UK High Speed Rail: Going very fast in the wrong direction

In the field of transport, no matter how straight-forward the issues may seem to be to the busy citizen, merchant, reporter or policy maker, when it comes to making wise policy it really does take a certain level of time and attention to detail to come to grips with the underlying issues and priorities that shape the outcomes. The awful conundrum encumbering the mobility issues of our new century from a policy perspective is that just about everything turns out upon study to be unobligingly complex, interdependent, complicated and time lagged – no matter how simple it may appear to be on the surface. In the article that follows, the authors  have a go at a lot of the too-easy thinking that is the main currency of the High Speed Rail discussions in places like Britain and the US, where the only experience with these technologies and operations has been that of a far-away time-lagged dream machine. Let’s embrace a bit of complexity here.

UK High Speed Rail:  Going very fast in the wrong direction

– John Whitelegg and Eric Britton

Something very unusual is happening at the moment in the political world in the UK. Labour, Conservative, Liberal Democrat and Green politicians are competing with each other to be more enthusiastic than each other in support of high speed rail (HSR). The roar of approval and enthusiasm from political parties stands in stark contrast to the poverty of detail, evidence and justification for this lurch to a London-centric high speed world. So why do they all want it to happen?

Great expectations

High speed rail supporters are excited about the prospect of travelling very fast to and from London. There is something quite seductive about speed. It presses lots of the right buttons and sounds good and economists still cling to the massively misleading idea that saving time saves money and produces an economic bonus that the whole of society can share.

The supporters of high speed rail argue that it will increase the capacity of the rail system to move people and freight, stimulate the economy, steal passengers from domestic aviation and reduce greenhouse gases.

High speed rail will increase capacity especially if it proceeds on German and French models and produces new lines across open countryside. What is not addressed is why we need the increased capacity and whether or not this is the right way to go about it. Capacity is routinely increased in mainland Europe by using double-deck trains for passenger travel. Trains in and out of Zürich in Switzerland are frequently double-decked and give passengers a non-cattle truck ride that we can only dream about in SE England or on Manchester bound platforms at Leeds railway station at 5pm on a weekday. Capacity can be increased by running a 7 day railway and running night passenger trains as is common in Germany. The HSR plan is a very large and expensive sledge hammer to crack a very modestly sized nut.

We could even have a policy about developing strongly independent, high-function cities as is the case in Germany. The “need” to travel to London is a result of decades of public and private policy and cash to centralise functions there and to avoid the idea that Newcastle, Leeds, Manchester, Birmingham and Liverpool could operate very easily as high level attractive financial, cultural, corporate HQ and media centres just as Frankfurt, Munich and Hamburg do in Germany. A more intelligent spatial planning and celebration of all our cities would rapidly remove the need for a few billion pounds of cash spent on yet more travel to London

We do need to move more freight around the UK by means other than road but the links with HSR and better rail opportunities for freight are very tenuous. Alternatives to HSR include re-opening lines closed by Beeching for normal rail running, using coastal shipping and inland waterway and even planning our industrial and logistic sites so that they were located near to ports, waterways and rail logistic centres.

We could stimulate the economy by building 1000 miles of HSR but the sums would not stack up in terms of how many jobs this would create per £million of expenditure. If we really want to create jobs in all local economies rather than drain them away along a very fast railway line we could insulate 20 million homes, make every house a mini power station to generate and export its own electricity, sort out extremely poor quality commuter railway lines around all our cities (say up to 50 kms from the centre of every city), sort out inter-regional rail links and build 10,000 kms of segregated bike paths to connect every school, hospital, employment site and public building to every residential area. These projects would deliver real jobs on a large scale in every city region and local authority area but do not have the high speed sexiness of new railway lines

Despite claims less than certain sustainability

HSR is promoted as something that can sort out nasty carbon producing aircraft on domestic routes. It has done this on Paris-Lyon and Madrid-Seville but this ability to trash a single air route should not be interpreted as something than can dent the growth of air travel itself. Germany has one of the largest HSR systems in the world and has seen an explosion in internal air travel. HSR does not reduce the fuel consumption of domestic aviation or reduce annual carbon emission from aircraft. It allows airlines and airports to recycle much needed take off and landing slots and exploit other market opportunities aimed at making us all fly more often than we do already.

HSR is also a very energy greedy form of transport and produces twice as much CO2 per passenger kilometre as a non-high speed intercity train. If we are serious about reducing our carbon emissions by 80% by 2050 then we should not change our direction of travel towards higher speed, more carbon intensive forms of transport and a deliberate policy of increasing the mass of travel.

Supporters of HSR are happy to talk about the £32 billion cost of the first phase which is a new line from London to Birmingham (See Note 1 below for a correction here). This will reduce journey time by about 30 minutes on a current journey time of 1 hour 30 minutes. The excitement over reducing time eliminates all other considerations. What do we do with the time saving? What will the new HSR service cost the passenger? If the passenger is on a business trip will he or she work or not work on the train (HSR or conventional rail)? If the answer is “yes I will work” then all the calculations of the monetary benefits of time savings are suspect.

HSR is used by relatively wealthy, high income passengers and the £32 billion would represent a public investment from all tax payers (Note 1) aimed at encouraging wealthy individuals to travel to and from London more often and at a higher speed. This is not a good use of public funds and in any prioritisation exercise would come very low down the list and far below sorting out local travel in all cities, a world beating walking and cycling environment in every British city that can deliver the Freiburg results (Note 2) and inter-regional train improvements travel not involving a trip to London.

What should our rail system look like?

Switzerland offers a practical and attractive vision of what a rail system in the UK could look like if it celebrated all our cities, reflected the need to offer attractive rail services to all social and income groups and set out to avoid cattle-truck misery conditions on our urban commuter routes. The double deck trains running from Zürich to Basle 60 times a day offer a high degree of comfort, reliability, no overcrowding and a very pleasant journey on an important commuter route. This could be the future on the Liverpool-Manchester-Leeds route and on many routes in the SE of England but there appears to be no well-oiled machine lobbying for these passengers. We could have high quality rolling stock and frequent services that Swiss passengers are used to on more rural services (e.g. Basle-Dornach Olten) but this too is only a pipe dream in the UK.

We have a question for all the citizens in the UK worried about pensions, energy bills, care for the elderly, school budgets, death and injury on the roads, respiratory disease associated with vehicle exhaust emissions and a future likely to involve severe risks associated with climate change and fuel price increases. Hands up all those in favour of providing a £32 billion subsidy from the tax payer for very rich people to travel very quickly to London quite a lot and then hands up all those who would like a safe, secure, high quality of life for everyone in every city using the same cash?

A final point of a philosophical nature. David Metz in his book “The limits to travel: how far will we go” argues that as we invest in transport infrastructure designed to make sure we can go faster so that we can save time the main result is that we travel further so that we compensate for the time saving by increasing the distances that we travel each year. This is a fundamental insight into transport policies as a whole and especially so for HSR. We seem to operate under a “constant travel time law” so that we spend just over an hour a day travelling. If we can go faster we will but we will also change our travel behaviour so we can go further. This undermines the case for HSR

# # #

Note 1: Official government reports note an additional cost of £2.8 billion for rolling stock.  The same report says that the cost of UK HSR is twice that of HSR in mainland Europe. A detailed analysis of HS1 (the HSR link between the Channel Tunnel and central London) provides an interesting lesson for everyone involved in the debate about expensive  transport infrastructure (Note 2).  All these are of course estimates and yet to be confirmed. Our view is that it would still represent a significant misallocation of resources and be of little value to the majority of UK citizens. We are also concerned about financial crises. The Channel Tunnel was originally a 100% private sector project with no public money. It went wrong and had to be rescued by public money. HS1 was initially costed at £850 million with a clear statement that this would be met by the private sector.  It eventually cost £5.7 billion and the UK government contributed £3 billion of that total as a direct subsidy. Caveat emptor.

Note 2 Freiburg in southern Germany (population 240,000) now has an international reputation for highly effective transport, planning, housing, renewable energy policy and its results in a high quality of life and thousands of jobs created in sustainable enterprises. Currently it has 27% of all trips every day by bike, 23% on foot, 32% by car and 18% by public transport.

# # #

About the authors:

John Whitelegg is visiting Professor of Sustainable Transport at Liverpool John Moores University and Professor of Sustainable Development at University of York’s Stockholm Environment Institute, and is founder and editor of the Journal of World Transport Policy and Practice. John is a local councillor in Lancaster.

Eric Britton: Trained as a development economist, Eric Britton is editor in chief  World Streets and managing director of the New Mobility Partnerships and EcoPlan International, an independent advisory network providing counsel for government and business on policy and decision issues involving social-technical innovation and sustainable development.

A little history: John and Eric first got together in early 1995 to discuss the purpose, shape and method of the Journal of World Transport Policy and Practice under John’s leadership with Eric as a Founding Editor. The first issue hit the street a few months later with a collection of articles vigorously contesting mainstream thinking in the sector. For lovers of history, Vol. 1, No. 1 included “The well travelled yoghurt pot” by Stefanie Böge, “The end of the urban freeway” by Peter Newman, “Urban transport policy paradoxes in Australia” by Paul Mees, “How Amsterdam plans to reduce car traffic” by Leo Lemmers, “New roads generate new traffic” by Rudolf H.H. Pfleiderer and Martin Dieterich, “Violence and the car” by Helmut Holzapfel, and “Living without a car” by Michael Glotz-Richter. (To see how they stand the test of time, happily all you have to do is click here.) Like World Streets the Journal is free and does not accept advertising to retain its full editorial independence.

* To subscribe freely to the Journal click here.
* Ditto for World Streets, here.

# # #

An invitation to continue these discussions.

If you have points you would like to make about the HSR discussions and eventual decisions in the UK, this is to invite you to share them with our readers. There are three platforms available for this: (a) add as a comment directly to this piece, (b) via the World Transport Forum at (to post to the forum: or (c) the WT Facebook page at

The idea, if enough interesting ideas come in, will be to organise them in terms of basically: arguments for, arguments against, and ideas for synthesis and moving ahead in an imperfect but needy world. These can then become the main content of a future piece in this series, in which we shall try to combine the necessary attitudes of being open, critical, and creative on an important public policy decision. Hope to see you there.

# # #

About the editor:

Eric Britton
13, rue Pasteur. Courbevoie 92400 France

Bio: Founding editor of World Streets (1988), Eric Britton is an American political scientist, teacher, occasional consultant, and sustainability activist who has observed, learned, taught and worked on missions and advisory assignments on all continents. In the autumn of 2019, he committed his remaining life work to the challenges of aggressively countering climate change and specifically greenhouse gas emissions emanating from the mobility sector. He is not worried about running out of work. Further background and updates: @ericbritton | | #fekbritton | | and | Contact: | +336 508 80787 (Also WhatApp) | Skype: newmobility.)

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32 thoughts on “UK High Speed Rail: Going very fast in the wrong direction

  1. I have been interested in us having a proper study comparing a Swiss Bahn2000 approach with the High Speed plans for about 2 years. I talk of it in hushed tones around ITS, but it seems the time could be coming to think seriously about it – a colleague of mine is preparing a position paper using some new research on Economic Appraisal for High Speed Rail, which appears to cast heavy doubt on what we’re doing here.

    PS: Did you know – the UK plan involves two cities of over 500,000 population, about 40km apart, sharing a single station?”

  2. Pingback: Ad Alta Velocità nella direzione sbagliata. | Nuova Mobilità

  3. I have to say that I share these reservations, much as I am attracted to the notion of true HSR. I wonder what the actual opportunity costs would be, though – i.e. would the same investment be available for all those much better purposes? Somehow I doubt it, unfortunately!

  4. The real scandal is that while all this is happening smaller communities are losing all their public transport for want of much smaller sums of money. My own county,
    Cambridgeshire, is planning to abolish direct subsidies for buses altogether within 4 years. I’ve worked out the national equivalent on a per capita basis of what would be needed to bridge the gap for the forthcoming year. About 73m pounds !

    However, when John Whitelegg mentions double decker trains, I think he could perhaps have told us how they would fit into the smaller loading gauge of railways in Britain.

  5. Thanks for posting this one.

    I wholeheartedly agree with John Whitelegg that the question of financing versus who will use HSR needs to be addressed, not just in the UK, but anywhere. We have the same issue right now in the Northeast Corridor of the US. Would it be fair to use general revenues to build an even faster system that only business travelers and the wealthy can afford to use? This is already the case with the moderate speed Acela Express having as it does per-unit-distance fares amongst the highest in the world. Indeed, with fares as high as they are and the limited capacity offered, there are few environmental benefits of taking cars off the road, either. Thus, I can’t see why the general public should subsidize it any more than they should pay to build an airline and airports.

    Eric Bruun

    • Eric, Hope all is well. I was planning to use your book this semester but learned it is no longer available through APA. Any other way to secure 40 to 50 copies? Alternatively perhaps with your concurrence I could make selected chapters available to the students on line. Any thoughts? Also wondered if you are available to present a seminar on a Thursday at 1pm in Feb, March, or April. This would be part of our UMass Spring Seminar series. Hope all is well. John Collura 413 687 1957 is my cell.

  6. At UC we have looked at the CO2 impacts of HSR in the US. Simple result– modest savings in those corridors where HSR makes sense (and I’ll leave that question there), provided trains are moderately to very full and electricity is not all coal fired. Remember that in the time frame (2030) we expect other modes to be less carbon intensive.

    On the whole the impact is SMALL because so little of total travel is in the 100-1000 km range in dense corridors. And while the CO2 savings are reassuring, they do not constitute justification for HSR, rather just a small cobenefit.

    The paper is in 2011 TRB and will soon be on the ORNL web site where energy-committee sponsored sessions are exhibited. Happy to send the pdf

  7. thanks for sharing this. getting a lot of questions about the US high speed rail proposals/discussions and don’t yet have a firm opinion on them. one or two corridors are a maybe, i would say, assuming a new gas tax or carbon
    tax could pay for them, but this is far from likely.

    be good to get a discussion going on this in the US context as well. I am starting to think about combining intercity and commuter longer distance express bus services with downtown bus lanes and HOV lanes, as a possible alternative to high speed rail. If there were HOV/bus lanes throughout NYC and down the NJ Turnpike, its likely you could make it NY to DC on an express bus in a time competitive to rail. These private Chinatown based buses in New York are charging $25 for NY to DC or Boston, or even less, you book on line, and they have high speed internet, etc, compared to well over $100 for the rail service. In the US, once you get off the train, you are unlikely to be anywhere near where you plan to go, particularly once you are outside of NYC

  8. Here in Italy we are very far ahead of UK in the challenge toward HSR. Now the only way to get from Rome to Milan (600 km) by train is to get an high speed train wich costs a bundle (90 euros in 2nd class, 140 euros in 1st class, when the previous ticket on a traditional intercity train was about 55 euros in 2nd class). It saves a lot of time (3 hour against 5.30 hours) but I do not know how many previous riders kept travelling by train, if you consider that you can get from Rome to Milano by aircraft in the same time (or a bit more) for 50 euros.

    On the other hand many commuters lines in Milano and Rome are facing both a financial and infrastructural crisis: fares have just raised of 10% without any service improvement and some trains happen to be suppressed due to breakdowns so that the following trains are overloaded in a cattle-truck condition.

  9. In our present context I thought it was not only timely but also generous that we be reminded that Britain is not alone when it comes to high hopes for HSR.


    (February 8, 2011) — Today, in Philadelphia, Vice President Joe Biden, accompanied by Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, announced a $53 billion, six-year program to accelerate construction of the nation’s high-speed rail network. The plan calls for $8 billion in fiscal year 2012 to jumpstart the program.

    Reconnecting America President and CEO John Robert Smith, who attended the announcement, remarked that our nation is at a precipice, and the economic and environmental challenges we now face require a new way of thinking about how we create connections between cities and regions and how we can support the economic health of communities of all shapes and sizes.

    “A National High-Speed Rail System is not only an opportunity to redefine how we travel and how our regional economies grow,” Smith said, “it represents the type of innovation and progress that can secure a better future for our grandchildren.”

    Over the last 50 years, the federal government has spent more than $400 billion building our interstate highway system. The interstate system opened new territory for economic development and created the interconnected regional economies that drive our growth today. However, with an additional 100 million citizens expected by 2050, the nation needs new infrastructure that has the ability to move more people in more places and at a higher speed.

    New investments are already showing measurable results. Since prior funding raised speeds between Harrisburg, PA, and Philadelphia to 110 mph, the corridor has seen rail ridership rise by 57 percent. In fact, more passengers now travel from Harrisburg to Philadelphia – and from Philadelphia to New York City and Washington D.C. – by rail than by plane.

    What this means is less demand for foreign oil, lowering our trade deficit; less carbon emissions, yielding significant environmental benefits; and an expanded job pool for every community connected to the system.

    “We applaud the administration’s vision of connecting higher-speed rail to 80% of American households within 25 years, and today’s announcement will move us closer to realizing this bold American ideal,” Smith said.

    The Vice President did refer to John Robert Smith in his former role as Mayor of Meridian, MS, and the development of Meridian’s Union Station. We will post the transcript of his remarks when it becomes available.

    # # #

  10. I would instead ask can asians afford it ? Many Asian countries are joining the HSR bandwagon after China with Vietnam ( there is good opposition) and India making aggressive plans. Should Asian countries think about HSR for future or rather plan and have a decent heavy rail system which provides safe, comfortable and cheap travel? Do we have any literature for developing countries on economic viability of such projects as such?



  11. In the context of countries like India and China, does HSR make sense as an alternative, not to car travel, but to air travel. Is there evidence that HSR can actually replace, say, short haul flights of an hour or two (particularly if getting to and from the airport, and associated security checks in a country like India add a good 3-4 hours overhead to the actual flying time)? If so, it may be worth considering since aviation emissions in India grew at a whopping ~15% p.a. before the recession hit, in comparison with total transport emissions growing at about 5-6%. Particularly since I believe (though don’t know enough) that HSR will be easily cost-competitive with air. Will be happy to know your thoughts and for any references that may help.

    Lee: Request you to also send the TRB paper you referred to.



    Ashok Sreenivas
    Prayas Energy Group and Parisar

  12. HSR between Brussels and Paris knocked out all bout 1 flight each way a day. And has clearly deterred growth in air, car travel between many city pairs in Europe, but has also induced travel.

    The potential advantages for Asia is HSR could build travel on the ground BEFORE air travel becomes hopelessly congested.

    The bad news is we’re talking great cost. Also success in many countries was boosted by 1) high road fuel prices 2) tolls on intercity roads 3) initially low car ownership, i.e., starting early and 4) little or no air travel competition. India has 3) but only some long distance roads are tolled (ex Mumbai-Pune). Diesel prices are still relatively low. Above all, however, one has to recognize that HSR will promote longer distance travel than otherwise, which is a mixed blessing.

    “All aboard”? I road Acela (our medium speed train) from Philadelphia to Washington today, had power and wi-fi, very comfortable. The X2000 in Sweden is similar. Neither are the fastest nor most expensive, both work well. Why not spend $$ in Asia making intercity rail at less than breathtaking speeds work well?

  13. A further crucial issue is the land use distortions that can be created. In much the same way as high speed roads did, although to a greater degree, HSR encourages the separation of origin and destination with the potential to create un attached suburbs.

    As such, and as already been noted, this will increase trip making by creating the possibility of travel but also encourages dormitory towns (detached suburbs) that are unable to support full range of retail and entertainment functions. As such the question must be asked – what kind of society are we trying to create? Are we content to have dormitory towns, what does this do for the goal of inclusive societies that are built upon interaction and the creation of social well-being .

    As transport is not a self-serving activity the worth, or otherwise, of HSR must lie in its effects upon society and the form of society we are seeking to create.

    Colin Brader
    Integrated Transport Planning Ltd
    43 Temple Row
    Birmingham B2 5LS, UK

    Tel: +44 (0)121 230 1700
    Mobile: +44 (0)7771 707538

  14. This comes a relatively simple question: If you had $US10BN to spend, how could you enhance transport welfare the most? Probablyt by upgrading all the passenger corridors in India, leaving more space for freight as well! Or you could spend it as we propose in California, part of a $40 billion connection between the north and south.

    I think I’d vote for the former.

  15. I think it is absoluely sensible to develop low cost medium speed ie.150/ 200 km/hr speed using low cost tech to provide high volume coridors which can offer trains at every 10/15 min – some freight and some passegers between major cities not only to compete with air but also highways to save time and fuel it can be pro environ/economy long term sustainable alternative.

    ashok datar

  16. Pingback: Jevon’s Paradox in Action: High-Speed Rail « Price Tags

  17. Some politicians in Sweden are also keen on very expensive HSR to save an hour or so between major cities like Stockholm and Malmö. Interesting since our railnetwork lacks maintenance and could use some modernization for regular trains. This winter has been a nightmare for commuters and long distance travelers.

  18. It has been suggested by one of our number, who asks not to be identified for fear of reprisals, that the only possible explanation for the unmitigated enthusiasm of politicians for HSR can be traced to their smoking habits. Or might it be something in the aer?

  19. I’m shocked that such an eminent pair of transport experts could make such a fundamental error as to get the cost of HS2 wrong. The article says: Supporters of HSR are happy to talk about the £32 billion cost of the first phase which is a new line from London to Birmingham.

    That is incorrect. The cost of the first phase from London to Birmingham is £17bn. The £32bn figure is the cost of the full scheme to Manchester and Leeds. Has bias against HSR clouded your judgement?

    • Quite right, this number was taken out of context. Thank you Alan for drawing it to our attention. If you go to the article today, you will see that this figure has been corrected and commented for context.

      As to the two authors, I do not think it is fair to say that either of us has a “bias against HSR”. It is just that we beleive a full public review of the facts are called for. Our goal is light, not heat.

      • So are the authors of this criticising the dialogue around High Speed as being factually spurious or criticising the very concept of High Speed?

  20. I think that Americans use the term “high speed rail” with a different meaning
    to the one in Europe, where the type of speeds the Americans are aiming at are
    already commonplace.

    For example Eric’s latest posting about high speed mentions an upgrade to
    110mph between Philadelphia and Harrisburg. Of the projects eligible for high
    speed funding the one that most interested me was the sadly now abandoned 3Cs
    line between Cleveland, Columbus and Cincinnati which likewise was limited to
    110mph according to my recollection. (This route interested me I’ve been to
    conferences in Columbus several times and wished I could get there by train !).
    Of course the US also has genuine high speed projects such as Los Angeles-San
    Francisco, but the goal of 110mph has been achieved on many conventional
    railways in the UK and other European countries.

    However the question arises: in what sectors does the US need to invest in order
    to make its transport system reasonably sustainable ? In the UK I think the most
    urgent need is to build on existing local transport facilities outside the main
    urban areas. But in the US this can’t easily be done because there’s very little
    to build on. By contrast I suspect that a high speed route between San Francisco
    and Los Angeles would make a significant contribution towards sustainability.

    Any Americans on this list who think that the above views are those of an
    ignorant foreigner ?

    Simon Norton

  21. I write to respond to your email on HSR.

    In the States we constantly talk with envy about how great train service is in Europe and Japan and how we wish we had comparable systems. Now, the Obama administration appears willing to help and California and other states will line up and receive funding for entirely new rail systems designed by politicians. In California that means the routes are political routes not market-driven routes. We’d be better off improving existing systems constructed when land use followed train routes.

    The promise of a decrease in pollution will only result in the movement of pollution from the route of the rail to some other maybe more pristine spot where fossil fuel will be used to produce the power for the train. I guess that is consistent with sharing the wealth — share the pollution.

    And then there is the matter of cost. Nice of the federal government to finance the construction of the rail systems. It will help the unemployment and maybe help elect the administration, but is the federal government going to subsidized these rail systems for their lifetimes. Certainly Congress has shown little interest in adequate funding for Amtrak. If not the feds, who? States with structural budget deficits? Transit operators who cannot keep their buses running?

    Caltrain, a heavily used train system on the San Francisco peninsula is closing stations — a perfect wonderful train system that is closing stations. There may be HSR gifts from our congressmen to replace those rails with ones that will carry higher speeds but we won’t have the funds to run the trains. How about a program that provides greater federal subsidies to existing transit and rail operators. Oh, maybe because they wouldn’t produce a significant number of jobs and reelect an administration.

    Then there is the matter of ridership. Ridership estimates are consultants’ wet dreams. This is not a criticism of consultants who probably mostly take assumptions made by politicians and produce estimates that sell the projects to the citizenry who seem to quickly forget the broken promises and false estimates made for the last rail system — probably a light rail system.

    I probably generalize to hugely. I am a captive of the California experience. There may be new HSR that makes sense somewhere in the country.

    You know that I am a transit advocate. You probably don’t know I am also a rail aficionado. I “drove” a steam engine a decade before I was old enough to drive a car because my Dad, who designed rail products, put me in the cab. Penny and I take trains everywhere. I just keep trying to remind folks of Gresham’s Law of transportation — that bad systems drive out the good ones.


    Roy Lave
    SYSTAN (ret.)
    Executive Director
    Los Altos Community Foundation

  22. Lee

    I agree with you about costs. When the lower speed system is dilapidated or otherwise inadequate it doesn’t seem appropriate to spend money on HSR first.

    Also, you lucked out or you took Acela Regional instead of Acela Express if your fare was “reasonable.”

    Walk-up fares on Acela Express can be as much as $130 US for 90 miles (130 kms) between NYC and Philadelphia. Walk up fares for even the Acela Regional are typically $90 US. Walk up fares between Philadelphia and Wash DC are between $90 and $176 for 140 miless (210 kms). Fares of $1 per kilometer are indeed amongst the highest in the world (not including mountain tourism trains and such).


  23. Eric,

    Roy Lave’s piece is the most sensible summary I have seen on the popular topic of High Speed Trains, an expression capable of being defined to suit any preference or objective. His comments on who will pay for the ongoing operating and maintenance costs are particularly pertinent.

    There are similar calls for HST in Australia, when all we really need for long distance passenger rail is a more reliable and frequent version of the few trains that exist here (not easy given that most lines are single track with passing loops). The operating subsidies for passenger trains in the three eastern States are massive.

    Thanks for drawing my attention to the UK rebuttal, which is an over-reaction to the original criticisms. It typifies a problem: you must wholeheartedly support our cause, or you are ‘agin us’. Like Roy, I am an advocate for public transport, do not own a car, am a regular user of rail in UK, Europe and Canada, and an enthusiast for rail. But I wasn’t born yesterday and am not comfortable with modally driven bandwagons that do not give due consideration to other options available that might provide more appropriate levels of service at a lower cost.

    Every good wish,

    Derek Scrafton.

  24. Dear John, dear Eric,

    Thanks for starting of this discussion as it is important. But please allow me a few different points of view.

    First I am always a bit surprised why new rail based infrastructures, whether high speed, normal intercity, goods dedicated, light rail or even a simple tramway, generates arguments that those investments are generating more mobility and thus a bad idea for the environment. To my opinion any investment in transport infrastructure that makes mobility faster will generate more mobility and thus is disadvantageous for the environment.

    This is very much true for new airport capacity, so where are the scholarly critiques of building more airports? Also the introduction of the automobile had the effect of a strong increase of peoples speed and still every new highway link will increase this speed and thus generate mobility. So the mobility generating impact is certainly not an issue for rail transport only. So first of all, it would be better to look in a much more comprehensive way to the future of mobility, with more attention to the whole transport system (including all modes) in stead of trying to proof the value of just a part of a single mode (high speed rail).

    Another argument to justify rail investments (with a sensible mix of local to regional to long distance high speed) is that the energy used is electricity. as the most sustainable energy sources (solar, wind, hydro) are all delivering electricity, electric rail offers the best opportunity to use that energy efficiently as there is no need to carry large, chemically dangerous and resource depleting, batteries or to convert the electricity into hydrogen or another intermediate energy source. The Swiss know this for over a century and have run all this time their trains on their own small hydro-plants, thus being almost zero carbon for the past century. Proven technology we can start to extend to almost everywhere.

    Third, rail transport has many other inherent advantages like better safety records (certainly per hour traveled), no local air pollution, a strong tendency to concentrate traffic and thus reduce noise nuisance and to use much less resources as the vehicles are used many hours a day (most of this mainly with regard to car use as alternative).

    Fourth, there is a special reason for investing in high(er) speed rail: it simply improves the image of rail transport, giving status to those who use it. this is one of the reasons why high speed rail is popular with business travelers as well.

    Fifth, the argument that high speed rail is only for the very rich should be substantiated, but my guess is that there is no significant difference between highly mobile people, whether they use a car, an airplane or a high speed train.

    So finally, if we truly want to make the transition towards sustainable (in the true sense of the word, thus to be sustained) mobility we should aim at a transition to electric rail based transport for all mobility. The point is that overall such a rail-based system (including high speed transport) is always a bit less fast as even the current car based system (excluding air transport), thus reducing mobility.

    Furthermore rail-based transport tends to concentrate both flows and urban areas, which further reduces the need for more mobility. A deliberate political choice for rail transport above and over all other motorized modes (of course without removing other modes completely; there will be a mix with a major share for rail) would offer a chance to break the ‘public transport death spiral’, which is driven by the causal loop of more car/air transport –> less public transport (PT) demand –> reduced PT services/frequencies –> more car demand –> more pressure to extend the roads and airport capacities –> less PT demand, etc.

    Best regards,

    Paul Peeters

  25. Pingback: The Direction of UK High Speed Rail | VoxOpp

  26. Article from The Green Party. 26 February 2011

    Greens oppose HS2: “it wouldn’t do what it says on the tin”

    Today’s Green Party conference in Cardiff came out overwhelmingly against the HS2 proposal for a Birmingham-London 250 mph train.

    The Greens, who remain committed to genuine improvements in public transport, voted overwhelmingly to campaign against the HS2 project which goes to consultation on Monday, saying proposals currently on the table would be “economically and environmentally unsound.”

    The Green Party remains in favour of high speed rail in principle, but any project would need to meet strict criteria.

    Green Party leader Caroline Lucas MP said:

    “The Green Party is opposed to the current HS2 proposals. The economic case is unsound. The claims about reducing CO2 emissions are questionable to say the least. And the huge damage which would be caused to local communities and their environment would be unsustainable.”

    Transport expert and Green Party spokesperson on sustainable development Professor John Whitelegg said:

    “The proposed HS2 trains would burn 50% more energy mile-for-mile than the Eurostar.

    “HS2 would produce more than twice the emissions of an intercity train.

    “HS2 is a ‘rich person’s railway’ – the business case assumes that a third of passengers will be on incomes of £70,000 or more.

    “Everyone knows the Greens and passionately committed to social justice and to the environment. The current HS2 proposals would serve neither.”

  27. I should also mention that we have another scheme in the UK, that to all intents and purposes has started construction on the ground, and which I refer to as HS3, and a better way to do things…

    The Great Western Main Line, which has the advantage of having been built for high speeds in the first place, is to be electrified and resignalled to allow top speeds of up to 250km/h, placing it firmly in the “High Speed” category. While a lot of details are yet to be worked out (such as the rolling stock), the line will continue to use city centre stations and include capacity improvements – in particular the current project at Reading and the extra capacity being provided by London Crossrail.

    An approach for the West Coast Line (which HS2 is planned to replace) was developed in the 1980s under the banner “West Coast 250” (250km/h again) with proposed new bypasses and capacity enhancements, but largely with existing track. It was found to be far more cost effective than the High Speed proposal back then, but unfortunately only part of the West Coast 250 programme was ever taken forward, at a high cost overrun and with a dramatically reduced specification (and promoted by the same person as HS2…)

  28. I see that the word ‘capacity’ has not featured in many of the comments so far. Assuming travel and consumption will continue to be linked to economic growth, there will be a need for more rail capacity if we want both regional commuting and long-distance freight movements and passenger travel to be made by train. So then the question is how best to deliver that capacity.

    Infrastructure upgrades: I would not want to see a repetition of the British West Coast Main Line (WCML) upgrade project, which disrupted the existing railway for years while junctions were remodelled, signalling was renewed, balises were installed for tilting trains and 4-tracking took place. This was a gift for the airlines and one of the reasons a profitable franchise became a ‘cost plus’ management contract.

    More trains: difficult if not impossible on the most congested sections of track. See above for the problems associated with track doubling.

    Longer trains: yes, many should be longer, no excuses in many parts of the UK and elsewhere in Europe. However, as soon as there is a need to move junctions and relocate signals as a result of lengthening platforms, the cost increases exponentially and there can be years of disruption.

    Double decking existing routes: our tunnels are too small unfortunately, blame the Victorians… we cannot even use off-the-shelf UIC gauge electric locos, which is one of the reasons DfT has spent £27m on consultancy for a new wonder train to replace the 200 km/h HST.

    Build new lines and reopen others: if this is the best solution, should the trunk lines be designed for 200km/h or 300 km/h? Would a reduction in flights (e.g. Madrid-Barcelona) justify the marginal extra cost of provision for higher speeds, assuming a realistic price of carbon is used in scheme appraisal and this is joined up with energy policy? Could the released capacity on the ‘classic lines’ then be used for better suburban S-Bahn/RER-type services and additional freight?

    We have seen this and previous govenments’ solution to the capacity problem implemented many times before: price off the demand for rail travel. For me that is unacceptable for occasional/discretionary travel, but abolishing subsidies for long-distance ‘lifestyle’ commuting would help to avoid some of the crazier proposals such as new railway tunnels from the southern suburns into the centre of London.

    I wll finish with a wish list, as I always think these debates should focus on solutions rather than the problem. What could the £30bn buy instead of HS2?

    1. Build more carriages / reactivate idle rolling stock for the northern cities. Repeat the German experience of creating electrified S-Bahn systems with regular-interval services. Build new light rail systems (25 were promised in the Ten Year Plan of 2000) that will appeal to the car-owning middle class and offer integrated timetabling and ticketing. Coordinate with decentralisation efforts: following the partial move by the BBC, relocating the Department for Transport to Manchester should focus minds somewhat!

    2. Electrify! The cost of oil is going in only one direction, and there are numerous other whole-life benefits for the railway, such as lower weights, reduced train maintenance costs, a longer operational life and improved operational flexibility.

    3. Trial the use of double decker commuter stock on routes that could be converted for them at relatively low cost: London-Reading-Oxford is a tunnel-less contender. Once established as successful, the case could be made for further UIC gauge enhancements, coordinated with enhancements for 9’6″ containers.

    4. Although I’m reluctant to concentrate further investment in the south-east per se, I would recommend investigating the case for a London Hbf (at Farringdon perhaps?), allowing more journeys from the populous and wealthy south-east to be made by train without the need to hump luggage between terminals using the hot and overcrowded Underground. Why aren’t Euston, Kings Cross and St.Pancras a single station? This transfer penalty, combined with London’s orbital M25 motorway, means rail is an unattractive option for those with access to a car.

    5. Build new infrastructure to relieve specific bottlenecks, release capacity and encourage modal shift. Upgrades vs new build? This depends on location-specific objectives, geography and the existing rail network.

    Of course all of the above should factor in the effects of oil costs and demand management policies such as road pricing. I think it’s a fair assumption that we are not going to stop travelling, so doing nothing is not an option if 5% of car pkm are to be switched to rail, implying 50% extra demand for the latter.


  29. This is awesome! I just skimmed through the article and I find it interesting already. I see Income diary taking a new twist and I love it.


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