Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Thoughts on Britain's Proposed High Speed Rail Network

Train travelImage via Wikipedia

The Prime Minister confirmed today in Parliament that the government is committed to creating a High Speed Rail Network, connecting London with urban centres in the midlands and north of England, at an estimated cost of £30 bn.

Increasingly, the project is being framed in terms of bridging the north-south economic divide in England, by opening up business and employment opportunities to communities historically disconnected with the economic power house of London and the south east.

Although I instinctively tend to favour rail as a means of transport - especially as a more sustainable alternative to driving or flying - I do have misgivings about this particular project.

Billions of pounds of tax payers' money will be sunk into this project. Transport Secretary Phillip Hammond made this clear last month when he announced that,

“If we used financial accounting we would never have any public spending, we would build nothing and we would have no public services. We have to judge investing in projects like HS2 (High Speed 2) or schools and the health service, by the benefits they bring to society as a whole. Financial accounting would strike a dagger through the whole case for public sector investment.”

So, tax payers will be expected to subsidise this project. This at a time when public funds are being severely cut from some of the other public service that the minister cites.
The finished link is projected to enable commuters to travel between London and Leeds in one hour and twenty minutes. Which sounds wonderful, but there is a broader social development at work at the same time. Caps on the amount that recipients of housing benefit will be able to claim, for instance, will result, according to a report by the Chartered Institute of Housing, in most two-bedroom properties in the south of England becoming unaffordable to those in receipt of housing benefit by 2025. London itself, says the report, will be unaffordable within a decade. 

So, here we have the prospect of the poorest members of society - including many currently in employment - being forced out of the areas where they currently work in the southeast, into poorer areas in the north of England. If that were not bad enough, these economic migrants will then be required to pay for train tickets to the capital to continue accessing London's labour market. A peak-hours day return from London to Leeds is currently around £180. All of this will take place on rail tracks paid for by tax payers, while we cannot afford to pay for our young people to receive a university education.
There will of course be those individuals who benefit economically from the high speed rail link. But it is worth looking at the big picture first. 

Economist Kevin Carson has shown that the transport and communications infrastructure necessary to create and sustain the concept of a "national market" of goods and services in the C19 industrial revolution, was paid for primarily by the tax payer but disproportionately benefited large firms.

I have yet to see any convincing argument that would lead me to believe that this new rail infrastructure would operate along any different economic principles. 

An alternative approach would see the development of genuine local economies, as an alternative to the London-centric view of economic development underpinning the high speed rail proposals. And by local, I don't mean the Eric Pickles variety. 



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