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Low speed thoughts on high speed rail

08.28.09 | Comment?

I thought I should put virtual pen to virtual paper about the report published on 26 August on the possibility for a high speed rail link between London and Glasgow,with spurs to Manchester and Liverpool.   I have been asked for a local journo for some comment ad it would be easy enough to reel off the usual platitudes, but as with most stuff I prefer to stand back and consider a while.

First of all I should make clear I’ve not yet read all of the Network Rail business case, which can be found here, which lies behind the press reports.  It’s quite long.   These are first impressions and thoughts, therefore.

The most obvious comment for starters is that the proposed link doesn’t appear to have a stop at Wigan, but does have one at Preston.  While Preston could serve some of West Lancashire fairly well, it would really requre the long overdue ‘doubling’ of the line to between Ormskirk and Preston to make trains more frequent.  It would not however meet the needs of Skelmersdale and the surrounds very well.  People here will be faced with a choice of the ‘old line’ from Wigan, or going into Manchester or Liverpool to connect.  This in itself will require the work to connct Skelmersdale now planned under the Rail Utilisation Strategy being implemented, in spite of the current Conservative administration’s attempts to ‘derail’ this through their incompetence.

The question then arises of whether there is a risk that, in order to pay for the ‘prestige’ project of linking the major cities, resources may be drawn in from less high profile but equally, even more important, sub-regional developments like the improvements i refer to above (and of course the Burscough curves).   I’d want to see reassurances on that before falling in in support of the high speed rail proposals. 

Having said that, there are wider economic questions about the development of such a link which do not appear to be answered in the Network Rail report.

While a link would undoubtedly increase usage, meeting current growth trends, and create revenue for Network Rail, what exactly would be the consequences for the UK economy, and more broadly for the way we live now.

At the moment, the UK economy is weighted towards London/South East, heavily, but also qute tightly integrated in terms of supply chains etc.  That, quite simply, is why the motorways are clogged with lorries, whereas if you go to France, where the economy is much more regionally self-sufficient, they aren’t.

If business integrates even further across the land because of greater connectivity, that might have the perverse effects of actually increasing road traffic as suply chains become even more national.  The development of high speed rail in France suggests not, but the UK is much smaller in landmass terms so may be differently affected

Next, if some areas like Preston become so much closer to London but towns closer to London in miles but much further away in time terms e.g. Skelmersdale, is there a risk of the development of a two tier economy, in much the same way as happened in the south East, where attracive seaside towns like Hastings have fallen way behind towns like Brighton because one is 45 mins from London, while the other is two and a half hours or so.  Would Skelmersdale actually suffer because it’s stuck out on a limb, as ever seemed the case.

As noted, these are initial thoughts, and there may be more when I’ve read the business case.  I’m not against the high speed link, and massive public works really appeal to me, but my starting point is that it has to meet the needs of the whole UK population, not just those in the lucky metro areas, and take care that  unintended negative consequences don’t outweigh the undoubted benefits it would bring. 

 I don’t see that level of assessment in the Network Rail report, as I’ve skimmed it.

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