Blank cheques and railway lines

Mrs Villiers, Shadow Transport Secretary, has declined to give Labour a blank cheque for its proposal to build a high speed rail line from London to Birmingham. Far from being the end of the transport world as we know it, as presented by some, this is welcome news.

New high speed rail lines pose two serious problems. One is they are very costly to the hard pressed taxpayers, requiring substantial public subsidy. For that reason I understand that new high speed rail lines are being considered not for the next impecunious Parliament, but for the one after that, in the hope that by then there will be sounder and more ample finances. It means there is no need to rush this decision.

The second problem is they can be very damaging to the environment. Labour’s proposal may entail driving an intrusive swathe of concrete sleepers and steel overheads through an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty in the Chiltern hills. Successful high speed lines need to be as straight and as flat as possbile, requriing substantial earth moving. Anyone living near the proposed route will want to be able to object and to discuss the level of compensation that will be appropriate for loss of amenity, increased noise and vibration should they lose their case.

Lord Adonis may fancy his role as the man who drew a line on a map for the future. Just drawing a line is the easy part. It is raising the money and selling the idea to all who will be affected by it that is the difficult part. New roads can be paid for from private money and tolls, and new roads can be more flexibly designed as they can take more hills and bends than railway tracks. Perhaps that’s why they are not so popular with fans of big government. Both main parties did co-operate successfully on the M6 tollway.


  1. Ian Jones
    February 19, 2010

    So roads dont generate noise and pollution to those unfortunate enough to live next to them?

    Fast train lines are efficient people movers, I recommend you try them in Japan. A decent rail system is not the end result of big Government but of decent planning.

    I also think your leader is rather keen on them too.

  2. alan jutson
    February 19, 2010

    The poor state of the infrastructure is a lasting legacy to the wasted opportunity of the last 13 years.

    Whilst efficient transport is very important, it comes second to economic survival.

    Better to fill in a few of the millions of potholes and crumbling roads first, before they break up completely.

    Meanwhile we have our Local Council laying green (colour green) covering on cycle lanes, red covering on tarmac at bends, beige covering on tarmac at traffic light approaches, additional white lines everywhere.

    Average life of such coverings if past performance is anything to go by 2-3 years.

    Pot holes largly left to fend for themselves. Sure sign the end of the financial year is approaching, so they can spend the budget as quickly as possible.

    Local area now looks like bloody toy town.

    You know which Council I am talking about John, yes correct, Wokingham.

    Can I just ask you to ask, WHY ?.

    Reply: I regularly talk about budget priorities in the meetings I have with Councillors, and explain the views of constituents. As you know, Councillors are responsile for the decisions.

  3. Jim Caliwag
    February 19, 2010

    Villiers on this morning's Today programme suggested that the planning and consultation time would take 4-5 years…just in time for err the next election.
    The way things are going, High Speed lines just aren't going to happen, and anyway where are the predicted 20000 people an hour travelling from London to Birmingham going to come from and, more importantly, why.
    Far better to progressively expand and improve existing railways…viz the recently announced Manchester hub…good value for money which benefit thousends of travellers.

  4. James Strachan
    February 19, 2010

    Up to a point, Lord Copper.

    If you look at the Medway bridges – where the M2 and High Speed Rail cross the Medway – you will observe that (a) the High Speed Rail can go up quite steep hills and (b) the M2 makes a far greater impact on the lanscape than the railway does.

    The political problem is that Lord Adonis is a man in a hurry. Very dangerous.

  5. Martin
    February 19, 2010

    So Mrs Villiers has run up the white flag to the Nimbys already.

    No High Speed Line , no extras runway at Heathrow. Boris got told off about Thames Estuary airport plans.

    As for new roads – these also slice through marginal seats. When the last Conservative government suggested widening the M4 – there was the predictable reaction and caving in to the Nimbys.

  6. Eotvos
    February 19, 2010

    John is surely right here. The cost of building this railway, buying trains and an everlasting subsidy mean this is never going to be affordable.

    It would be cheaper and more effective to improve the roads. A network already exists so roads could be widened. The private sector can build new roads and charge tolls.

    Labour claim that no extra road capacity is required and then say they are looking at making hard shoulders into normal lanes.

    One problem is that many politcians seem to think you are a criminal if you get in a car to go somewhere.

    I traveled on a fast train from Malaga to Madrid last year. This thing cruised at 280km/hr and exceeded 300km/hr occasionally. The view outside is a blur. Great experience and I recommend it to flying, but in the UK? Dream on. Spain has the space for a project like this and it is heavily subsidised.

  7. backofanenvelope
    February 19, 2010

    I would like to suggest a change of tack. Why not build a medium speed line? Say about 100 mph or so. Safe and reliable, it would still get you from London to Birmingham in just over an hour. Think of the savings in track construction costs and signalling costs.

    I would also like to suggest taking a leaf out of the Eden project book. Their domes are covered in clingfilm! Just imagine a rail line under cover!

  8. paul fitzgerald
    February 19, 2010

    It took just over an hour to get from birmingham to london in the 70's..normal track..During the 80's/90's the time got longer why

  9. Alan Wheatley
    February 19, 2010

    Why high speed rail? Is it for the prestige, and if so who's? Is it to stimulate the manufacturing economy, and if so who's economy is going to benefit? Is it to meet a need, and if so does it justify suffering all the downside effects? Or is it the grand political gesture, and if so we can all understand the temptation, but that does not make it right.

    There is no spare land in Britain. To allocate some to a new railway line is to loose it for another purpose. I have yet to hear the justification for using land for this purpose. I think the NIMBYs have a point – to deride them just means you live somewhere else.

    And rail is so yesterday. The heyday of rail travel was over 100 years ago. Rail declined as road transport improved, and for good reasons. A new rail link, no matter how high the speed, sounds like a plan to go backwards. It makes little sense for more and more people to move between more and more places.

    If there is a perceived need, why not examine it to see how well it stands up to critical analysis. We should, in any event, be putting a cap on the number of potential travellers, who will not only want more space to travel but more space when they are stationary. We could also explore alternative ways of meeting the objective of the journey without the need to travel.

    If the big idea was high speed broadband throughout the whole country that enabled 3D video conferencing in high definition with surround sound, then I would start to get excited. And such a project would be a NIMBY free zone to boot!

  10. Snuggles
    February 19, 2010

    We need high speed rail in Britain. We are so far behind the rest of the world on this. All of our major European neighbours have a system. Japan, China, Korea have high speed rail. America also has it on its East Coast. Most of our motorway network is complete now. Why do people consider roads investment, but not rail as well. I agree the PFI deal doesn't look good for the taxpayer. I also can't see this going through because of the financial situation.

  11. Lindsay McDougall
    February 20, 2010

    Let us draw a line in the sand right now. If any high speed rail line would require ongoing public subsidy, let alone substantial public subsidy, it should not be built. A capital grant to a concession company, even a substantial one, would be acceptable as a one off expense in the initial construction phase.

    The nature of the concession would be ownership of the entire London to Scotland corridor, both existing tracks and new tracks. Make it a 50 year concession and allow the concessionaire complete freedom, to operate his own trains and/or to allow other companies to operate trains, subject to track access charges. Train fares, track charges, train frequencies and rolling stock standards would be entirely at the discretion of the concessionaire and operating companies. The only influence that government would have would relate to performance parameters such as speed, safety and punctuality, to be written into the concession contract.

    We would not allow the concessionaire to be a shell company that could walk away when the going got tough. We should require the concession company to be backed by substantial capital, locked in to the concession, and we should look favourably on a potential concessionaire that raised most of its capital through equity rather than borrowing from banks.

    The concession would be awarded by competitive tender after a rigorous process.

    The concessionaire would possess substantial monopoly powers within the railway mode, certainly over track charges and sub-contracting, throughout the 50 year concession. Rather than have a meddlesome regulator, we should ensure that competition from road and air modes is fierce.

    Regarding the environmental consideration as it relates to the route, as far as possible the existing route corridor should be used, probably with some straightening of the alignment to improve speeds. Railways are best at connecting city centres; if there are urban demolition costs and redevelopments, these are going to have to be incurred. The trouble with new routes (both road and rail) is that there will be bridge and tunnel costs on the transverse highway system to prevent severence.

    Whatever the route corridor, the project will require a 'dual carriageway' railway, with a slow lane for local passenger trains and freight, and a fast lane for the high speed trains.

  12. berenike
    February 26, 2010

    Having lived between the Edinburgh-Stirling motorway and the Edinburgh-Glasgow line, a few hundred yards from each, I would choose to live by a railway than by a road any time. Once a railway is built, it has far less effect on its surroundings than a motorway does, in terms of fumes, drainage and litter. And, indeed, noise. The constant drone of the motorway was far more wearing than the half-hourly brief roar of the train.

  13. Mark
    May 18, 2010

    This is your party's government policy now!

Comments are closed.