Rail is (nearly) Obsolete

Railways are a 19th Century solution to 21st century problems. And the Government’s planning to invest £50bn in them (in reality probably £80-150bn) on a new, shiny High Speed 2 line from London to Birmingham.

That’s £1,500-£4,000 for each taxpayer that could be spent upgrading the capacity (and so lowering fares) on the existing network. But no. Economic theory, when filtered through the daily moron idiot-o-graph, says “capital spending boosts the economy” and this is some capital spending, so the argument goes, let’s do it. Plus politicians get to look (or say they’re being) “bold” or “forward-looking”. They’re being nothing of the sort.

The economic case for HS2 is based on business travel. And it assumes the busy executive would 1) not work on the train, and 2) would be more likely to travel from London to Birmingham for a meeting. Of course what actually happens is the busy executive DOES work on the train, so high-speed mobile internet means the premiums to high speed travel drop markedly. Furthermore, he’s more likely to travel from Birmingham to London for a meeting. The High speed lines from Lyons to Paris and from Osaka to Tokyo increased the centre’s economic activity at the expense of the provinces, rather than providing the boost to regional economies as promised, and they reduced the need for local management jobs.

It’s not just “business executives” who mostly have meetings less frequently than politicians imagine, and who will travel the other way to that anticipated. Night out at the Opera? – HS2 puts London’s Royal Opera House in range, rather than Birmingham’s (excellent, it’s where I once saw The Marriage of Figaro, but less glamorous) Hippodrome. Will anyone be travelling from London on HS2 to go to the Theatre in Birmingham?

Of course HS2’s a grotesquely expensive white elephant designed around the needs of a vanishingly small population: a tiny number of businesses who need to travel from London to Birmingham regularly, and Birmingham’s 29 (28 next time…) MPs. Better to invest in the light rail, commuter services in conurbations like Birmingham where it might do some good. What’s the point of getting to Birmingham from London, if you need a car to do so from

The main reason it’s a white elephant: Self-drive cars which are on the horizon. The technology proven here & now, and will be available, if Google is to be believed, by 2018. This is what will revolutionise transport, not a single High speed line on a single track, at some point 25 years hence.

Think about it. Driving will no longer be dead time, you’ll work in your car just as you work on the train. If you don’t work, you’ll read a book, watch a movie or stare blankly out of the window thinking about sex. Instead of sitting for 95% of the time, depreciating in car-parks or on the drive, cars can run errands while you’re doing something else. Deliveries can happen at our convenience, not that of a delivery drivers tachymeter. All that space used to store depreciating metal will be used for something more productive. Vehicles, freed from human reaction time, will be free to cruise on motorways close together, saving fuel, increasing capacity. Delays will be greatly reduced. Junctions will not need traffic lights. Roads will not need signs, beautifying the built environment. Freed from the need to store cars, we can choose, central urban, or suburban/rural space. The effect on house-prices will be vast.

Everyone will have a door-to-door taxi, as and when they need it. Why go to the train station? Why subsidise trains? Don’t spend £80bn (or whatever) on HS2. Spend it on something else. Or don’t spend it at all.

4 replies
  1. Anonymous
    Anonymous says:

    Much the same, on an individual level, can be said about rental cars of the non-self-driving variety. Rail will be rendered totally obsolete only when road transport allows one to get up, walk around, go to the lavatory, and purchase an (admittedly overpriced) sandwich, all the while travelling at 125 mph.

  2. perdix
    perdix says:

    The reason for HS2 is capacity. Without more capacity the rail system will bung up. However, for long distance travel, speed will be much better than obtainable by driverless car. But by all means take a driverless car to and from the station!


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