A high profile plan for a high speed rail link between London and England’s rustbelt in the north is running into trouble. The roughly $50 billion line is backed by those who hope it will boost incomes and business in northern English cities like Birmingham, Manchester and Leeds.The trouble is that the harder the British stare at the economic impact of the proposed rail line, the less useful it looks — and the more it looks like a huge white elephant of a development project that will never break even. The early calculations of the cost-benefit ratio of the project predicted that every dollar (actually, pound, but the ratios are the same) spent would yield $2.4 in economic benefits. The latest figures cut that ratio in half; there have been four revisions of the rosy figures first proposed, and every new look has reduced the likely benefits. At the current level, the (almost certain) increase in construction costs when and if the project gets under way and the (likely) further downgrades in the anticipated benefits make it look less and less likely that the line will break even. Worse, building the line for such a low return would in effect be squandering taxpayer money; there are many investment options facing the British government with a significantly better payoff than the rail line can now claim.Given the intense opposition by British NIMBYs to any development of any kind in the countryside and the cash squeeze faced by the UK Treasury, it’s beginning to look as if the UK will join China and the US as countries scaling back ambitious high speed rail projects.US advocates of high speed rail should take note: the UK is a much better place for high speed rail than the US. Its population density is greater than ours (meaning that a railroad has many more potential customers per mile along its line) and its cities are much denser than ours. High speed rail to the center of Los Angeles leaves most travelers with a long ride still to go to reach their business meetings; in Britain the cities are more compact and there is better public transportation linking train stations with the rest of the city.If the high costs and low benefits of high speed rail are forcing the British to a rethink, American supporters of high speed rail need to worry. Costs are almost certainly going to be higher here, and the benefits less. Building the world’s fastest white elephants may not be the smartest way to spend taxpayer money in a time of tight budgets.
New High Speed Rail Fail in UK?