Fast Train to Nowhere? – George Monbiot questions the case for high speed rail

17.5.2010 ( and the Guardian)

Before the UK commissions a high speed rail network, we should ask ourselves
some big questions.


By George Monbiot. Published in the Guardian 17th May 2010

Hallelujah. Heathrow’s third runway is history, the biggest victory for the environment
movement since the scrapping of the last Tory government’s road-building programme.
Gone too is the planned expansion of Gatwick and Stansted (though the government
has so far said nothing about airport expansion elsewhere)(1). Instead we’ll have
a high-speed railway connecting London to Birmingham, Manchester and Leeds. All
hail to the new age of the train. Perhaps.

I don’t dispute the problem. Both roads and railways are close to gridlock. New
motorways, government figures show, scarcely improve journey times between city
centres(2). Upgrading old railways snarls up the system even more, costs a fortune
and adds little to their capacity(3).

New lines, by contrast, free up the old tracks for freight and local trains.
They allow companies to run longer trains and extra services. High-speed rail
cuts journey times almost twice as much as new conventional tracks, while costing
scarcely more. The greenhouse gases it produces will be cancelled out by people
switching from planes to trains. What’s not to like?

What’s not to like is that the case has not been made. The background data on
which these claims are based isn’t just sparse: in some cases it’s non-existent.
Where it does exist, it starkly contradicts other government figures. I wanted
to be convinced, perhaps I still could be. But the Department for Transport’s
argument currently consists of several thousand pages of wishful thinking.

The last government’s command paper contains a graph showing carbon figures for
air, road, conventional rail and high speed trains(4). This creates the impression
that high-speed rail produces less than half as much carbon per passenger kilometre
as conventional railways, and just a fraction of the emissions from cars. How
did it produce these results? By selecting Eurostar – and apparently only the
French section – as its example of a high speed train. French electricity is mostly
produced by nuclear power, so high speed trains there create much smaller emissions
than ours would cause. It also appears to have ignored the carbon costs of construction.

Compare this to a paper commissioned by the Department for Transport in 2007.
When construction is taken into account, high speed rail journeys from London
to Manchester will produce 60% more carbon than conventional rail and 35% more
carbon than car journeys. They will generate only 25% less carbon than plane travel(5).

Throughout the recent government documents there’s an assumption that the new
railway will be sustainable because it will draw people out of planes. But buried
on page 162 of the report on which the department has based its case, published
in March 2010, are the figures which derail this assumption(6). Of the passengers
expected to use the new railway, 57% would otherwise have travelled by conventional
train, 27% wouldn’t have travelled at all, 8% would have gone by car and 8% by
air. In other words, 92% of its customers are expected to switch to high speed
rail from less polluting alternatives. Yet the same report contains a table (page
179) suggesting that the savings from flights not taken outweigh the entire carbon
costs of the railway(7). It provides neither source nor justification.

The 2007 report shows that even if everyone flying between London and Manchester
switched to the train, the savings wouldn’t compensate for the extra emissions
a new line would cause. "There is no potential carbon benefit in building a new
line on the London to Manchester route over the 60 year appraisal period."(8)
A switch from plane to train could even increase emissions. Unless the landing
slots currently used by domestic flights are withdrawn by the government, they
are likely to be used instead for international flights. The government has no
plan for reducing total airport space.

The business case the department has produced is just as shaky. The first thing
that jumps out at you is that the government has conflated it with the cost-benefit
analysis. They are not the same thing. The business case is as follows: the government
shells out £25.5bn, loses a net £1.5bn in tax and gets £15bn back over 60 years
from fares(9). Net loss to the government: £12bn. The cost benefit analysis (which
the government calls "the business case") produces benefits of £32.3bn(10). The
department concludes that the scheme has a benefit-cost ratio of 2.7. But where
did the £32.3bn come from?

Almost all of it is money deemed to have been saved by reducing travel times.
Business customers, it says, will save £17.6bn by getting there faster; leisure
customers £11.1bn. Nowhere in the documents are these figures explained or justified.
I spent the whole of Monday pressing the Department for Transport, asking for
an explanation of how it converted time into money. The department spent eight
hours of frantic searching to discover, just before 5pm, that it did indeed have
a model, which it described as "frightfully complicated"(11).

By then my copy deadline was almost up, so I cannot tell you whether or not its
consultants accounted for the fact that business travellers can work on the train,
sometimes as productively as they can in the office. Nor can I say how it priced
leisure travel. Are we to assume that an extra 20 minutes spent watching the telly
when you get to your hotel is a benefit to which a price can be attached? How
much is an hour with your granny worth? Whatever the answers may be, none of it
translates into government revenue: assumed and equivocal benefits are being weighed
against real spending.

Underlying these questions is a much bigger one: what’s it all for? The department
argues that high speed rail is necessary because economic growth encourages people
to travel more. High speed rail, it says, will stimulate economic growth. This
will encourage people to travel more, which will … For how much longer can this
go on? At what point do we decide that this crowded little island is busy enough?

The answer from old and new governments appears to be never. The Department for
Transport expects flying to increase by 178% between 2008 and 2033, driving by
43% and train journeys by 150%(12). It does not seek to reduce this demand, only
to accommodate it, until England becomes a giant transport corridor. Progress
is measured by the number of people in transit. Civilisation will have reached
its apogee when the entire population of Manchester takes the train every day
to London and the entire population of London takes the train every day to Manchester.
Perhaps we should resolve Britain’s railway network into a single orbital system,
so that we can all remain in constant circulation. Then we’ll know we’re getting

Yes, it’s better to take a high speed train than to fly. It would be better still
not to have to make the journey at all and to have some peace and stillness in
our lives. And it would be better to have an honest, informed discussion about
high speed rail, rather than a wild guess based on unfounded assumptions and dodgy



1. Conservative Party, 11th May 2010. Conservative Liberal Democrat coalition

Agreements reached.

2. Department for Transport, March 2010. High Speed Rail Command Paper, page

3. ibid, pp12-13.

4. ibid, Figure 2.2, page 49.

5. Booz Allen Hamilton Ltd, 12 July 2007. Estimated Carbon Impact of a New North
South Line, Figure 1.1a, page 3. Report to the Department for Transport.

6. High Speed Two Limited, 11th March 2010. High Speed Rail: London to the West
Midlands and Beyond. Figure 4.1d, Chapter 4.

7. Figure 4.2c, ibid.

8. Booz Allen Hamilton Ltd, page 6.

9. High Speed Two Limited, 11th March 2010, ibid. Figure 4.3a, p185.

10. ibid.

11. NATA WebTAG.

12. Department for Transport, cited by High Speed Two Limited, 11th March 2010.
High Speed Rail: London to the West Midlands and Beyond. Page 48, Chapter 2.



see also

Monday, February 15, 2010
A new study has suggested that investing in high-speed rail can bring various
benefits, but should not be marketed as a major part of efforts to combat climate
change. The study,
‘The Future of Interurban Passenger Transport’ (27 pages) by the Swedish transport economist Per KÃ¥geson, calculates the effect
on emissions from building a new high speed line connecting two major cities 500
kilometres apart. It says there is no reason to prohibit investment in high-speed
rail on environmental grounds as long as the carbon gains outweigh the emissions
during construction, but the greenhouse gas savings are sufficiently small that
it would be wrong to justify such investment as a solution to climate change.
It states:


Many governments in different parts of the world are investing in high speed
rail. Some of them do so thinking that it will be an important part of climate
change mitigation. Intercity traffic over medium distances is particularly interesting
in the environmental context as it constitutes the only transport segment where
aircraft, trains, coaches and cars naturally compete for market shares.

This report calculates the effect on emissions from building a new high speed
link that connects two major cities located 500 km apart. It assumes that emissions
from new vehicles and aircraft in 2025 can be used as a proxy for the emissions
during a 50 year investment depreciation period. The emissions from the marginal
production of electricity, used by rail and electric vehicles, are estimated to
amount on average to 530 gram per kWh for the entire period. Fuels used by road
vehicles are assumed to be on average 80 percent fossil and 20 per cent renewable
(with a 65% carbon efficiency in the latter case).

Traffic on the new line after a few years is assumed to consist to 20 per cent
of journeys diverted from aviation, 20 per cent diverted from cars, 5 per cent
from long-distance coaches, and 30 per cent from pre-existing trains. The remaining
25 per cent is new generated traffic. Under these assumptions would the investment
result in a net reduction of CO
2-emissions of about 9,000 tons per one million one-way trips. Assuming 10 million
single journeys per year, the total reduction would be 90,000 tons.

When the price of CO2 is $40 per ton, the socio-economic benefit of the reduction would amount to
$3.6 million, which is very little in the context of high speed rail. The sensitivity
analysis shows that alternative assumptions do not significantly change the outcome.
One may also have to consider the impact on climate change from building the new
line. Construction emissions for a line of this length may amount to several million
tons of CO2

There is no cause to prohibit investment in high speed rail on environmental
grounds so long as the carbon gains made in traffic balances the emissions caused
during construction. However, marketing high speed rail as a part of the solution
to climate change is clearly wrong. Investment in infrastructure for modal shift
should only be considered when traffic volumes are high enough to carry the cost.
The principal benefits of high speed rail are time savings, additional capacity
and generated traffic, not a reduction of greenhouse gases.