Written evidence from Professor John Whitelegg
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
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
5. In what follows I will concentrate on six
fundamental nature of the relationship between speed, time saving
and demand for transport.
evidence on new transport infrastructure creating jobs.
evidence on high speed rail supplanting domestic aviation.
evidence on electronic media (video-conferencing, teleconferencing
etc) substituting for physical travel.
HSR project is contrary to official DfT "Transprt Appraisal
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):
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.
THE HSR PROJECT
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:
definition of the problem that has to be solved.
exercise to identify a range of possible solutions.
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
WebTag is owned by DfT and explains its purpose as
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:
objectives and identify problems;
a transport model for the appraisal of the alternative solutions;
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
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.
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