High speed train-spotting

October 14, 2009

(c) Frank Baron / guardian.co.uk

California is the same size as the UK, but its public transport network is a lot worse. So perhaps it’s not surprising that High Speed Rail is a big deal here. What’s more surprising is how similar the debates seem to be turning out.

The California proposals seem further ahead than High Speed Two. In both cases there’s strong political support. Ex-Hummer driver Arnie is less evangelical than Lord Adonis, but he has put up serious money to push things forward. The California High Speed Rail Authority has a definite route, a start date – 2012 – and a slick website with impressive 3d fly-throughs. Meanwhile, the austere HS2 team is still ‘weighing high speed rail’s benefits against costs’, and only ‘where existing capacity is likely to be most constrained’. Set against Golden State optimism, it’s almost a parody of British bureaucratic restraint.

But elsewhere, there are clear parallels. First, how to pay for the thing? Both Labour and Conservatives will make high speed rail a manifesto pledge. But with the UK down £26bn a year, £34bn-worth of bullet trains seems a far-off prospect. California’s trainline is projected to cost a similar $45bn (£29bn). So far the State has committed about $10bn via a bond issue. Sacramento is now bidding for $4.5bn of Federal stimulus money: with matching local funds, that takes California towards the halfway mark. But it’s still nowhere near enough – something no-one seems that keen to talk about.

Second, the real costs of both projects will be much larger. None of these figures appear to factor in optimism bias, the tendency to under-estimate the costs of major projects, which suggests the true numbers could be two thirds as higher again.

Third, who’s on the line? California’s planners have made everyone happy by including almost every major settlement on the route, from Sacramento down to San Diego. But some stops could get chopped in future budget cuts – in which case, expect similar reactions like those in Newcastle recently.

Finally, who gains? The California plans emphasise the environmental benefits of HSR – reducing pollution and congestion. Economic benefits are almost an afterthought – apart from 400,000-odd construction opportunities, cutting congestion will improve productivity, ‘creating and sustaining high skilled jobs’. But it’s unclear how this will happen, or where these jobs will go.

Urban economics can help here. We now have robust techniques for modelling the full economic impacts of transport investments. These suggest that direct benefits from time-saving and reduced congestion are actually fairly small, and may not offset build costs. But new infrastructure also brings more people into cities, increasing the effective density of urban labour markets. This pushes up labour productivity, which in turn raises wages and helps employment growth.

As Henry points out, the environmental benefits of high speed rail are not that clear-cut. A modal shift from cars or planes could cut CO2 emissions and congestion, but not if spare landing slots or road capacity are then used for something else.

Unfortunately for both countries, the economic outcomes aren’t clear-cut either. Agglomeration modeling suggests that the major benefits accrue to large urban centres. Cutting travel times by 10% across the UK would raise London’s productivity more than in most Northern cities. So in California, workers in the big urban cores – the Bay Area, San Diego and LA – will probably have most to gain.

In the UK, that calculus suggests some Northern cities might actually be better off investing in local or city-regional links, rather than pushing for high speed rail. Similarly, better connecting Liverpool, Manchester and Leeds might do more for local people than faster links down South. And in California, less glamorous but more useful local infrastructure projects – like extending the BART light rail system from San Francisco to San Jose – might do the job for less.

One Response to “High speed train-spotting”


  1. […] still not much clearer on what will actually deliver, economically and environmentally (something I complained about in a previous post). Happily, SERC has just published a new paper [pdf] which gives us some […]


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