It was reportedon Wednesday, that ministers are becoming decidedly luke-warm on the idea of a north-south high speed rail line for Britain. This flies in the face of the accepted wisdom that Britain needs 180mph domestic rail services in order to tempt passengers away from domestic flights and their cars. Even the traditionally rail-unfriendly Tories have been making warm noises about a high-speed line (they won’t have seen the potential bill yet), thankfully having weaned themselves off the pie-in-the-sky idea of a maglev network. As an advocate of greater use of Britain’s railways for both passengers and freight, I might be expected to share the enthusiasm for high-speed rail. Until recently, that would have been correct, but I have increasingly become a high-speed sceptic.
I worry increasingly that a lot of the support for a domestic high-speed line is based around an understandable, but flawed, desire to emulate the success of the French TGV network. Yes, the Train a Grand Vitesseis a pleasure to travel on, has slashed journey times and effectively put an end to air travel on some of the routes it serves (e.g. Paris-Marseille and Paris-Strasbourg). But the idea that this is automatically translatable into the British context fails to take into account firstly the vastly differing circumstances across the Channel and also the negative side to the TGV:
- Cost: France has the same population as the UK, but in twice the area. Spain, which is also building up a huge high-speed network, is even less crowded. Higher population density means higher land values, more planning disputes and a prolonged pre-construction period of wrangling. All these add up to a bill for a Anglo-Scottish high-speed rail project of potentially £40bn. Given the way that HM Treasury works, this money would have to be found by abstracting money from other rail spending and inflated fares for travel on the high-speed route. It has to be a concern that a high-speed line would tie up all rail investment for a generation.
- Population spread: The French high-speed network proved necessary in part because of the far-flung nature of its major cities. The second and third cities of Marseille and Lyon are 769 and 457km respectively from Paris. The equivalent figures for Birmingham and Manchester are 162 and 263km. Travel time by rail between London and Birmingham is little more than 90 minutes – there are no flights and most people travelling by car aren’t doing so for reasons of journey time. London to Manchester is faster by train on a city centre-to-city centre timing: people choose to use the plane because it can be cheaper. The same goes for Leeds, Liverpool and (just about) Newcastle. Obviously, the aim would be for a high-speed line to continue to Glasgow and/or Edinburgh where big time savings would start to emerge. The problem is the economics: there is a huge swathe of to all intents and purposes empty country (which will generate no revenue) to cross before you get to these cities.
- The effect on other rail services: The TGV network is the public face of the French railways, and to an extent, the French state. The problem is, it is only half of the picture. Attempt to travel by train away from the high-speed axes or the Paris suburban network and you will be met by slow, infrequent services, life-expired infrastructure and rolling stock and lines where nearly every ‘train’ is in fact a bus. France is still closing railway lines– the UK hasn’t done so in over a decade. One of the key reasons for this has been the concentration of investment in the TGV network, which despite its success, does not return a profit to plough into the ‘social’ railway. I’m no apologist for the current state of the UK’s railways, but beyond the TGV they put the French network to shame – but if funding was diverted to high speed in the UK, the same fate would be likely to occur (France is not isolated in this – Spanish railways are remarkably minimalist beyond the high-speed network). To illustrate the point, below is a table comparing frequencies and journey times on similar UK and non-TGV French routes.
|Type of route||From (& population)||To (& population)||Distance (miles)||Trains/day||Journey time|
|Major city to secondary city||Clermont Ferrand (139,600)||Lyon (470,000)||128||7||2h31|
|Peterborough (163,300)||Leeds (443,247)||119||25||1h12|
|Between secondary cities||Rouen (106,592)||Amiens (135,501)||75||4||1h17|
|Cheltenham Spa (112,300)||Newport (140,200)||56||16||0h58|
|Major city to secondary city||Toulouse (435,000)||Limoges (133,968)||179||3||3h09|
|Edinburgh (448,624)||Preston (132,000)||216||9||2h38|
|Major city to rural town||Montpellier (244,300)||Mende (11,804)||123||2||3h35|
|Wolverhampton (236,000)||Aberystwyth (11,607)||108||8||2h33|
|Capital to tertiary town||Paris (2,167,994)||Auxerre (37,790)||105||4||1h41|
|London (7,355,400)||Yeovil (41,871)||133||17||2h13|
|Rural branchline||Tours (142,000)||Loches (6,328)||25||3||1h02|
|Norwich (132,000)||Sheringham (7,143)||27||17||0h55|
|Second city outer suburban||Marseille (820,900)||la Penne-sur-Huveaune (6,005)||10||10||0h17|
|Birmingham (1,010,200)||Dorridge (c 7,000)||12||74||0h15|
But rejecting high-speed rail as a panacea must not mean leaving Britain’s rail network as it stands. As it is, the network is unco-ordinated, short-termist and unjustifiably expensive for both passenger and taxpayer, leaving it unable to compete with other modes. Obviously the current operation structure has to change, preferably through full re-nationalisation of at least the infrastructure, but at the very least in a move towards operation of the infrastructure, passengers and freight by a very small number of not-for-profit companies on long franchises.
But the simple truth remains that what is preventing a large modal shift from air and car to rail in the UK is not speed, but capacity, price and flexibility. And it is through addressing these issues that new investment would be better spent, alongside a levelling of the playing-fields to remove the hidden subsidies (like exemption from fuel tax and VAT) that allow for unrealistically cheap air travel.
Rather than automatically thinking that we need to follow the French in building high-speed lines the length of the country, Britain would be better served adopting the highly successful piece-meal German approach of constructing short stretches of high-speed line where economically feasible (comparative maps of French and Germannetworks – scroll down in each case) and where time savings will be greatest through avoiding very slow or congested sections of exisiting lines.
The money ‘saved’ through not building huge high-speed networks can be used far more effectively on quick-win schemes on the rest of the network. These should include capacity increasing measures such as line speed improvements; modernised signalling to allow more trains to be operated, more reliably; doubling and quadrupling track; new loops for freight trains to be overtaken; platform extensions to allow longer trains; work to permit double-deck trains to operate on some of the busiest routes; the construction of flying junctions and the re-opening, where possible of alternative routes.
To improve speed, flexibility, energy-efficiency and fuel security, a programme of electrification needs to be kick-started, starting with short gap-filling (Leeds-York, Manchester-Preston, Hastings-Ashford, Edinburgh-Glasgow direct), before moving on to look at bigger schemes, prioritising the Great Western mainline from Paddington to Cardiff and Bristol.
All these schemes are urgently needed if Britain’s rail network is to stimulate and cope with increased demand. They are just as vital as the Crossrail and Thameslink 2000 schemes currently going ahead. But the simple truth is that if the Treasury has to cough up for a high speed line, they will not happen. The risk is that we end up with a French-style network of two-halves – glitzy high-speed trains not really connecting with a run-down, minimalist rump of a network. In political terms, do we serve the few who will truly benefit from high-speed, or the many whose travelling lives will be improved by a high-capacity, affordable railway that continues to fulfil its social role? Do we want to lose this in order to cut 20 minutes off the journey time to Birmingham? I think not.
Update 3/10: The Animal analyses the weaknesses of the Tory High-Speed proposal here.