Wednesday, November 13, 2013

This is NOT the age of the train

Across the European Union- indeed world-wide- there are huge projects to develop high-speed rail systems. The pioneering days of the Japanese Shinkansen and the later French TGV network are now being followed by investments across the EU, and -especially- in China.

Yet there is a problem.

Railways may be more energy efficient once built, but they are hugely capital intensive- all of the components- track bed, signalling and rolling stock, must be built together and the project must be complete before it can operate. The power of rail is in the network, and without such a network, it does not work to anything like peak performance. Whereas road improvements can be made piecemeal and fit in with existing road infrastructure, high-speed rail lines are generally built from scratch. So the cost of such projects as HS2 in the UK or Rail Baltica (to link Tallinn with Warsaw) run into tens of billions of Euros. Even the Chinese are beginning to balk at the huge costs involved, while Californian fast rail projects smack more of Sci-Fi than properly costed and practical proposals.

The thinking behind making such investments is always that rail is faster that road and creates less emissions than air travel. We are told that investing in high-speed rail is visionary and exciting- and therefore naturally politicians tend to queue up to be associated with these projects. However in fact such investment may show a complete lack of vision and precisely the kind of blinkered thinking that our leaders say they deplore.

Over the course of the 19th century, rail investment created a dense network which allowed easy and cheap long distance travel for the first time. By the early twentieth century, rail was already facing significant competition from cars over short distances. By the late 1960s, the advent of jet aircraft- having destroyed the liner ships as inter-continental transport- were also making inroads against the slower railways. It became clear that above a certain distance and below a certain density of traffic, rail was simply not competitive. a retrenchment of the rail network in the UK focused efforts on commuting and point to point inter-city systems. Although efforts were made to increase speeds without massive investment in new track- the APT project, for example- these were not successful. The future by the 1970s was in the car and in particular the motorway network.

Yet the motorways became victims of their own popularity- huge amounts of freight moved to road and growing congestion out paced any (under) investment that was made into new road projects. By that time UK rail was also chronically underfunded and the lead that British Rail once had in locomotive engineering was destroyed by a series of botched rail privatizations. Yet infrastructure investment has been a political talisman for decades- even though the reality has been a series of abortive ideas rather than significant achievement, with the notable exception of the Channel tunnel.

Here we go again. 

The HS2 is already a series of unacceptable compromises, and even if it were built beyond Birmingham, it is a very dubious prospect as to whether the benefits would exceed the massive cost- currently projected to be over £42 billion (€50 billion). 

There is another significant problem emerging- the power of disruptive technology. The emergence of driverless car technology has the potential to transform the way we travel- and as large as the projected cost may be - the possibility of much faster and safer roads which can be invested in by stages and yet remain integrated with the existing road network, is a financial neutron bomb for rail investment. For moving both goods and people roads are far more flexible and much cheaper than rail over medium distances. Rail freight really only comes into its own at much longer distances, which is how the US rail system now works and why the rail silk rad from China to Europe makes sense. With the advent of driverless technology in trucks, the distance where road is more efficient than rail is being significantly expanded.

Which brings me on to Rail Baltica. This is a €3-4 billion project to link Tallinn to Warsaw with a new standard gauge line. Yet already it is clear that it will also be a rather weak compromise, since cost pressures will mean the line will most likely to built for speeds of 160 km/h, rather than the genuinely high speed lines of 260 km/h and faster. Tallinn is just short of 1000 km from Warsaw- it will be a minimum 6 hour journey- which is not competitive with the one hour flight. Rail Baltica is therefor being sold as freight solution, rather than a passenger solution. This- we are told- will relieve congestion on the roads. 

However there is currently less than 60 km of motorway on the 1000 km route. The best way to relieve congestion would surely be a wholesale upgrade of the via Baltica to a motorway standard. This would reduce the current four hour journey from Tallinn to Riga to two and a half hours, and the 7 hour trip to Vilnius to less than five. Warsaw would be around eight hours- as opposed to the current 12-14. Two hours slower than the rail transit time, to be sure, but the difference is that the truck or car unloads its cargo or passengers at the actual destination, rather than at a station where one must make other arrangements to get to your final end point. Building the motorway also prepares for the real future- driverless cars and trucks, since the motorway can still be used after the technology is widely introduced.

The fact is that the financial costs of these two projects are too big and that renders them classic examples of state-driven gigantism. We are told that the budget for Rail Baltica is already allocated, so therefore the railway will indeed be built.

This is not the way that Estonia used approach the world- once they would simply find best practice and then apply it. That is why the country has been able to become prosperous and influential. By contrast, Rail Baltica is a corrupt political bondoogle which is deeply flawed on economic and even ethical grounds. It is dead end technology- and later generations will be contemptuous of this mis-investment. The only good thing is that as a European project the pain to the Estonian tax payer will be very diluted. As for HS2- it represents a failure to invest in infrastructure and housing in the UK in any kind of even way- and the distortion that this mis-allocation of capital has created will be only added to by this white elephant.

The future of transport is coming- and it will not be in the shape of these monuments to 19th century technology.   

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