Rail reservations30 Oct 2009

On track?


An analysis of the cases being put for High Speed Rail

A new high speed rail line in the UK may produce, at best, only very modest environmental benefits, despite the supposed green credentials often cited by politicians.

Building a high speed line linking London to the North of England and Scotland is also likely not just to take people out of their cars and off planes, but generate a lot of new travel – as much as a fifth of passenger trips could be ‘induced’.
And not enough work has yet been done on assessing whether the tens of billions of pounds being earmarked for high speed rail (HSR) would be better spent on other areas of transport.

These are amongst the findings of ‘The Case for High Speed Rail: A review of recent evidence’ by Professor John Preston, commissioned by the RAC Foundation and published today.

Based on a study of several different reports on HSR published in the last couple of years, Professor Preston’s findings include:

•    The taxpayer would have to foot a bill of anywhere between some £17 billion and £27 billion for the construction costs of a new high speed line, though the service might be able to cover its ongoing operational and maintenance overheads
•    Assuming the eventual de-carbonisation of power generation (through the use of nuclear energy and renewables) the majority of CO2 emissions associated with a high speed line will relate to construction not operation
•    Many of the green credentials of HSR will depend on the eventual load factor (the ratio of passengers to seats); European high speed rail systems have shown very varied load factors.

Commenting on the report’s findings, Stephen Glaister, director of the RAC Foundation said:

“Many politicians are almost evangelical in their support of high speed rail. But they must be careful not to let their zeal be dictated by uncritical enthusiasm rather than hard facts.”

“All the main political parties have been tempted to back a north-south high speed rail line  in the UK even before HS2 – the company set up by the Government to officially evaluate the case for such a scheme  – has reported back. And they also seem to be happily ignoring the wealth of evidence already out there which contains wide differences of opinion on just how beneficial HSR would be to the travelling public, the taxpayer and the environment.”

“In a world where every penny counts there are big questions to be asked about whether billions of pounds lavished on high speed rail would be money well spent, or whether it should instead be directed towards other types of transport project.”

The report also found that:
•    The benefit cost ratio of a north-south high speed link varies between 1.8 and 3.5
•    HSR schemes in Europe have been affected by ‘appraisal optimism’ and the actual benefit cost ratios achieved are significantly lower than those being forecast for Britain
•    Across a sample of five European HSR routes a quarter of all trips were new (‘induced’). According to the Greengauge 21 study 19% of trips on a new high speed line in the UK would be new travel
•    The recent studies on north-south high speed lines have been ‘uni-modal’ and do not offer comparative examples of the benefits to be derived from investing in other transport projects, for example congestion-relieving road schemes
•    The predominant benefits of a north-south high speed line would be time savings for rail users and net revenue to the rail industry
•    There are also benefits in terms of reduced congestion on existing conventional rail lines (e.g. West Coast mainline)

Professor Glaister continued:
“We would question the wisdom of any government backing a scheme which encourages more people to travel very long distances at a time when the objective must be to find alternatives to movement, such as home working and shorter commutes. It seems odd that the case for such HSR schemes depends on generating new journeys when the emphasis on the roads is to contain the growth of traffic.”

“If the case for high speed rail is being made on environmental grounds then this seems at best shaky. It is far from clear that a high speed line will lead to any significant overall reduction in the UK’s carbon emissions.”

“Professor Preston’s report on the various HSR studies identified £27 billion as the upper estimate of the construction costs the taxpayer would shoulder. This vast amount of money might yield much bigger carbon-saving benefits if spent on a multitude of other things.”

What else £27 billion could be spent on to deliver carbon reductions:
•    Planting 2.3 billion trees to offset carbon emissions
•    43 million laptops and one year’s broadband connection so many more people can work at home – more than enough for each person of working age in the UK to have one each
•    Financing the part-purchase of 27 million new, low emission vehicles via a car scrappage scheme, enough to replace the current private car fleet in Britain
•    The introduction of at least 5.4 million electric cars (and those powered by other ultra low-carbon sources) under Government plans to make grants of up to £5,000 available to purchasers of such vehicles

Amongst the High Speed Rail (HSR) reports analysed by Professor Preston were:
•    Greengauge 21’s fast forward (2009)
•    Network Rail’s New Lines Programme (2009)
•    A comparative European study by Gines de Rus et al. (2009)
•    DfT’s New Line Capacity study by Booz Allen Hamilton (2007)



Philip Gomm – Head of External Communications
020 7747 3486 / 07711 776448 / 020 7389 0601 (ISDN)

Notes to editors:
The RAC Foundation is an independent charity dedicated to researching the mobility, safety, environmental and economic issues of motoring.

‘The Case for High Speed Rail: A review of recent evidence’ was commissioned by the RAC Foundation from Professor John Preston from the Transportation Research Group, School of Civil Engineering and the Environment, University of Southampton. An embargoed copy is available on request and will be on the RAC Foundation website www.racfoundation.org from the date of publication.

At the Labour Party conference in 2009 Lord Adonis said: “Sanity is to plan for the 21st century with 21st century technology – fast, clean and green.  High speed rail wins on all counts. For large passenger flows between major cities, it is far more energy efficient than cars and planes. It gives huge extra capacity. It slashes journey times and it takes people to the centre of cities connecting directly into other public transport. That’s why I think that for Britain, high speed rail is a no brainer.”

At the Conservative Party conference in 2009 Theresa Villiers said: “Last year I promised you that we’d build a high speed rail line to Manchester and Leeds. That would provide an attractive lower carbon alternative to thousands of flights. Freeing up those landing slots will produce a much better and more resilient Heathrow but without the devastating damage a third runway would inflict.”

In a Liberal Democrat press release in September 2009 Norman Baker said: “High speed rail would be a major investment in our economy, creating much needed jobs and helping to prevent cattle truck Britain on our railways.” 

High Speed Two is the company established by the Government to consider the case for new high speed services between London and Scotland. It will report to Government by the end of the year with a preferred route and a business case, including environmental, social and economic assessments.

In 2008 there were 3,480 miles of high speed lines in operation in Europe, a further 2,160 under construction and another 5,280 planned. In the UK there are only 70 miles of high speed track (HS1 – the Channel Tunnel rail link).

Analysis of five existing European high speed routes revealed that an average 26% of passenger demand was new or ‘induced’.

According to www.carbonfootprint.co.uk an ‘average’ broad-leaf tree absorbs one tonne of CO2 over its 100 year lifetime. The cost of planting a tree through Carbon Footprint is £11.50.

A laptop is assumed to cost £500 and the price of annual broadband connection is estimated to be £120.

The current car scrappage scheme sees the Government pay £1,000 (match funded by the motor manufacturer) to those purchasers who trade in a car ten years old or more and buy a new one.

If all cars in the UK were replaced with a ‘best in class’ equivalent, CO2 emissions would drop by 25%. Source: P64 of the King Report http://www.hm-treasury.gov.uk/d/pbr_csr07_king840.pdf

According to the Department for Transport there were 26.9 million private cars in the UK in 2007: http://www.dft.gov.uk/pgr/statistics/datatablespublications/tsgb/2008edition/sectionninevehicles.pdf

According to the Office for National Statistics there were 38 million people of working age in the UK in 2008.