Sunday, 25 October 2015

Flat earth, HS2 and the lunatic fringe

From the venomous and monomaniac tone of their social media campaigns, you would be forgiven for considering that the proposal to build a new mainline railway in Britain was on a par with every natural and unnatural evil of the last two millennia, at least in the eyes of the self-styled people's tribunes who maintain a virtual campaign in the face of reality and reason.

As a sign of old age, it is difficult to get interested in the minutiae of division between the various groups - rather akin to the Trotskyite fringe in the 1980s their theological disputes are irrelevant either to the remainder of the world or to the political programme that they seek to influence.  What is clear is that their manoeuvres are entirely counter-productive, given their purported desire to oppose significant upgrades of infrastructure.

Going back to first principles, transport has a number of key purposes.  At the highest level, it moves people and goods from one point to another - responding to economic and social demand.  It also acts as a means of influencing where houses, workplaces and communal facilities are located - in a sane world the provision of transport is considered in parallel with decisions on land use.  It sticks in the craw to argue that this is now recognised even by some of the more evolved Tories, a belated conversion but nevertheless welcome.

There are a number of fundamental challenges facing governments when making transport decisions - the uncertainty as to the future, the inability of government decision-support tools to be capable of making the kind of strategic choices that satisfy all accountants and the number of half-baked critics whose capacity for inductive reasoning is paralleled by their literacy.  Most, not all, of the opposition to HS2 is coming from the green ink brigade, which makes it far easier to dismiss.

Infrastructure lasts for a long time.  Anybody who commutes into or travels into central London is disgorged into a pattern of streets that evolves very slowly, and where the rail and Underground networks were largely defined over a century ago.  The agonies of developing new capacity will be partly addressed by Crossrail when it comes on stream, but always playing catch-up compared to the pent-up demand from an overcrowded city.  Emulating the living conditions in the Far East is not that far away, which will doubtless cheer up our smug, chauffeured Chancellor.

Lessons are always learned.  There is no real prospect of constricted Tube lines being built - any new construction under London will probably be to main-line size. The construction of Roman roads was innovative, but neither their width nor their material base would be appropriate for the volume of traffic caused by current population numbers. Constraining the future of Britain's infrastructure to palimpsests of historic provision may satisfy heritage nostalgics but is hardly demonstrating a commitment to a modern economy.

This is a neat reminder that reality bites.  Even if the forecasts of population growth are overstated, there will still be 10-15% more people living in Britain in 50 years' time.  Unless draconian rationing is put in place, this will cause a proportionate increase in transport demand.  The motives for travel, and even the frequency, may change with changes to working patterns and social arrangements.  Yet there will always be a demand for mobility - and this is not usually predictable through the prisms of futurologists - commuting demand has continued to increase over the last decades despite the availability of technology for home-working and the rise of freelance contracts.  Social and affiliative needs will remain whatever the workplace holds.

Add to this the unbalanced nature of the UK economy, with the wealth bubbles and the magnetic impact of London and its undistinguished hinterlands, and the argument for a new railway has gained multi-partisan support.  From Edinburgh to Birmingham, with a vocal consensus amongst the Northern cities, there is a recognition that the improvement of connectivity is a necessary but not sufficient condition for rebalancing.  As London becomes less attractive for both companies and labour, it will not lose its dominance, but fast and effective access to and from it can be used, with allied taxation carrots and sticks, to determine whether the rest of the British polity can become part of a prosperous whole.

The main argument put forward by the odd more thoughtful opponent is that the risk with new infrastructure is that all it does is bring more places within London's orbit, with which I can sympathise and agree.  Hence why new transport capacity is a precursor but not a panacea.  This is not a diatribe about regional policy, but for too long it has been at best second-fiddle to the self-interest of the rapacious, amoral leeches of the financial services industry.  The language of London-centricity is that nothing can be done to detract from its success.  If it is so successful then it does not need the nannying and special treatment from the state that appears to be the norm.

For the most part, the opponents dribble on about specific aspects of the HS2 proposals.  They usually have some sort of hobby-horse that should have been boiled down for glue years ago, for example using the old Great Central alignment - conveniently forgetting that the railway is still in daily use into and out of central London, and therefore that all the expensive provision of tunnels and terminals would still be required.  They fall into the idiot trap of assuming that passengers will only go from one station to another - so that the first phase would only affect people travelling from Euston to Birmingham.  A short spell of reflection that people live, work and play in various places, and that they will use a train (or a series of trains) as a means of travelling between them, and that becomes a soundbite canard for those of limited intelligence.

The Birmingham lie is one of the most interesting, because it demonstrates both cretinism and myopia.  As Birmingham is en route to the northern cities and Scotland, trains travelling there will be able to make use of the new railway to reduce the time taken on the overall journey - and nobody other than a delusional sock puppet would argue that the whole railway could or should be built at once - witness the success of new construction in Japan or Europe through phasing.  Scotland wants a fast service to the north of England and London, but again this will be phased.  Improvements in rail's competitiveness over the coming decades will create a stronger base load which can justify further investment - a virtuous circle that most people are capable of grasping.

Governments are elected to make choices - and the opponents, again with limited evidence and competence, make accusations that government's own decision-making tools do not provide a ringing endorsement of the current proposals.  The limitation of economic forecasting over a long period is that the external environment shifts - making the tools outdated - which means that a judgement call is needed.  That is what politicians are there to do - giving leadership and taking decisions where they can weigh up both quantitative and quantitative evidence.

This is not to say that there is everything perfect around HS2 - but it is the option that is on the table. The best is the enemy of the good; procrastinating has led to delays over key transport and energy decisions that undermine the wider public interest.  High speed rail is not an end in itself, but if you are going to be building new capacity you do not replicate the constraints of the past.  Whatever technology emerges on the roads, rail is still space-efficient and has less impact - moving a thousand people in driverless cars will require either huge amounts of space or inventing a concept similar to a train to minimise the amount of road required, neither of which are likely to receive much support or funding.

The opponents of HS2 have yet to come up with either plausible or deliverable alternatives.  Instead they talk to each other, which is at least satisfying for the rest of us.  Realism is that there is momentum behind the project, and that the probable alternative if delayed will be more motorways.  In that case, opposition will be latter-day Swampys rather than the current motley crew of attention-seeking maniacs.  Far better to challenge constructively, and make sure that a commitment to better transport is used to benefit as many people and places as possible.  That requires the ability to move beyond slogans and baboon-like simplicity.

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