Tuesday, 29 January 2013

New Metropolitan Line

If you were building a high-speed railway out of London, you'd logically terminate it at the other end of the country, perhaps Newcastle (280 miles) or Edinburgh (405 miles). The point of higher speed is to shrink distance, to make the far near, and incidentally to encourage passengers to prefer rail over air travel. This is why the French TGV runs from Paris to Lyon (290 miles) and Marseilles (480 miles), and Japanese bullet trains from Tokyo to Osaka (320 miles) and beyond. Conventional trains currently do around 250 mph, so 300 miles looks like a logical benchmark, given likely future improvements in speed, for the first major stop on the line.

So why is HS2 being run to Birmingham, which is little over 100 miles from London? The suggestion that this will bring economic benefits to the West Midlands is piffle. 150 years ago railways were revolutionary because they allowed the faster movement of freight. The mainline to Birmingham allowed manufactured goods to be transported to markets in London and beyond more cheaply and quickly than the canals. Since the coming of modern roads and lorries, railways have largely been about passenger movement, which means that in economic terms their value is chiefly down to commuters. Occasional business travellers are no more significant in numbers than OAPs or tourists. The dominance of commuters means that the largest benefit of any line accrues to the larger destination, both through the increased centralisation of economic activity and by allowing employers to recruit from further afield. The key benefit to commuters is that they can take advantage of cheaper housing further out. The main benefit to the other end of the line is that more metropolitan wages are spent locally, so the real boost to the West Midlands economy will be in services and consumption (hairdressers and garden centres), not industrial regeneration.

The purpose of HS2 is to provide a shorter commute for people who work in London and wish to live in large(r) properties in Solihull. At present, and allowing for transfer time at either end, such a commute takes almost 2 hours. Post-HS2, it will drop to around 1 hour and 10 minutes, which puts it on a par with stops on the fringes of the Underground, such as Amersham. We're expanding the commuter belt further into the hinterland, not linking up previously isolated regions. The announcement of the clumsily-named phase 2 of HS2, which will extend the line to Manchester and Leeds, should be taken with a pinch of salt. I doubt these lines will ever be built because they won't be sufficiently attractive to London commuters, even if George Osborne wangles a station in his Tatton constituency. The unreality of the claims that this will benefit the North can be seen in the anticipated change in journey times. Newcastle will now be just over 2 hours away from London, which happens to be the current journey time to Liverpool. So all the prosperity Merseyside has enjoyed over the last 30 years will now be extended to the North East.

If we were serious about a high-speed rail link to the North, we'd use the existing M1 transport corridor (and the A1 corridor north of Leeds). This would not only be more direct, it would have less of an impact on the environment and existing housing, obviate the need for extensive (and expensive) tunnelling, and allow for greater use of Luton Airport to serve London, conceivably avoiding the need for a third runway at Heathrow. The only downside is that it wouldn't be as attractive to London commuters as a line through the Chilterns to the Forest of Arden. There aren't that many who would welcome a 1 hour commute just so they could live on Tyneside.

Our romantic obsession with railways, and the thrilling idea of high-speed travel, blinds us to the reality that trains are essentially commuter transport systems. The strategic investment in high-speed trains to bind a country together, as in Japan and France, should not distract from the fact that such networks ultimately serve the metropolis. Paris and Tokyo are dominant capital cities because of high-speed trains, not in spite of them. To believe that such a network in the UK will move economic activity out of the capital and into the regions is naive. HS2 phase 1 at least has the virtue that it makes this reality plain for all to see. They should just have renamed it the New Metropolitan line and had done with it.


  1. And I thought the main argument for HS2 was that "we'll no longer be the laughing stock of Europe"!

  2. A lot of what you're saying is simply untrue, or backed up with assumptions that are essentially false, and comes across as little more than a rant, reeking of bias. I lived in Nagoya, it's well documented in several museums there the growth that business from Tokyo caused in an otherwise middling industrial city, smashed by the war.
    While I agree that a line to Birmingham isn't long enough, the lines to Manchester and Leeds have excellent potential to be linked further north, and wouldn't be surprised if during the next 5-10 years, that announcement is made.
    >The purpose of HS2 is to provide a fast commute for those working in London, living in Solihull.
    C'mon, do you even know what you're talking about at this stage? The furthest commuting towns for london would be places like Basingstoke and Bedford. Birmingham and beyond is simply far too far and expensive (especially on HS2) to be practical for commuting reasons.

    There isn't the same population density along the M1 corridor as in the west midlands conurbation. It'll prove to be far more useful for far more people than if it were to run up through Bedford.

    Why am I even commenting? This is jsut another random blog that next to no-one reads.

  3. @Anonymous,
    The evidence from existing high-speed rail networks was summarised in the report to Parliament of Prof. John Tomaney of UCL. In a nutshell, HSR does not rebalance regional inequalities and the bulk of benefits are likely to be realised by the larger terminus.

    A more detailed summary of HSR internationally is provided by Albalate and Bel (2010). This includes the following on Nagoya (pg 11): "Service industries became highly concentrated in the cities of Tokyo and Osaka, resulting in the centralization of this sector in the country’s major nodes. Indicative of this trend is the fall in employment in Nagoya, a city located between Osaka and Tokyo,
    following the inauguration of the HST line. According to Plaud (1977), this fall was estimated at around 30% from 1955 to 1970".

    The rule of thumb for commuting to London is that anything up to an hour is fine, but some hardy souls will accept a journey time of up to 2 hours if it means they can earn London wages but buy property in the regions. There was a good example of this in a recent documentary on British Rail's Intercity 125 of the 1970s, which explained how the faster journey turned places like Grantham, Peterborough and Bristol into homes for commuters. Basingstoke and Bedford are nowhere near the limit. I've even heard tell of folk who commute from Doncaster (the 07:03 gets you into Kings Cross at 08:49).

    There are already many commuters who travel from Birmingham to London. HS2 phase 1 will make their journey quicker. As it's a new line, the increase in capacity will also make it viable for more well-heeled London workers to relocate to the Birmingham area, particularly Solihull, which is where the planned Birmingham Interchange station will be sited.

    You may disagree with my interpretation, but you're off-beam claiming my views are "simply untrue" or based on "false" assumptions. They're based on facts. So yes, I do know what I'm talking about.

  4. What would you think is the best way to increase rail's share of the transport market, so as to (once the relevant railways are electrified) reduce dependence on vehicles which carry their (almost always petroleum-derived) fuel on board. How can passenger rail escape from the city centre commuter ghetto, or freight rail escape from the bulk cargo ghetto?

    Could high speed rail (plus the Channel Tunnel) ever replace flying as the preferred modes of travel for holidaymakers, at least those who aren't travelling to another continent?

  5. I don't think you can increase rail's share. The defining characteristic of a railway is that it is a fixed route. This is good for regular journeys between two points, so it's ideal for commuting, but it's less useful than road vehicles for variable journeys (both passenger and freight).

    The petrol problem is more likely to be solved by changes to power sources for cars. This may happen in tandem with the development of intelligent roads (providing power and automated control), which would further increase road capacity at the expense of rail.

    HSR can provide a viable alternative to planes for long-distance routes if speeds can get near 500mph. This may be possible with future trains (maglev can currently do 360mph max), but the infrastructure costs would be huge. Again, the fixed nature of the route is the limiting factor. You might justify it for a heavily-used route, but the majority of traffic (particularly seasonal tourist travel) would still end up being more cost-effective by air.

  6. How important is speed really for holiday travel? (Especially given that trains can be made more comfortable than planes, and are not disadvantaged by lengthy check-in queues and security checks.)

    This Socialist Worker article pointed out that even an InterCity 125 based in London could (given appropriate lines) reach Istanbul in 24 hours or New Delhi in 48.

  7. Speed is critical for holiday travel because the time taken is deducted from your holiday. Your employer does not add travel time on top of your holiday allowance. If you only have 2 weeks in the summer, you'll want to maximise your time on the beach.

    You're right that train travel can be much more comfortable than flying, but it's worth remembering that the key selling point for the old Orient Express from Paris to Istanbul was not the luxury and comfort of the train but the word "express". As RyanAir have proved, comfort comes a poor third after price and speed.

  8. Why does the superior energy efficiency of train travel (and its ability to use non-oil energy sources) not translate into lower prices for travellers?

  9. In some countries it does. The point about large-scale travel infrastructure, which includes roads and airports as well as railways, is that it is very expensive to build and maintain. This is why it has traditionally be done by government and costs recouped via tax recycled as subsidy. The degree of reliance on tax/subsidy dictates the ticket price for users.

    In the case of roads, the notional ticket price is fuel duty + road tax, though in practice there is also a large chunk of general taxation in the mix as well - i.e. non-car owners subsidise car owners.

    The price of rail travel is a political decision, not a purely economic one.