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.

1 comment:

  1. Great to see someone with real (rather than miraculously acquired through proximity to planned high speed rail lines) industry knowledge bringing informed insight to the vexed topic of HS2 - in some circles, which I won't mention here, uttering those three characters strung together is a signal for mass hysteria, the onset of rabid cynicism and wanton ejection of any semblance of common sense principles from the conversation.

    The visual link provided by a Deutsche Bahn (DB) ICE3 train in Lille Europe Station prompts me to consider the potential long term impact of emerging international High Speed Rail services on the UK's bunker mentality and in particular its steadfast refusal to countenance membership of Schengen Border Free Zone by pursuing “splendid isolation” from near European neighbours?

    When HS2 phase 1 comes into operation, circa 2026, DB’s new service between Amsterdam, Frankfurt and London will already be a regular feature of the transport landscape, providing a credible, sustainable alternative to the seemingly ubiquitous array of short-haul air links currently forming the preferred medium of choice for intra-European business and leisure travellers. We already know that the DB service will incorporate stops at Cologne, Rotterdam and Brussels but it seems logical to assume that Liège-Guillemins and Lille Europe can be added to that list – after all, it seems rather churlish, if not downright stupid, to ignore potential customers standing on a platform your train service is passing through?

    This brings me to the so called “Lille Loophole” as it has been dubbed by the more sensationalist and populist elements of British media output. If the current Eurostar service between Brussels Midi and London St. Pancras offers a single opportunity (at Lille Europe) to break through the official barriers protecting the mythical fortress of British isolationism, the new DB service could provide no less than five!

    Now factor in the longer term (nightmare if you're Christopher Brooker) potential provided by the prospect of yet more direct rail services operating between Birmingham (post phase 1), Leeds, East Midlands and Manchester (post phase 2) and near European mainland cities, which this senior Eurostar Executive alludes to, and it’s easy to perceive how, within the next 25 years, the emergence of credible rail-borne alternatives to short-haul air will eventually exert pressure for a profound change of heart within Westminster corridors - with the island mentality providing the pillars of public sentiment underpinning current UK government policy crumbling, what price splendid isolation then?