High Speed Rail
Here. Reading the whole thing is much recommended.
This month, I rode the bullet train from Beijing to Tianjin in half an hour - then returned by bus, which took two hours. Next to me on the decrepit, but packed, vehicle was a 17-year-old girl migrating to Beijing to search for work. She had never heard of the high-speed train, but when informed it cost $9, as opposed to $5.40 for the bus, expressed no regret at missing it. The bus driver assured me the girl was typical of his working-class clientele; to them, even a little money is more valuable than a lot of time. Small wonder that the Beijing-Tianjin line, built at a cost of $46 million per mile, is losing more than $100 million per year.
A mobile version of all those overpriced apartments and shopping malls, in other words.
The state of the world is now such that, if you want to be optimistic about your own country, don’t whatever you do look at your own country. Look at all the others.
The Taxpayers Alliance are complaining that Phil Hammond, the minister behind a high speed train project called HS2, is ignoring the real arguments against it in favour of calling its opponents NIMBYs.
The real arguments being that it is too expensive and won’t make any money.
George F. Will has evidently been reading Transport Blog. No, not really, but he does give an answer to the question at the bottom of my previous posting. What, I asked, is the lefty fascination with high-speed trains?
So why is America’s “win the future” administration so fixated on railroads, a technology that was the future two centuries ago? Because progressivism’s aim is the modification of (other people’s) behavior.
Forever seeking Archimedean levers for prying the world in directions they prefer, progressives say they embrace high-speed rail for many reasons - to improve the climate, increase competitiveness, enhance national security, reduce congestion, and rationalize land use. The length of the list of reasons, and the flimsiness of each, points to this conclusion: the real reason for progressives’ passion for trains is their goal of diminishing Americans’ individualism in order to make them more amenable to collectivism.
To progressives, the best thing about railroads is that people riding them are not in automobiles, which are subversive of the deference on which progressivism depends. Automobiles go hither and yon, wherever and whenever the driver desires, without timetables. Automobiles encourage people to think they - unsupervised, untutored, and unscripted - are masters of their fates. The automobile encourages people in delusions of adequacy, which make them resistant to government by experts who know what choices people should make.
Time was, the progressive cry was “Workers of the world unite!” or “Power to the people!” Now it is less resonant: “All aboard!”
For me the problem of railways has always been that they need things to be arranged in lines. Cars (as I prefer to call them) enable a whole area to come alive. Trains only really work when, for some fortuitous reasons like a dominant river or river valley, or a coastline with a hostile interior, things are naturally linear.
Or, see below, when you are trundling goods from A to B, also a linear thing, and are not in any hurry about it.
Or if, as was the case for a few decades after trains were invented, there is no other way to travel even slightly fast.
Later today, assuming all goes well, I will be doing an interview with Sam Bowman, who blogs and is the blogmeister for the Adam Smith Institute, among other things. During my homework for this interview I came across this blog posting by Sam, which featured this graphic:
As Sam says:
This is why we like deregulation.
This piece of graphics began life as one of the illustrations in an Economist report entitled “High-speed railroading”, and, more to my present point, subtitled America’s system of rail freight is the world’s best. High-speed passenger trains could ruin it.
Indeed. High speed rail achieves little, in terms of speeding up rail travel by regular humans, and even less in terms of making money for any humans. But if unleashed anywhere, a point I am reading here, there and everywhere is that its most significant impact is upon the one thing that long distance rail does really well, which is transport stuff over long distances at low cost, but rather (sometime very) slowly, for customers who value the cheapness and don’t mind the slowness.
The word “trundle” always comes to my mind whenever I observe some exotic cargo train … well, trundling through a passenger station I happen to be waiting at when this odd circumstance occurs. But the real pay-off comes when goods trains trundle, not on the urban and suburban lines I travel on, but for hundreds upon hundreds of miles. They become the sort of land equivalent of supertankers, another notably efficient form of transport that has been doing very well recently.
Superimpose on those same long, long railway lines trains which are very fast, and with the political demand attached that they run on time, bugger the cost and the havoc caused, and there goes your profitable and efficient freight network. And it all then has to go by road. There is nothing intrinsically wrong with roads, of course, but the kind of people who are most manically in favour of high-speed trains tend also to be manically against roads. What the hell are they thinking?
Seriously, what is the lefty fascination with high-speed trains? Is it just that the child in all of us loves fast trains that look and behave like rockets, and lefties are the people who are most inclined not to care about the cost of things? Is it really that simple?
Matthew Sinclair, Director of the TaxPayers’ Alliance, is not a fan of Britain’s high speed rail plans:
It is incredible that while the Government are imposing higher taxes on ordinary families, and making necessary cuts in spending on services like education, they are planning on throwing billions at a new train line that will only benefit a well-off few. Passengers on the new high speed line are never expected to pay enough to cover the project’s costs in fares, and it will depend on massive subsidy at the expense of millions who never use the line. This just can’t be a priority with the massive scale of the fiscal crisis and huge pressure on family budgets. Politicians should focus on making commuter journeys more convenient and affordable, not a flashy new train set that will be a huge white elephant.
The scheme will cut journey times at a cost of £500 million per minute saved, says the TPA’s report. It will never produce a financial return. It will not cut greenhouse gases. It embodies highly unrealistic assumptions about usage. It will favour the rich at the expense of the less rich.
Further to the previous posting, I took some pictures last week of St Pancras, and mentioned as an afterthought, that the place didn’t look entirely finished. Fellow Transport Blogger Michael Jennings responded thus:
It is also worth observing that as well as being unfinished in the sense of shops not open and stuff like that, the station is very much unfinished in an operational sense as well. When St Pancras is finished, there will be four sets of services running from it. The first set is the long standing Midland Mainline services to places like Derby and Sheffield. The second set is the Eurostar services to continental Europe. The third is the Thameslink services, which will move from the present disgusting station in Pentonville Rd to a new set of platforms at St Pancras underneath the main station on December 9. Then in a couple of years time high speed domestic services to Kent (which will be operating Japanese Shinkansen “bullet trains” by the way) will start operating from more platforms inside the main old trainshed. And finally, the Thameslink line is going to be upgraded in the next few years to at least quadruple its capacity, which is going to mean that a large range of services to Cambridgeshire, Suffolk, Norfolk, Surrey, Sussex, and Kent will be operating from St Pancras as well.
The point is that when all this happens, St Pancras will be just about the most important domestic station in London, even regardless of the international services.
I want to press Michael on the Shinkansen thing. Will trains travel towards Kent at three hundred miles an hour, like in Japan, or will they trundle about the countryside at a mere hundred and fifty miles an hour?
A French train driver passes his verdict on the Channel Tunnel Rail Link.
Hmm. You know I could say:
You Bastard French. You build some fancy-swanky rail link to your end of the tunnel turning our commuter lines (circa 1850) at the other end into an international laughing stock, forcing us to spend years in planning enquiries, and billions of our hard won treasure to make ourselves look like good Europeans, in the process succumbing to Zairean levels of corruption and graft, digging up half of London, even getting me to think this was a good idea, and after all that you dare to claim that actually, all things considered, you preferred it the way it was. Fuck, fuck, fuck!
But, I won’t.
He’s right about high-speed trains, mind. They are monotonous.
As updated 19th Century technology finally arrives into an updated 19th Century trainshed we ask why is it that Britons literally fly around Europe while Europeans still choose to dawdle on trains. Why is it that, in the shape of the budget airlines, Britain has succeeded in providing fast and frequent travel for the masses while Europeans lavish ever greater sums on a technological dead end?
It is far from a simple question and there are plenty of potential culprits. Many put the blame on the powerful climate change lobby. Since the time of Asterix, Europeans have worried that something very bad is about to happen. By the clever use of well-funded propaganda, the climate change lobby have convinced European populations that the something very bad is all the fault of the airplane. As, in an attempt to appease Gaia, ever greater sums have been squandered on Europe’s so-called “high-speed” rail network Europeans have found themselves locked-in. To admit the mistake would be to admit that they have been very wrong and very stupid for a very long time.
Meanwhile others look to latent militarism. Many of Europe’s original railways were built at the behest of the military in order to ferry troops to national borders as quickly as possible. Although Europe has to a large extent exorcised the ghost of militarism many see the obsession with new railways as a way of rekindling the flame.
But we can’t ignore the possibility of deep cultural differences between ourselves and the continent. Europeans have a far greater appetite for the likes of Sartre, Goethe and Kierkegaard whose works continue to fly off the shelves.
Put simply, Europeans like being miserable.
The Success of the Industrial Revolution and the Failure of Political Revolutions: How Britain Got Lucky, Findlay Dunachie, Libertarian Alliance, 1996.
Why I am not that worried about the absence of high-speed lines in the UK, Transport Blog, 10 August 2004.
Against state-funded rail schemes, InstaPatrick, 6 December 2006.
...on the Shanghai Maglev.
Fun. (Hat-tip: More Than Mind Games)
There is another problem specific to the French system. The pursuit of high-speed services has apparently distorted the French railway leaving the rest of the network starved of funds struggling along with infrequent and irregular services.
Which is a lot less than the fastest car (763mph).
But a lot more than the fastest production car (253mph).
Which in turn much faster than the fastest production train (186mph).
But is almost the same speed as the fastest Maglev (360mph). Whoops.
And, in the final analysis, doesn’t really amount to a row of beans. To have trains running at that sort of speed in service would almost certainly require a lot of new track, although given that TGV’s already have in-cab signalling, they might be OK in that department.
And I haven’t even mentioned the cost. High-speed rail schemes are without exception a financial disaster.
Update. One dead.
The lead item on BBC Breakfast this morning (for the second time in little over a week) was transport. An “official” (hmm, thinks: “I’ll have to add that to my list of banned words sometime") report calls for road tolling.
This I am in favour of. Sorta kinda. Ideally, I’d have private roads some of which would be tolls and some wouldn’t.
It’s just that I don’t go a bundle on the particular scheme that the government has in mind.
But then the item really started to go haywire. Where would all the people priced off the roads go?, the reporter asked - neatly avoiding the possibility that road pricing might actually increase the number of people using roads.
But assuming he’s right one would have thought the answer was more roads but somehow that possibility didn’t come up either - so the suggestion was a new high-speed railway. Again, he didn’t consider the possibility that people might like to stay at home, far less the possibility that a new high-speed line might be a very bad idea indeed.
Lead item on BBC Breakfast the other morning was on the West Coast Main Line (WCML). Apparently it’s running out of capacity so either they’ll have to put up the fares or introduce a fancy “computer-controlled” signalling system or the government will have to build a new, high-speed line.
(Is the comma in the right place in that last sentence? It should mean a new line that is high-speed and not a new high-speed line to go with all the other ones. Oh well, never mind).
The reporter also added that because the government was going to introduce toll charges on the motorways that would push lots of people onto the railways - again putting pressure on capacity. He went on to suggest that what this showed was that the government needed to plan more and it would, therefore, be a good thing when the 30-year plan turned up.
A little later they interviewed Ian Coucher, a high-up at Network Rail. He thought that all the problems could be solved with a few extra carriages and, anyway, the whole kerfuffle only served to underline that the whole thing was a “success story”.
Oh God. Where does one start?
Well, let’s try the low-hanging fruit.
“Computer-controlled" signalling. I am far from an expert on the subject but I am pretty sure that the signallers have already managed to get the odd ZX80 into their control centres over the last 30 years or so. What the reporter was probably referring to was “moving block” signalling which is an incredibly snazzy way of putting more trains through the same amount of track. Snazzy, that is, in all respects apart from actually working. It was tried on the Jubilee Line Extension. It didn’t work. It was thought about for the WCML. The bosses thought it was spiffing. The boffins took one look at it and realised it was a non-starter. The company (Railtrack) went bust.
“Success story”. The upgrade to the WCML (WCRM as it was known) cost, according to the report, £8.6bn (a sum that looks suspiciously low but I won’t bother arguing about on this occasion). The tax payer will be lucky if he ever sees more than a few pennies of that. So, it’s made a loss. Losses are bad.
Now for the hard bit. First of all, what’s wrong with it:
- The assumption that higher road prices will mean fewer people using the roads. It could easily mean more.
- The assumption that if people do flee the roads they will end up on the railways. They could equally easily end up at home. Or on marble-smooth super-highways built by road entrepreneurs.
- The assumption that the state is any good at planning.
- The assumption that if the ultimate answer is a new railway that the state should fund the construction. It shouldn’t.
And here’s how things should work:
- The roads should be privately owned. So should the railways.
- Polluters should compensate their victims. Railways just as much as roads.
- If there is enough of a market then road builders will build more. Ditto railways.
- In the resulting market roads may still dominate but or it may be that railways become viable (though I doubt this) or neither. Staying at home could well prove the best option.
But how would these new roads or railways be built?
- Well, you’d have to abolish planning laws. Not that that would be any big deal. The lack of compulsory purchase might be an obstacle but I don’t think so.
Why do you doubt that rail would become viable?
- I just don’t think that pollution charges for global warming would ever be that high. And even if they were high, rail would be punished along with everyone else. While on a per passenger per mile basis, trains may produce less greenhouse gases, a lot of energy will have gone into the creation of the infrastructure.