The Trouble With Trains

I am a big believer in railways as a way of moving people & freight around a country quickly, efficiently and cheaply. It may well be the case that part of Japan’s post-War expansion was thanks to an extensive network of railways.

So I have given quite a bit of thought to UK’s HighSpeed projects, particularly HS2.

Here’s why I don’t think it can work — not to say it won’t get built, but rather than it won’t have the impact the government and its proponents claim.

I took my 17-year-old son to an Open Day at Sheffield University for the day yesterday. Before going, we looked at travel alternatives from London. The cheapest ticket by rail, purchased a week in advance, is about £76 per person return if you take very specific trains (i.e. no flexibility). The ‘standard’ flexible return ticket is more than twice that. By car, it’s a little longer journey but we did it on less than a tank of gasoline, probably for less than £50. So if the existing low-speed rail network can’t compete with a single traveller in a car (let alone two, or a car-full) how can HS2 possibly imagine it will attract anyone?

Presumably whoever has done the forecasts has assumed that all travellers are business-people who value their time over everything else. Even if this were the case (and it patently isn’t), many businesses would probably prefer their staff to spend a little longer getting there if it’s less than half the price. And that’s before considering that in a car I can leave when I like, stop for lunch somewhere that serves edible food, and so on.

Realistically, for HS2 to work either the government has to change road pricing so dramatically that the cost of going up the M1 doubles (tolls, gasoline taxes etc) orthey will have to subsidise HS2 hugely. Or the trains will be empty.


This article first appeared on LinkedIn 12 July 2014.