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January 12th, 2011

High Speed Rail is a critical national infrastructure where the UK lags well behind Europe, and might even fall behind the equally lagging USA


Estimated reading time: 5 minutes

Blog Admin

January 12th, 2011

High Speed Rail is a critical national infrastructure where the UK lags well behind Europe, and might even fall behind the equally lagging USA


Estimated reading time: 5 minutes

The UK’s second high speed rail line (HS2) is mired in planning controversies and may face years of delays. Gil Shidlo explores the reasons why this project is in its infancy whilst European countries, some of which are in deep economic crisis and have heavy debts, none the less run some of the most successful high speed train systems.

High speed rail is ubiquitous in Europe, and is growing. Spain for example, runs the world’s largest track system of high speed trains after China and France. Just before Christmas Spain inaugurated its latest route – the AVE from Madrid to Valencia. This new track reduces the travel time from about four hours to only 90 minutes and reach speeds of 300 km/h (190 mph).

Image Credit: albertizeme/Creative Commons

The cost of this 272 mile line to Spain is a mind boggling £5.64 billion, and it will create 136,000 direct and indirect jobs according to Accenture, which is impressive in a country with 20 per cent unemployment. Portugal is also planning a high-speed train that will link Madrid to Lisbon by 2015.

Yet my Table below shows that so far high speed trains (HSTs) are a very European or Asian phenomenon. The Anglo-Saxon countries are almost absent from the rankings, with the USA, Canada and Australia lacking any mileage, and the UK’s only stretch being the diminutive stretch linking to Channel Tunnel.

Table: High- speed railways by country

Country In operation (km) Under construction (km) Total (km)
China 4840 6277 10025
Spain 1983 1761 3744
Japan 1986 510 2496
France 1897 209 2106
Germany 1032 378 1410
Italy 923 0 923
Turkey 457 308 745
South Korea 330 82 412
Taiwan 345 0 345
Belgium 209 0 209
Netherlands 120 0 120
United Kingdom 113 0 113
Switzerland 35 72 107

Source – Wikipedia “High Speed Rail

In England there are at least plans for change. HS2 Ltd (the company set up by the Government) published a report to Ministers in March 2010 outlining how the first phase of HST services will run from central London to a new Birmingham City Centre, with extra links to the existing Heathrow Express line and a new connection to the Eurostar service through the Channel Tunnel.

Phase 2 (much later on) would split HS2 at Birmingham to form a Y shape as it travels north to Manchester and Leeds. At the final stage (predicted to be several decades away at least), the HS2 would enable commuters to connect from the West Midlands to London in about 30 minutes and travel from Leeds and Manchester to London in 80 minutes at speeds of 200 mph.

A key way to reduce the heavy use on highways and the crowded airports is for government to invest in a high-speed train system. It has been estimated that Britain’s highways and trains will experience severe congestion by 2025. Network Rail has calculated that by 2024 the West Coast Main Line will effectively be full, with no further enhancements that could reasonably be made to meet future demand.

Since future air and road traffic in the UK will both be constrained, a reduction in short haul air routes makes sense and passengers can use High Speed Trains for city centre to city centre trips, as is common in Europe, Japan and China. High Speed trains would also reduce pollution, reduce dependence on fossil fuels, and connect smaller towns to larger urban centers. Many neglected small towns in Germany, Spain or France have become new industrial centers or alternatives to expensive urban housing, and recent research has shown strong growth effects from HST investments.

Opposition to High Speed Trains in the UK

In England, the main opposition to the so called HS2 train line is not from the car lobby or airlines, but within the Conservative party, even though the current coalition government (has protected the plan for the UK’s high speed train link. Philip Hammond, the transport secretary announced recently that the preferred London to Birmingham route outlined by the previous Labour government, which goes through Buckinghamshire, Warwickshire and Northamptonshire (which are Tory constituencies) remains the best option. Although Hammond stated that the route had been altered to alleviate the impact on local communities, and has recently promised to plant millions of trees around the line, locals have threatened  a political backlash.

The HS2 Action Alliance has warned of political consequences for the Conservative party whose MPs along the route includes the Welsh secretary Cheryl Gillan, the MP for Chesham and Amersham. Other concerns about this route have been voiced by Tory MPs on the route such as Steve Baker in Wycombe and David Lidington in Aylesbury. The Conservative MP for Buckingham and a Commons Speaker, John Bercow, argued that the HS2 route has no identifiable benefits.

Yet other Conservative MPs have won concessions. The new line would be further away from Brackley (a town in Northamptonshire) as well as from several villages on a stretch between Buckingham and Coventry and sunk lower near Tamsworth. Thus, Conservative MPs in Warwickshire, Staffordshire and Northamptonshire will not be opposed to the changes announced (including Jeremy Wright in Kenilworth; Andrea Leadsom in Northamptonshire and Chris Pincher in Tamworth).

The Transport Secretary has pledged to set up a multimillion pound compensation scheme for homes affected by the project and is keen to see that the new High Speed Train will go ahead.  Meanwhile, opposition to the £17 billion London to Birmingham line (which would see up to 18 trains an hour travelling at 250mph through the heart of the Chilterns) continues to be spearheaded by two Westminster agencies. The residents group,‘Conserve the Chilterns and Countryside Association’, called in Foresight Consulting to manage lobbying. Quiller Consultants, a public affairs agency was hired by the campaign group Transport Sense, which is composed of landowners and affluent residents in Northamptonshire.

It unlikely that the government will shelve the high speed train link entirely and so these two groups will rather focus on lobbying to change the routes. It needs to be seen if further changes will be made to the ones proposed by Philip Hammond, who offered a revised route for 65 out of a total of 127 miles specified by the previous Labour government.

Opposition to HSTs in the USA

It is worth asking why the USA has been so slow to pick up on high speed trains, especially since it will also have severe transport problems – highway congestions by 2035’ and constrained air traffic by 2025. Recently, the Obama government offered billions of dollars for a High Speed Train System to various states.

Amazingly, even though the Federal government agreed to pay nearly 90 percent of the construction costs, the Governors of Wisconsin and Ohio rejected these projects on the grounds that they would become a burden on the local tax payer.  The opposition in Florida to the link between Tampa and Orlando might be overcome by high speed train manufacturers (all European or Chinese) offering to finance the relatively small portion of the total cost allocated to Florida.

The USA's HST, the Acela (Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

States justify their objections by a fear that in the end HST projects will come in over budget or the state will be saddled with high maintenance costs. The US highway industry makes billions in repairs every year, and lobbies strongly against rail projects along with the automobile industry. One beneficiary of other states’ opposition is California, which will receive a large portion of the federal funds allocated for high speed train networks.

Under a plan approved in December 2010, federal and state authorities have committed some $5.5 billion to the first leg of the project which will eventually be a 800 mile system connecting San Francisco, Los Angeles, San Diego and Sacramento and other major California cities and run through the state’s farm-rich Central Valley. On December 9, California received a windfall of additional federal stimulus money – about $600 million which was intended for Wisconsin and Ohio.

Farmers in the Central Valley area of California have been voicing opposition to high speed train tracks gobbling up precious agriculture land as well as citing noise pollution. Still it seems that California opposition is not very strong and so it will be the first state to have the high speed train system, beginning building in 2012 and running through to 2017, creating tens of thousands of jobs in an area with high unemployment.

The defence spending dimension to HST underinvestment

How is it that some high debt European countries like Spain and Portugal (part of the so-called PIGS euro crisis countries) are at the cutting edge of HST travel while England and the US remain far behind? Is it a cultural bias towards cars and planes, or something else at root?

One possible explanation for the lack of high speed trains in the UK and the USA is both countries’ over-expenditure on defense programs – which reaches $663 billion, over 4 percent of GDP in the USA. The UK spends $69 billion a year on its defense program, 2.5 percent of its GDP. By contrast, countries such as Spain and Japan only spend 1.2 percent and 0.9 per cent respectively on defence.

There are exceptions to this pattern. France with 1896 km of high speed trains still spends 2.3 of GDP on defense, but has had a historically strong railway engineering profession with a strong role within the state. But overall, the Anglo-Saxon economies could be paying a high price for fetishizing defence spending, while neglecting the critical national infrastructures that HST railways already are in Europe and Asia.

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Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported
This work by British Politics and Policy at LSE is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported.