High Speed, High Cost, High Vanity

The National Audit Office has questioned the business benefits of the government’s proposal to build a high speed rail link from London through Birmingham and to the North of the country. It is expressing a view that is shared by many people, not just those whose homes or businesses will be blighted by the new railway line.

The starting point when considering any new government project is to understand that governments like big projects, the bigger the better. They prefer to subsidise acres of photovoltaic panels in green fields that to subsidies two solar water heating panels on the roofs of thousands of homes. They prefer to subsidise hundreds of wind turbines than to subsidise tens of thousands of homes to have their lofts insulated and their cavity walls insulated. They like to build massive Olympic Parks and structures to celebrate the millennium, even though those buildings have limited after the event use and usually end up virtually being given away for free to commercial organisations rather than spend the money doing good in a million small ways. they prefer vanity projects.

This is the philosophy of all governments; that big is better and small is insignificant. That philosophy underpins the high speed rail project; let us all get to Birmingham faster (perhaps by as much as twenty minutes) at the cost of billions to the public purse because…it will be better and bring unspecified benefits.
Of course communications within any nation are important but it is the quality and reliability of those communications that matter, not necessarily the speed. I have travelled on trains in Switzerland; mostly the trains chunder along quite slowly but with great reliability. You can almost set your watch by them, whether there are leaves on the line or not or whether there is the wrong kind or the right kind of snow.

If the public purse is to be tapped by improving the railways then there are more ways to bring economic reliability than building a stretch of track at which trains can travel at very high speeds. Electrification of track has an environmental benefit, because electric engines are lighter and need less energy to pull them along. Building double decker trains also has an environmental benefit in that more people can be accommodated. Making the signalling system robust and less prone to breakdown and ensuring that leaves and snow never disrupt the trains also have obvious environmental and business benefits.

These are small measures; a politician will not be able to proudly boast that he has corrected a million small defects and injustices but he will be able to claim “I built that high speed railway that gets you from London to Birmingham twenty minutes in travel time earlier”.

I suppose that even that twenty minute claim will need revision; the time the train spends travelling may be reduced by twenty minutes or so, but no doubt some of that twenty minutes will be lost by adopting longer check in times. We can no longer run for a train and jump into it as it accelerates (as we could with steam trains) and no longer open the doors as the train pulls into a station and jump out quickly (as we could with suburban electric trains) and I wonder if the check in time for the high speed link to Birmingham will be more than the journey time saved by the link.

The only evidence that this is likely to be the case comes from the reasonably higher speed train that you can take from Kings Cross to Brussels or Paris; there the check in times are about forty five minutes as you have to go through security and passport control. The journeys are much longer than from London to Birmingham and there is a net saving of time. On the new high speed train line there will be no need for passport control, but there might be a need for more security than we have at present.

The National Audit Office is right to question this grandiose and probably unnecessary project. The project may bring jobs in the building of the railway, but any investment on that scale would bring jobs and investing in many small improvements and upgrades to the railways system will bring jobs that last and that will provide employment for many years, not just for a few short years.  When the Channel Tunnel was proposed it was claimed that it would bring great prosperity to the eastern parts of Kent. That never happened. It was a worthwhile project because it developed a new route of communication. Going from London to Birmingham on high speed trains simply enables you t get there faster; the time you save will no doubt be swallowed up in a traffic jam or a bus delay when you get to your destination.

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