… which invalidates one of my objections to HSR, though I still think that conventional rail – albeit on an upgraded system with a few billion invested in it – is far better than HSR in the face of Climate Change and resource depletion. So I still say that British rail investment should be going into upgrading the current rail network… increase platform lengths, buy some extra carriages and develop a new signalling system].

In fact, it makes even more sense to absorb the migration from private car into a new, integrated coach network. You want to travel from London to Birmingham? Simple. Build a large new coach station in Brent Cross, North London (i.e. within sight of the M1 on-ramp). Link it directly to the tube either via the Northern Line or the Jubilee Line (it would require a new branch of no more than a few hundred metres in either case). Then dedicate an entire lane of the M1 to express-coach traffic only. This will reduce journey times for coaches while providing an additional incentive for drivers to ditch their cars.

Yes, yes, Jeremy Clarkson and the rest of the motoring lobby will hate the idea… but frankly they will become increasingly irrelevant as oil price rises start to make private car use a luxury – long before HS2 is due to start running in 2026. Motorways will be half-empty by that stage anyway. No, an integrated coach network may not as sexy as HSR, but it makes a damn sight more sense environmentally, is a fraction of the cost to set up, makes use of existing infrastructure that will soon be significantly under-employed and will cost far less for the end user.

So… by objecting to HS2 I’m objecting to a massive infrastructure project that will damage the environment, will cost a lot more than it needs to, will be a dreadfully inefficient use of resources, will inconvenience more people than is necessary and will be more expensive to the end-user than the alternatives. If that makes me “a dick”, then so be it. Better that than flush money down the toilet and screw up the planet because I like shiny things that go fast. Which I do, but I’m not so idiotic as to want to base public policy on that fact.

* Although the study is titled High Speed Rail and Greenhouse Gas Emissions in the U.S., they actually looked at a variety of projects around the world and based their calculations on the emissions produced by the Danish IC-3 system, which they felt were representative of HSR as a whole.

Posted in: Opinion