Wednesday 11 September 2013

Shifting the traffic

In recent weeks, the HS2 rail scheme has come under increasing and sustained attack from a range of directions.  At least some of the government’s problems on the HS2 project are entirely self-inflicted – they’ve been using the wrong arguments from the outset.
Building a business case for the project on the basis of the minutes shaved off the journey was always a dubious approach.  The claim that it would free up the time of businessmen and women to do other things was equally dubious – and I’m even more sceptical about the methodology being used to convert that time into increased GDP.  As Parkinson’s Law tells us, work expands to fill the time available: much of the “work” done - on trains or elsewhere, come to that - has little impact on anything.
It was also a mistake to concentrate so heavily on business travel.  Having used France’s TGVs on a number of occasions, I reckon that few of the passengers – on trains which always seem to be full – are travelling on business.  A fast – and cheap compared to UK fares – service attracts all sorts of people to use it; for leisure, for visiting family etc.
The debate, from the outset, should have been about capacity and the best way to provide it, and the government at last seems to be moving in that direction, albeit focused far too narrowly on rail capacity.  The case for building a high-speed rail network in the UK is based on the answers to two simple questions, in my view.
The first question is this: given that the demand for travel is growing inexorably, are we going to provide the infrastructure to accommodate that demand, or are we instead going to try and manage that demand downwards?
The “greenest” answer of course is to try and manage the demand downwards; take away the demand and there is no need for any new infrastructure.  In theory, that could be done; but I doubt that the will or the means exist do it consistently and over the decades of timespan which would be necessary to sustain such a policy effectively.
If the demand cannot be produced or managed, and more capacity is needed, that brings us to the second question: what is the best (or perhaps “least worst”) way of providing that extra capacity?
The “default”, if we make no attempt to plan and manage the demand, is that the number of road trips will increase, as will the number of short haul flights.  There are limits to the extent to which simply adding more cars to the roads and more planes to the skies is possible without more roads and runways, but we haven’t reached those limits yet.  Short-term, the effect of increasing the use of existing capacity is to increase congestion and make delays more likely, but there is no doubt that more capacity can be squeezed out of the system.
Eventually, however, continued growth makes investment in more infrastructure inevitable – hence the question “how?”.  Of the alternatives available, I’m convinced that electric railways are the “least worst” option, despite all the difficulties associated with building them. 
Do they need to be high speed?  Strictly speaking, and seeing them solely as a means of solving the capacity problem, the answer would have to be no.  However, if we see them also as an alternative to short haul flights, as well as an alternative to road journeys, speed becomes more important.  The faster the train, the greater the distance of the short haul flights which can be supplanted by rail travel.
And that ultimately is the attraction of HS2 – and HS3 and HS4 which I hope will follow.  Not as a single stand-alone project to cut a few minutes off journey times for businessmen and women, but as a long-term planned approach to shifting travel onto a less environmentally damaging platform.  Sadly, that aspect seems, thus far at last, to be peripheral to the considerations of those making the decisions.

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