Environment and Society Forum, House of Commons, 1 February 2012
Contributors to this ESF event examined evidence from the social sciences which can contribute to debates on the future of new High Speed Rail lines in the UK
This joint event with the Regional Studies Association (RSA) and the Academy for Social Sciences (AcSS) was chaired by Louise Ellman, MP for Liverpool Riverside and Chair of the Transport Select Committee. Contributors examined evidence from the social sciences which can contribute to debates on the future of new High Speed Rail lines in the UK.
Professor Iain Docherty FRGS, Professor of Public Policy and Governance, Glasgow University, former Non-Executive Director of Transport Scotland and past Commission for Integrated Transport's Expert Academic Panel member.
Michael Ward, Research Fellow, Smith Institute, Executive Chair of the Board of the Centre for Local Economic Strategies and co-author of 'High Speed Rail: Is Everyone on board?'(Clark, Doyle and Ward, 2011).
Professor Roger Vickerman ACSS, Professor of European Economics, Brussels School of International Studies, University of Kent.
Professor Henry Overman ACSS, Professor of Economic Geography and Director, Spatial Economics Research Centre, London School of Economics.
“In the UK we’re not building new roads, we have no appetite for demand constraint, we don’t want to expand Heathrow: QED HSR is ‘a good thing’.
Our purpose in this seminar is to cut through the spin and think seriously about the impact of this scale of investment, to ask what social sciences can bring to the analysis.
The first problem: the overall academic record in terms of its contribution to policy isnot good. Fifty years of effort has led to very little concrete hard evidence about the impact of transport infrastructuredevelopment per se. However, High Speed 2 (HS2) is one of the largest research opportunitiesto emerge.
Looking at some of the claims about HS2:
Journey time: 40% of the stated benefits come from time savings, but what do our assumptions re time really mean?These assume “lost” time, but on a train this can actually be productive timewhen work is done. The further you travel from London the more complexthresholdeffects there are, so halving the time to Manchester may have a significant economic impact, butjust 30-60minutes off the time to Scotland will not.
Economic Benefits: one third of the first phase benefits will be to London... is this really where we want to be focusing our efforts?
Environment/Modal Shift: £30bn plus spent on a Y network will createonly a6% air-rail shift on the routes concerned (this would include a 33% shift for Scotland, from a base of around 130 flights from Edinburgh/Glasgow to London/day). The carbon savingswould be tinyhowever
North/South Divide: These benefits are orders of magnitude smaller than implied in rhetoric of ‘rebalancing the economy’and so realism is required in the debate.
The real issues are about the extent to which we can achieve Sir Paul Eddington’s mix to move demand and activity to where it needs to be (the Regional Economy).But this takes a lot more than transport infrastructure in itself”
“Last year, I contributed to the report ‘High Speed Rail: Is everyone on board?’ a survey of the opinions of stakeholders on the HS2 project. About sixty people responded to our survey. They included former Ministers, Members of Parliament, local councillors, council chief executives, railway industry and businessrepresentatives, consultants and transport experts, academics and commentators. The aim of the study was not to take sides in the argument, but to examine the way in which HS2 was being developed, the institutions and structures being employed, and the case being made for the project.
We found that even many supporters of the project were scathing about how the tasks were being undertaken. Respondents felt that government had failed to learn and apply key lessons from the construction of the Channel Tunnel Rail Link, High Speed One(HS1).
We said that government should clarify the economic case for high speed rail in relation to economic development, transport investment, spatial planning and the environment, and strengthen the mechanisms for local economic development to maximise the growth opportunities arising from high speed rail.
The economic case, as advanced by the government, is largely confined to the benefit/cost ratio of building the new line. It does not address the issues with which our recommendation was concerned -economic development, transport investment, spatial planning and the environment. Instead, the government asserts that such benefits will arise without producing detailed evidence (e.g. “HS2 will support economic growth across Britain”). This is notevidence-based policy making but instead follows the time honoured procedure of policy-based evidence making.
International evidence is, at least, ambiguous: examples from Spain and France suggest that enhanced rail links can aid centralisation as well as decentralisation. What is almost certainly true, however, is that economic benefits are unlikely to accrue to the Northern regions as a whole without some positive efforts to steer and encourage them yetstructures for local economic development in England have been weakened by the abolition of the regional development agencies.
1. The main impact of High Speed Rail is on capacity and reliability rather than just speed
2. Major transport infrastructures do not in themselves guarantee economic development. They require either or both of connectivity with other modes of transport (including air and local public transport) and associated land-use planning measures.
3. The evidence from other European countries is mixed and needs to be interpreted with care. HSR has not been particularly centralising towards capital cities such asParis and Madrid, but there is some evidence of regional concentration towards the provincial cities, for example Lyon, Lille etc.
4. It remains an interesting, and open, question as to whether bringing major UK cities to within one hour of each other will have an additive agglomeration effect.
5. Generally intermediate stations have not been successful in spreading benefits to areas between metropolitan areas and because of the negative impact on other services can be detrimental to such areas.
6. The use of capacity on HSR infrastructure for shorter distance (up to 200km) commuter services canhave significant impacts on metropolitan labour market area, for example, high speed services to/from Madrid and HS1 services to Kent.”
“I am personally sceptical about the merits of the project. Quite simply, I remain unconvinced that this is the best way for the government to spend money. Over the last few years, none of the assertions to the contrary has changed my mind that this remains the central problem with HS2.
Though the benefits from a new HS2 high-speed raillink between London and the North, are potentially large in terms of faster journeys, less disruption, and more capacity, unfortunately, so are the costs, and both the costs andbenefits are highly uncertain.
Take the claim by the transport secretary, writing in the Daily Telegraph to mark the end of the public consultation, that high-speed rail is ‘the fast track fix for bridging the North-South divide’. These claims rely on the assumption that reducing journey times, and increasing capacity, will help firms and workers in the North to compete more effectively for market share in the South, or encourage firms and workers to relocate. But HS2 will also give firms in the South better access to markets in the North.
Paul Krugman and other researchers working on the so-called ‘new economic geography’ have shown that reducing transport costs between ‘core’ (the South) and ‘periphery’ (the North) may actually increase disparities, not reduce them. Certainly the evidence on the direct benefits suggests that these flow disproportionately to London and the South East.
So what about the environmental impact? The overall impact depends on what is assumed about how electricity is generated. The impacts are not large and could be negative. HS2 was predicting a changein average annual emissions in a range from -0.41 to +0.44 million tonnes. This is equivalent to just +/-0.3% of current annual transport emissions, and furthermore ignores all carbon impact from construction.”
This event was delivered as part of the Environment & Society Forum series, which address major policy challenges by bringing geographers into dialogue with stakeholders in business, government and research.
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Royal Geographical Society (with IBG), Association for Geographic Information (2020). The case for High Speed Rail: a regional, social and economic perspective. Available at: www.rgs.org/ESF/highspeedrail/. Last accessed on: <date>
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