The High Speed Rail research failure
I’m still preparing TCF’s final submission to the High Speed Rail consultation process, which closes on Friday. It will be published here. In advance of that full submission, though, here is the main point we’ll be making.
There is a valid concern, based on detailed research into other schemes around the world, that the introduction of high speed rail to the UK will actually have negative consequences for some areas. These concerns are summed up in a 2009 paper ‘High Speed Rail: Lessons for Policy Makers from Experiences Abroad’, in which the authors study the actual post-construction impact of schemes in Japan, France, Spain and Italy:
It is consistently reported that HSR does not generate any new activities nor does it attract new firms and investment, but rather it helps to consolidate and promote on-going processes as well as to facilitate intra-organizational journeys for those firms and institutions for whom mobility is essential.
In fact, for regions and cities whose economic conditions compare unfavorably with those of their neighbors, a connection to the HST line may even result in economic activities being drained away and an overall negative impact (Givoni, 2006; Van den Berg and Pol 1998; Thompson 1995). Medium size cities may well be the ones to suffer most from the economic attraction of the more dynamic, bigger cities. Indeed, Haynes (1997) points out that growth is sometimes at the expense of other centers of concentration. Several reports describe the centralization of activities in big nodes, especially in the services sector.
It is perhaps worth pointing out that only those cities with a significant weight of services in their economic structure appear to benefit from HSTs. In other words agricultural and industrial activities are indifferent to HST stops. Evidence of this lack of economic impact is the little attention given to a HST railway stations by firms in their location decisions, even those of service companies.
Independent of that paper, I set out my own concerns 18 months ago about the intra-regional disparities that might occur:
There is a real risk, I contend, that the building of a high speed rail link through a country which is already both quite densely populated along the length of the line, and heavily integrated, will actually have major negative unintended consequences; intra-regional inequalities will grow as those towns on the line ‘suck in’ prosperity, and the majority of the people living more than a few minutes travel from the few stations will end up not just worse off in relative terms, but perhaps also in absolute.
Of course no government – red or blue – is coming to me for expert advice (just yet), but my concerns were echoed, albeit faintly, in a report to the previous government specifically around the high speed rail programme, which reviewed the available literature. The report recommended:
[T]he issue of wider economic benefits remains one of the hardest to tackle; such benefits could be significant, but vary significantly from case to case, so an in depth study of each case by experts is required.
Yet 18 months on from that report, and at a point where the new government gives every indication that it is going to sign off the £32bn project as soon as it can, no such assessment of the wider impacts have ever been undertaken. What passes for socio-economic impact assessment has startlingly restricted pararmeters:
In undertaking this assessment account has been taken of the socio-economic impact of transport schemes including other high speed rail schemes. It is commonly accepted that the main impact on land use, of new stations or improved services, is located within a 10-15 minutes walking distance of the station, which equates to a catchment area of 1km (para. 1.3.1.).
And in perhaps the most startling admission that basic research has not been conducted, the authors of this study note:
The next steps in developing the socio-economic appraisal may be to:
- Investigate the impact of additional rail services on the ‘classic’ network on development and employment in the areas around stations such as Milton Keynes, Coventry, Rugby and Northampton.
- Investigate the wider regional impacts of high speed rail, for example, how the Black Country region would be affected by the introduction of High Speed Rail to Birmingham (para 1.3.5.)
Frankly, it seems astonishing that the question of how the new line will impact upon areas more than 1km from stations (i.e. the rest of the country) may (or may not) be addressed AFTER the decision has been taken to proceed, especially given the available evidence that impacts may in fact be negative. It does raise the suspicion that the whole project is more about politics than actual economic benefit. This would be in keeping with what the authors of the internartional study say about the Spanish scheme:
[A]ny discussions as to the social profitability of HST investments have been largely absent from the political debate because – besides the political rationale – the AVE is considered a symbol of modernity, and enjoys user support – perhaps because passengers pay low prices thanks to huge public subsidies.
None of this should be taken as outright opposition to HSR. I’m no Luddite, and I believe in public works; as one part of an overall transport strategy which links not just the big cities but connects local areas together in a manner conducive to the localisation of employment and supply chains, I can see great advantages. Indeed, the main consultation document says as much:
Enhanced rail links through a national high speed rail network, particularly if combined with other improvements,such as the forthcoming electrification programme and the proposed Northern Hub scheme, stand to play an important role in tackling this [lack of connectivity between cities in the Midlands and the North (para 2.18).
But there is a very big ‘if’ in there, and at the moment I see no commitment to anything other than a costly scheme which may end in disaster for smaller towns across vaste swathes of England.
The project WILL be signed off by the government – it will not, realistically, now do a u-turn. The main task now is to persuade Labour in opposition, and hopefully in government as the first construction begins on the line, of the dangers that are there for any sensible researcher to see, and to start planning now for how to make sure the line ends up as a boost for Britain, not a long-term bringer of inequality.