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France has no problem with high speed rail and fast motorways, so why do we?

France has no problem with high speed rail and fast motorways, so why do we?

🕔19.Aug 2013

Motorists hurtling down the A28 from Calais to south-west France can sit back and admire a fine well-maintained motorway cutting arrow-like through 550 miles of glorious countryside.

Incredibly, driving a very long distance becomes an almost pleasurable experience as the backdrop subtly changes from the woods and chalk-land of the Channel ports to farmland as far as the eye can see and finally the vineyards, sunflowers, and heat of the south.

Yes, there’s a cost to this, about £50 in tolls, but that’s a small price to pay for the convenience of avoiding the slow national roads and the certainty of getting to your destination in good time.

This summer on the A28 there are, though, several speed-limited sections to accommodate the construction of yet another triumphant Gallic public transport project – an improved TGV high speed rail route from Paris to Bordeaux.

The track cuts over the A28 in several places and will reduce journey times on the 260-mph trains between the Capital and Bordeaux to two hours and 10 minutes compared to the current journey time of three hours.

And as you progress along the A28 across stunningly-designed viaducts and bridges you can’t help thinking how on earth was planning permission ever achieved for this?

Weren’t the environmentalists up in arms about destruction of the countryside? Why is the road dead straight? Why didn’t they have to move it this way and that way to accommodate the wishes of single-interest lobby groups or to avoid the odd nest of newts and bats?

The same questions can be asked about the TGV, but the only answer I can come up with is that French governments have over the years put the national interest ahead of provincial concerns. That’s why the country has an excellent public transport system.

Meanwhile, back in blighty, protests against what will be only the UK’s second high speed rail route from London to Birmingham and the north of England go on and on and on.

Today, the Institute of Economic Affairs has published a 58-page ‘independent’ report rubbishing HS2 as too expensive and claiming that the project “defies economic logic”. The report suggests that the actual cost will be £80 billion, which is about twice that of current estimates.

Describing the scheme as a “gravy train “ (how original) the IEA says that “ministers appear to have disregarded the economic evidence and have chosen to proceed with the project for political reasons”, and that “a group of powerful special interests appears to have had a disproportionate influence on the government’s decision to build HS2”.

Probably most people could have told the IEA that the cost is likely to double, since that, sadly, is the common experience of most public transport projects promoted by the government. There again, as a ‘free market’ thinktank, it must be assumed that the IEA would not be keen on any government-funded public transport project.

The IEA’s calculations include a number of costs that are additional to building and running HS2. These include new rail lines and bus routes to link to out of town stations planned on the high speed route as well as the cost to councils of providing shops and amenities around the new stations.

The IEA also expects local authorities in towns and cities bypassed by the new line to campaign for similar infrastructure funding to compensate them for missing out. Whether these campaigns would succeed or not is another matter, but the IEA has lumped in an estimated cost anyway.

In other words, every conceivable item of additional public expenditure that can be identified as a consequence of HS2, however peripheral, has been tagged on in order to arrive at the £80 billion figure.

The report suggests that the £80 billion the IEA expects to be spent on HS2 could deliver £320 million of economic value if it was spent on other road, rail and transport projects with “better cost-benefit ratios”.

Well, yes, up to a point. Hypothetically, the government could take £80 billion and spread it around on roads and local rail lines, although goodness knows how long it would take to secure planning permission for new roads, wider roads and new railway lines.

No one should imagine the protest groups that magically appear at the first sign of a transportation project, no matter what it is or where it is planned, will be appeased by a better cost-benefit ratio. They will be there, raging against change, just as they always are.

The most curious aspect of the IEA report is the assertion that the coalition government is pursuing the scheme to “buy votes” in Labour’s heartlands. There appears to be little or no evidence for this claim, but if it were true you’d have to say there must be easier and more popular ways of spreading a little largesse around in Birmingham, Manchester and Leeds than building a railway.

The simple fact about HS2 is that the project is designed to stimulate the economy by reducing travel times between market places – in this case, the markets of the West Midlands, the north and London and the south-east. We need this to happen urgently because the economies of the Midlands and the north are suffering badly in comparison to the south.

There’s nothing very new about this, it’s been happening since medieval times when communities first realised they could prosper by trading goods with each other, and that meant achieving connectivity by building tracks – the forerunners of canals, railways and motorways. Would Birmingham be better off if the M6 and rail routes from London had never been built? The question barely needs to be asked.

Finally, those who are protesting against HS2 must address the elephant in the room. If we are not to have a high speed rail route from London to Birmingham, how can the issue of the overcrowded West Coast Main Line be addressed, because addressed it must be.

Put simply, WCML will be operating at capacity within a decade. HS2 would create additional capacity on WCML for passengers and freight, but if high speed rail does not materialise then the government of the day faces a hugely expensive and time-consuming problem.

Should we four-track WCML, or build a new WCML next to the existing line? How much would that cost, and what a crescendo of protest might such a controversial scheme trigger?

HS2 makes sense for all sorts of reasons. It will be expensive, but the cost of not building a high speed network will be far greater over time.

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