Britain Refuses to Take No for an Answer

Jun 30th, 2008 | Posted by

Earlier in June we brought you the story of Britain’s rail minister’s nonsensical rejection of HSR. Tom Harris rejected plans to build an HSR link from London to Scotland arguing against the evidence that HSR isn’t a green form of transportation.

Far from closing the door on HSR in Britain, it has instead energized activism. Over the last two weeks British HSR advocates have stepped up their criticisms of the Labour Government’s rail policy and particularly its preference for a third runway at Heathrow over HSR. They’re refusing to take no for an answer:

The campaign for a British high-speed rail network has gained further momentum after it emerged that 2.5 million transfer passengers a year fly into Heathrow airport from British destinations.

Transfer passengers, who fly into a hub airport in order to connect with a long-haul flight, have become a battleground in the debate over building a third runway at Britain’s largest airport.

Opponents of the proposals claim that the latest figures prove that many Heathrow slots are used for unnecessary flights that could be replaced by high-speed rail routes….

Executives at airport owner BAA have admitted privately that the transfer passenger debate is crucial in the PR battle over a third runway, with Tory leader David Cameron among the influential figures who believe that connecting travellers add nothing to the UK economy.

British Airways is leading the push for a third runway, but Britain’s environmental and rail groups are rejecting their claims, noting that HSR can service the same passenger load in a much more sustainable way (and give Britain’s ailing rail network the boost it needs to catch up with their continental counterparts). The Liberal Democrats and the Conservatives are piling on, as seems to be happening with pretty much everything in British politics these days.

But the underlying point is sound. Britain is being impacted by the same fuel crisis we are, and it is hitting British air carriers as well, with several on the verge of bankruptcy. Since fuel costs are only going to continue to rise, it doesn’t make sense for Britain – or California – to reject sustainable, climate-friendly methods of travel like high speed rail that aren’t dependent on the fluctuating price of oil.

Nations around the world are developing high speed trains – from Morocco to Vietnam to Iran to Argentina. It’s a matter of global competitiveness now, as California businesses will have higher costs that overseas competitors if we remain dependent on oil to move around our state.

  1. bikerider
    Jun 30th, 2008 at 21:00
    #1

    Britain has done extremely well in shifting mode share away from cars towards buses and rail. I don’t think anyone out in California has any business in lecturing them.

    True, they don’t have the vast TGV network like the French (and the Spanish), but in terms of mode share and overall growth in rail travel, the UK is actually ahead of those countries — which just goes to show that HSR track is not necessarily the be-all, end-all solution.

    Here are some additional points, not mentioned by Robert:

    1. The Labor government has announced plans to build as many as 5 new passenger rail lines.

    2. Expanding HSR track beyond London only makes sense if the stupid passport restriction is lifted (i.e. UK decides to join the rest of the EU). As long as the Eurostar is treated like an international flight (with full border controls), we will never see any expansion in useful, marketable HSR service in the UK because it is too expensive to build international-style terminals except in places like Paris or London.

    3. The UK already has 140mph-capable trains on the main north-south trunk line. Some relatively minor track and signal improvements could get them to 140mph from the current 125mph. To go from 140 to 186mph is an order of magnitude more expensive and probably not cost-effective or high priority given all the maxed-out commuter lines.

  2. arcady
    Jun 30th, 2008 at 21:48
    #2

    Britain has indeed done well in shifting mode share to rail… so well, in fact, that there are major capacity problems on the network. And that’s the real reason to build HSR: it’ll pull the fast trains off the congested mainlines and free up many more paths for regional, local, and freight service, and generally make operations easier by not trying to mix 140 mph expresses with local commuter services.

  3. Rob Dawg
    Jul 1st, 2008 at 10:57
    #3

    Estimated Public Transport & Personal Vehicle Market Share: London & Southeast
    Year Public Transport Market Share Motorized Personal Vehicle Market Share
    1961 36.8% 63.2%
    1971 24.3% 75.7%
    1981 19.8% 80.2%
    1991 17.2% 82.8%
    2001 17.1% 82.9%
    —-

    Where’s the good job at shifting mode share?

  4. arcady
    Jul 1st, 2008 at 12:15
    #4

    Right after 2001, I’d imagine. London’s congestion charge started in 2003. Right around the same time Railtrack went bankrupt and was replaced by Network Rail, Connex was kicked off their franchises in the southeast and south replaced by more competent operators, train services started to actually improve, and mode share probably started going up. Oh, and don’t forget about oil prices, which were at about $25 a barrel back in 2001.

  5. Rafael
    Jul 1st, 2008 at 12:37
    #5

    Any direct comparison of the UK and California wrt high speed rail should take the legacy situation into account: the UK has always had high intercity passenger rail traffic, sustained by taxpayer subsidies. Indeed, it is because of capacity constraints in the legacy network that the country decided to make do with 125mph as the top speed for so long. The 140mph limit applies only on the more sparsely populated north of the country.

    If the UK does decide to build new track for an HSR connection to Birmingham, Manchester and Scotland, it should run at a top speed of 200-220mph. Otherwise, the time saved is not worth the investment.

    Another really important point is that any new HSR tracks should also run to Heathrow airport, probably the new Terminal 5. In an ideal world, there would also be fast, reliable rail connection to Gatwick airport. This would go a long way toward avoiding a third runway at Heathrow, which is Europe’s largest long-haul hub.

  6. bikerider
    Jul 1st, 2008 at 20:03
    #6

    Another really important point is that any new HSR tracks should also run to Heathrow airport, probably the new Terminal 5. In an ideal world, there would also be fast, reliable rail connection to Gatwick airport. This would go a long way toward avoiding a third runway at Heathrow, which is Europe’s largest long-haul hub.

    Both Gatwick and Heathrow have fast rail connections. Whether it makes sense to also run Eurostar-type service there depends, of course, on market demand.

    As indicated in the article, only 4% of travelers are transferring from domestic flights. The huge increase in air travel is from flights out of the UK to destinations on the continent.

    The Chunnel was supposed to be the solution to reduce the number of flights out of London. If you go back and dust off the old original plans, you will see that the Eurostar operators originally intended to run service to all the major Capitols, not just London and Belgium. They even went so far as to build hotel-train rolling stock, which would have allowed for destinations 12+ hrs away from London (i.e. Rome, Berlin, Spain).

    But then the whole “asylum” hysteria kicked in, and full-blown passport requirements were put in place. The result is that the Chunnel is cannot be put to full use, and is now viewed as a financial “failure”.

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