A Lesson for CA? Economist Mag Calls for British Govt. to Cancel High Speed Rail

Wendell Cox
Wendell Cox is principal of Demographia, an international public policy firm. He is a founding senior fellow at the Urban Reform Institute, Houston and a member of the Advisory Board of the Center for Demographics and Policy at Chapman University in Orange, California. Mayor Tom Bradley appointed him to three terms on the Los Angeles County Transportation Commission

Cross-posted at NewGeography.

The Economist magazine has called on the British government to cancel plans for the HS-2 high-speed rail line that would run from London to Birmingham and Manchester. The Economist said:

…these days politicians across the developed world hope new rapid trains, which barrel along at over 250mph (400kph), can do the same. But high-speed rail rarely delivers the widespread economic benefits its boosters predict. The British government—the latest to be beguiled by this vision of modernity—should think again

The government claims the line will cost £32 billion line, however the international experiences suggests a figure more on the order of  £32  and the experience in this corridor itself suggests costs could rise even more (see The High Speed Rail Battle of Britain).

A principal purpose for the line is to bridge the economic gap between the economic dynamo of Southeast England (including London) and the Midlands and North of the country. This does not convince The Economist:

China suspended new projects after a fatal collision of two high-speed trains in July; Brazil delayed plans for a rapid Rio de Janeiro-São Paulo link, after lack of interest from construction firms. Yet governments remain susceptible to the idea that such projects can help to diminish regional inequalities and promote growth.

The Economist doubts this will happen:

In fact, in most developed economies high-speed railways fail to bridge regional divides and sometimes exacerbate them. Better connections strengthen the advantages of a rich city at the network’s hub: firms in wealthy regions can reach a bigger area, harming the prospects of poorer places. Even in Japan, home to the most commercially successful line, Tokyo continues to grow faster than Osaka. New Spanish rail lines have swelled Madrid’s business population to Seville’s loss. The trend in France has been for headquarters to move up the line to Paris and for fewer overnight stays elsewhere.

The Economist reminds the government that:

Britain still has time to ditch this grand infrastructure project—and should. Other countries should also reconsider plans to expand or introduce such lines. A good infrastructure scheme has a long life. But a bad one can derail both the public finances and a country’s development ambitions.

Finally, The Economist says that there is better use for the money.

The £32 billion at its disposal might well yield a higher return if it were spent on less glitzy schemes, such as road improvements and intra-city transport initiatives. If the aim is to regenerate “the north”, the current plan might prove a high-speed route in the wrong direction.

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