Sunday, 5 February 2012

High speed rail: the quest for context

Deutsche Bahn's long-planned services from Germany and the Netherlands to London will pass through Lille. Photo: DB AG
It is always beneficial every once in a while to step away from the heat and (occasional) light of a local debate and look at the bigger picture. On a personal level, one of the most frustrating aspects of the debate over High Speed 2 in the UK has been the widespread use of international comparisons as a blunt instrument with which to bash one’s opponents.

Most of these benchmarking exercises have simplified global high speed rail experience either to some kind of panacea for economic miracles, or as a massive con trick propagated by the EU, the rail supply industry, the nuclear sector, or Uncle Tom Cobbley.

As an HS2 supporter and an international rail journalist, I am obviously keen to point out where high speed rail has done well and why (and it is worth adding the rider that, as Andrew Adonis has pointed out, no city which has received high speed rail has said it would rather not have it). In May last year, I went to Lille to interview the local business community, and specifically Thierry Mabille de Poncheville, Managing Director of APIM, a promotion agency which sells the city to inward investors. It was heartening to hear that, in preparing its report on HS2, the Commons Transport Select Committee also visited the city.

Mabille and his colleagues were adamant that, of course, the city would be worse off without the LGV Nord high speed line. It was suggested that perhaps 50 000 jobs created since 1993 could be attributed to high speed rail. There are counter-arguments of course – the Nord Pas de Calais region remains an unemployment blackspot and some observers claim that the region is worse off today than prior to the coming of the TGV, relative to the rest of France. (I’d suggest that’s a slightly dodgy argument as France has few other heavily industrialised areas, and perhaps a better comparator might be Belgium, but that’s an aside…)

But these are robust, balanced discussions which will continue for some time yet – indeed, the question of Lille’s experience featured in a wide-ranging webchat on The Guardian’s website this week.

How sad then that the mass media unquestioningly allows high-profile columnists to parrot simplistic scaremongering about ‘bust’ high speed rail without bothering to review the context. The Zelo Street blog did a better job than I could of picking apart Andrew Gilligan’s wayward tirade against high speed rail in the Netherlands, for example. Mr Gilligan's errors were compounded by recent news that Thalys continues to grow revenue and ridership on its Paris - Amsterdam route, the only high speed services which use the Dutch line at present.

But sometimes the most illuminating context can be provided from far afield. I was most impressed by a comparative piece put together by Dan Schned and Petra Todorovich of the America 2050 lobby group reflecting on how the outline approval of HS2 might affect plans to implement true high speed rail in the northeastern USA. I was lucky enough to meet Ms Todorovich at a conference in New York last autumn, and I was immediately impressed by her grasp of the intricacies of the HS2 debate, and her knowledge of the problems encountered during the West Coast Route Modernisation of 1998-2009.

There are compelling similarities between HS2 and the Northeast Corridor high speed programme, yet from the bluster exhaled on this side of the Pond, you’d think the curious Californian project was the only show in town, as the rail pessimists fall over each other to pronounce its supposed imminent demise.

The quest for context continues.