High Speed Rail - Transport Committee Contents

Written evidence from Professor John Whitelegg (HSR 34)

1.  The purpose of my submission is to alert the Transport Committee to evidence and arguments that demonstrate the flaws in current proposals for High Speed Rail (HSR) in the UK.

2.  My interest in HSR goes back to the early 1990s and to the time when I was a member of staff of the Ministry of Urban Development, Housing and Traffic in the German State of North Rhine Westphalia based in Duesseldorf. At that time we organised an international conference on HSR and then published a book "High Speed Trains: fast tracks to the future", Leading Edge Press, 1993, edited by John Whitelegg, Staffan Hulten and Torbjorn Flink.

3.  I am happy to appear in person, answer questions, provide supportive evidence and help the Transport Committee in any other way I can.

4.  The case for HSR in the UK is deeply flawed, represents a very significant misallocation of resources and will not achieve its objectives in economic regeneration or carbon reduction.

5.  In what follows I will concentrate on six points:

—  The fundamental nature of the relationship between speed, time saving and demand for transport.

—  The evidence on new transport infrastructure creating jobs.

—  The evidence on high speed rail supplanting domestic aviation.

—  The evidence on electronic media (video-conferencing, teleconferencing etc) substituting for physical travel.

—  The HSR project is contrary to official DfT "Transprt Appraisal Guidance".

6.  The fundamental nature of the relationship between speed, time saving and demand for transport.

Transport researchers and planners have frequently noted the relationship between saving time, going faster and going further. As technology improves and speed increases we tend in aggregate to compensate for that time saving by travelling further. I have written about this under the title "The conquest of distance by the destruction of time". Other authors have called it the "Marchetti Wall" and David Metz, former chief scientist at the DfT has written about it in his 2008 book "The limits to travel: how far will you go".

Marchetti was the first scientist to note the law-like relationship between time, distance and speed and he discovered the law of constant travel time. In aggregate all human beings will spend just over 1 hour each day travelling and will maintain that time allocation in the face of technology changes and changes in speed. If they can travel at 300/400/500kph they will still travel for just over 1.1 hour, effectively consuming the time saving as extra miles.

Marchetti, C (1994). Anthropological Invariants in Travel Behaviour. Technical Forecasting and Social Change 47(1): 75-78.

The implications of this fundamental relationship in the context of HSR are very significant indeed. Current plans envisage that we will spend £32 billion of public cash on HSR and the result will be that users of the service will save time on their journeys and will then use the same amount of time up by travelling further and more often. The £32 billion simply increases the amount of physical travel and shifts society as a whole to a more distance intensive and energy intensive level. To use an ungainly phrase the money spent to achieve this result is a waste of time.


7.  UK transprt planning and thinking asserts the existence of a clear and virtuous link between investments in new infrastructure and jobs, regeneration and economic growth. This assertion stands in stark contrast to the published literature on this subject. This literature is clear that there is no direct evidence of regeneration and economic gain after the construction of a new road, railway line or other transport link. This was the conclusion of the UK Government study (SACTRA) in 1999 "Transport and the Economy":

"Improved accessibility between two countries (and similarly between cities, areas or regions) may sometimes benefit one of them to the disbenefits of the other."

On wider economic impacts the report concludes:

"Empirical evidence of the scale and significance of such linkages is, however, weak and disputed".

Rarely has £32 billion of public spending been based on such a flimsy evidence base.


8.  All countries with well-established HSR system already in place have seen a growth in domestic aviation over the same period that HSR services have increased their passenger numbers. Often quoted cases of the demise of a specific air service (eg Paris-Lyons or Madrid-Seville) are consistent with the aggregate increase in flying as aviation adapts to the new situation and creates new routes aided by aggressive low cost and marketing strategies. The degree of transfer from aviation to HSR is trivial, domestic aviation still grows and there is little comfort for achieving carbon reduction targets in this aspect of modal transfer.


9.  Videoconferencing and other forms of electronic substitution for physical travel have grown rapidly in the last 10 years. The technology is now very high quality and both private and public sector organisations are aware of the benefits of using these communication media as an alterative to physical travel. The advantages of this substitution include reductions in travel costs of businesses, quality of life benefits to executives and managers, reductions in CO2 emissions and an increased probability of bringing together staff from many dispersed offices and from far flung corners of the world far more often than would be possible with physical travel. The use of electronic communications reduces the need for physical travel and reduces the need for increases in capacity on road and rail links. It would be foolish to embark on a very expensive increase in capacity on rail routes to London at a time when high quality and tested alternatives exist.

The 2004 DfT study "Smarter Choices" (Reference 1) reported a case study of BT which showed that in one year BT avoided over 900,000 journeys though the use of video and teleconferencing. A case study of Hannover Housing Association which manages property in 175 local authority areas showed that the organisation "saved" 72 working days in a three month period by using videoconferencing as an alternative to physical travel. The future will see less need for expensive physical infrastructure and a greater use of electronic media and smarter working practices.


10.  Official transport appraisal guidance (now known as WebTag) is very clear about the steps that have to be taken to arrive at solutions to transport problems that are cost effective, value for money, environmentally and ecologically efficient and meet transport policy objectives including economic stimulus. The main steps are:

—  A clear definition of the problem that has to be solved.

—  A scoping exercise to identify a range of possible solutions.

—  A rigorous and structured appraisal of all theses solutions to come out with the best performer.

The HSR project has not followed this procedure. It is still not clear what the exact nature of the problem is that has to be solved. It appears to be a moving target involving different elements of regeneration, carbon reduction, increasing capacity and stimulating economic growth and the mixture is not stable.

WebTag is owned by DfT and explains its purpose as follows:


This is the Department for Transport's website for guidance on the conduct of transport studies. The guidance includes or provides links to advice on how to:

—  set objectives and identify problems;

—  develop potential solutions;

—  create a transport model for the appraisal of the alternative solutions;

—  and how to conduct an appraisal which meets the Department's requirements.

The website also includes advice on the modelling and appraisal appropriate for major highway and public transport schemes.

The guidance should be seen as a requirement for all projects/studies that require government approval. For projects/studies that do not require government approval TAG should serve as a best practice guide.

Source: http://www.dft.gov.uk/webtag/index.php

One example will illustrate the nature of my concern about the HSR project's serious departure from official guidance.

There is a problem in Manchester, Liverpool, Leeds and other northern cities in that GDP per capita is much lower than EU comparator cities, there are large numbers of NEETS (Not in Employment Training or Education) in the younger age groups and there are large numbers of residents who are on welfare benefits of various kinds. It would be a "good idea" to address these problems and bring about a happier outcome. If this is the problem that has been identified then what are the solutions? Solutions would include major improvements in local transport so that public transport, walking and cycling are at least as good as those in a 50km radius of the centres of Frankfurt, Hamburg, Vienna and Rotterdam. All these comparator cities perform much better than the northern cities in the UK and one of the factors that contribute to better performance is excellent integrated public transport giving excellent access to education, training, jobs and other facilities at a low cost. This increased labour market efficiency, would stimulate economic growth and would increase the GDP per capita of these cities. It is a potential solution. It has not been examined, and has not been compared with HSR. £32 billion would bring about a long overdue and much needed improvement in the economic performance of northern cities.

There is a similar story to be told about capacity. If capacity on existing rail routes is a problem then there are several ways of addressing this problem and they have not been examined and compared with HSR.

This lack of clear problem definition, clear scoping and identification of alternatives and rigorously transparent analysis of all alternatives to come up with the best solutions is a public policy failure.


11.  The HSR project is a strange beast. It has not emerged from a rigorous process of problem definition, scoping of possible solutions to these problems and formal appraisal of all possible solutions to identify the best performer. It will not regenerate northern cities, it will not make a respectable contribution to carbon reduction, it will not bring about enough modal transfer from road or air trips to deal with capacity or value for money problems in dealing with demand in those modes and it ignores the reality of technological advance that clearly demonstrates the growing importance of electronic communication substituting for physical travel. At a time of extreme difficulty in delivering enough public expenditure to meet the demands of citizens across a wide range of services it is unacceptable to embark on a project that is so deeply flawed and lacking in substantiation.

13 May 2011


DfT (2004) Smarter Choices: changing the way we travel. Volume 2. Case study Reports
page 63

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Prepared 8 November 2011