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Another blow for High Speed Rail 2: the Economist shows its costly downsides

By Matthew Barrett
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EconomistThe Economist magazine has put online an article from its print edition urging the government to drop High Speed Rail 2. Indeed - the Economist calls HS2 "The great train robbery" and introduces the article by saying:

"High-speed rail lines rarely pay their way. Britain’s government should ditch its plan to build one"

The magazine lists examples around the world where high-speed rail has not made economic sense:

  • "China suspended new projects after a fatal collision of two high-speed trains in July; Brazil delayed plans for a rapid Rio de Janeiro-São Paulo link, after lack of interest from construction firms."
  • "...most developed economies high-speed railways fail to bridge regional divides and sometimes exacerbate them. Better connections strengthen the advantages of a rich city at the network’s hub: firms in wealthy regions can reach a bigger area, harming the prospects of poorer places."
  • "Even in Japan, home to the most commercially successful line, Tokyo continues to grow faster than Osaka. New Spanish rail lines have swelled Madrid’s business population to Seville’s loss. The trend in France has been for headquarters to move up the line to Paris and for fewer overnight stays elsewhere."
  • "Even if some cities benefit, other places beyond the rail network may suffer: speed is attained partly at the cost of stops, so areas well served by existing services may find new lines bypass them. ... High-speed lines, like other regeneration projects, often displace economic activity rather than create it."
  • "The advantages, meanwhile, mostly accrue to business travellers. In China ticket prices are beyond the reach of most people, so new trains yawn with empty seats. Yet because high-speed lines require huge investments, usually by governments, ordinary taxpayers end up paying. So instead of redistributing wealth and opportunities, rich regions and individuals benefit at the expense of poorer ones."
Five alternatives to HS2 are recommended:
  1. "Especially in smaller countries, upgrading existing, slower networks often makes more sense."
  2. "Capacity can be increased with longer trains and extended platforms."
  3. "Some spacious first-class carriages could be converted to more compressed second-class ones"
  4. "...pricing may ration demand more effectively at busy times." 
  5. "Better signalling can increase the average speed of journeys."

Finally, the author urges Britain to ditch HS2:

"A good infrastructure scheme has a long life. But a bad one can derail both the public finances and a country’s development ambitions."

I agree with the magazine's stance. The arguments against HS2 are simple, and overwhelming: it costs too much, it won't reduce journey times by a significant amount, it won't provide enough economic benefit to the North to justify cost - and even if it did any of these things, it is scheduled to take too long to construct for anyone to reap the rewards before some time in the neighbourhood of 2030. 

By way of a side-note, I was originally alerted to this article by the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Charities, Social Enterprise and Volunteering at the Cabinet Office, Nick Hurd. Hurd said:

Hurd Nick tweet

Perhaps a sign of growing Ministerial opposition. 

> On ToryDiary last week, we reported Tory members now oppose HS2.


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