mead cohen berger shevtsova garfinkle michta grygiel blankenhorn
Businesses Turn Against UK Train Boondoggle


California Governor Jerry Brown has received some much-deserved flak for his dogged support of the state’s wasteful high-speed rail project, but it’s good to remember that projects like these are not an American invention. Over in the UK, the coalition government has been pushing an equally foolish £50 billion plan for a high-speed rail line between London and Birmingham (known as HS2). The plan was controversial from the outset due to its high price tag and dubious economic benefits, and the budget projections have increased by £7.5 billion since the beginning of the year. Even the opposition Labour party, which had been supportive, is now souring on HS2, and the Institute of Directors (IoD), a prominent business group, has just called for the plan to be scrapped. The FT reports:

A survey of IoD members found that just 27 per cent felt HS2 represented good value for money and 70 per cent said it would have no impact on their business’s productivity. There was little enthusiasm even in regions where the benefits would supposedly be strongest….

In August 2011, a survey of IoD members found 54 per cent rated HS2 as important to their business. This has now fallen to 41 per cent, with the IoD saying this illustrated “how businesses see high-speed rail as a lower priority than it was two years ago’’.

In addition to this erosion of support for HS2, some close to the industry are questioning the staying power of high-speed rail projects in general. A recent piece for Railway Age warns that today’s cutting-edge rail projects may soon be obsolete as new technologies come of age:

Take note that Musk’s Hyperloop prototype was created on a 3-D printer, which also is being used by General Electric to “print” metal parts for a new jet engine, and by a Chinese firm to make large parts—titanium fuselage frames and high-strength steel landing gear—for its emerging commercial aircraft industry. “High transport cots for heavy goods make it sensible to produce these things close to customers,” says the Economist magazine, and 3-D printing is being used to manufacture, for example, toys, mobile-phone cases, automobile parts, steel hand tools and bicycle chains that may no longer require as much intermediate transportation of raw materials and intermediate stage manufacture and assembly.

Indeed, the railroads’ business plan of converting tens of millions of truck loads to intermodal (trailers and containers atop flat cars) on routes of 500 miles or more could be in jeopardy if there are fewer truckloads because more products are turned out by 3-D printers at points of industrial and consumer sales.

If nothing else, hopefully the mounting discontent with train spending in the UK and California will discourage future political leaders from pursuing similarly wasteful and myopic projects—though we wouldn’t bet on it.

[High-speed train courtesy of Shutterstock]

Features Icon
show comments
  • Corlyss

    I get it that people in Birmingham might want to go to London, but what’s in Birmingham that Londoners would want to go to? This nostalgia for train systems thoughtlessly abandoned 50 years ago in favor of cars is curious.

    • Andrew Allison

      I must protest! LOL
      First, as the post makes clear, neither the HS2 nor the CA superboondoggle have anything to do with the people who might conceivably use they trains (not that the latter have turned against the idea). Both are products of governments which owe more to special interests than to those they supposedly represent.
      To your first point, you might as well ask why anybody would want to go from NYC to the mid-West? Answer: the financial centers are not co-located with the manufacturing centers. The Midlands have been where stuff gets made in the UK since the Industrial Revolution.
      To your second point, it’s a matter of population density. If you live within easy reach of an intercity train, e.g., Greater London or the Midlands, trains make sense. If you live in sprawling metro areas like LA and the SF Bay Area, where the commute to/from the train may be as long as the train journey, they don’t.

      • Corlyss

        LOL. Okay. Pace, Andrew.
        Maybe there is something interesting in Birmingham, a museum to the science of the enlightenment, maybe?

        • Andrew Allison

          I fear that you may have missed my point, namely that masters of the universe make their obscene salaries and bonuses from people who actually make things. I must hasten to add that there’s nothing intrinsically bad about that, but we should keep in mind that producing goods rather that financial instruments is what makes the world goes around. ;<)

  • Jacksonian_Libertarian

    “If nothing else, hopefully the mounting discontent with train spending in the UK and California will discourage future political leaders from pursuing similarly wasteful and myopic projects—though we wouldn’t bet on it.”

    This I agree with, Politician’s bloated egos make them think they are smarter than the markets and business men. So they will continue to generate these wasteful multi-billion dollar projects for self aggrandizement, and the vast opportunities for graft.

  • Loire

    If 3D printing locations become the new manufacturing sites, won’t railroads simply be shipping more raw materials rather than finished goods?

© The American Interest LLC 2005-2016 About Us Masthead Submissions Advertise Customer Service