Wednesday, 26 August 2009

Who decides what is a white elephant?

Today, Network Rail have announced their proposals for a high speed rail link between London and Scotland. It's disappointing, to say the least, that they have rejected the option of a line through Bristol to Cardiff, and I hope that the government's own review will correct that omission, and ensure that plans are brought forward for both.

Last week, by way of contrast, the Reform think tank produced a report opposing investment in high speed rail projects, referring to them as 'white elephants'. Two very different views on the same subject – obviously coming at the subject from quite different starting points.

Although formally an 'independent' think tank, one of the founders of Reform is now a Tory MP, and the other is a former head of the Political Section in the Conservative Research Department. The report's conclusions are clearly based on at least a degree of political preconception.

Reform seem to start from a position of believing that the job of government is simply to respond to demand rather than seek to influence the nature of that demand. The result is that, in their view, spending on roads should be increased and spending on rail decreased, since 90% of all journeys are made by road. And they would abandon any attempt to build a high-speed rail network.

It is a logical conclusion for people who believe that individuals should have maximum freedom to use resources as they wish and can afford, and that the free market should reign supreme. It is not, however, a sensible position to adopt if we want to seriously reduce our ecological footprint and build a more sustainable society for the long term.

Some people have talked in recent years as though the age of ideological differences is dead. I don't think that is true, but it is sometimes harder to find the dividing lines when much of what passes for politic discourse is reduced to sound bites. The divergence in views over high speed rail highlights for me one of the key dividing lines in politics for the future - do we plan to allocate resources, including access to mobility, on the basis of competition and ability to pay, or do we plan to meet transport needs in a more co-operative and collective fashion?

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