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Track record

In the Victorian era, Brunel and his contemporaries ramped up the UK’s infrastructure, building railways, tunnels and bridges. Two centuries later, the amount of active railway track is in decline and the proposed HS2 line has been cut short. New policies and more cost-effective projects are needed.

Newsletter from 6 October 2023

The second part of HS2 – the planned high-speed rail line from London to Manchester, via the West Midlands – has been abandoned. This was confirmed by the prime minister, Rishi Sunak, during his speech at the Conservatives’ party conference on Wednesday afternoon.

HS2 will now run from London Euston to Birmingham Curzon Street. Passengers wishing to travel further north will need to change and likely to slower services.

Number 10 has stated that the £36 billion of public savings from the axed service will be re-invested in other transport initiatives, including improving road surfaces and capping single bus fares at £2.

Since its launch, the benefits of developing of the new rail line have been debated fiercely. Those in favour have presented the reduced connection time between London and other cities as a symbol of levelling up, a visible commitment to spreading wealth and jobs outside the South East of England.

The rail links between northern cities – like Hull, Liverpool and York – and the capital have long needed upgrading. But some critics of the HS2 project have argued that the greater issue is their isolation from each other and have called for investment to speed up trans-Pennine links.

Other concerns have been raised around the mounting cost to the UK taxpayers and potential damage to England’s green spaces.

The debate around the merits of HS2 is a good case study for the trade-offs faced by UK policy-makers. On the one hand, public spending on infrastructure and commitments to net zero are seen as urgent, pro-growth and good for jobs. But on the other, there is the risk of extreme political backlash in the hydra-like form of NIMBYism, environmentalism and strict fiscal prudence.

So, as the plans for the West Midlands to Manchester leg are abandoned, it is worth taking a step back from the political maelstrom and taking a brief glance at some data. The following two charts – posted in the Economics Observatory Data Hub this week – shine some light on HS2 in the context of other infrastructure projects from around the world.

Figure 1: High-speed rail costs ($ per km), including project costs

Source: Transit Costs Project

Compared with other high-speed rail projects across Europe, HS2 has been staggeringly expensive (see Figure 1). Connecting London to Birmingham has cost around $232 million per kilometre (km). So, for every thousand metres of track laid and earth shovelled, almost a quarter of a billion pounds has been spent.

In contrast, the Lyon-Turin line, which started back in 2016, has cost French and Italian authorities ‘just’ $130 million per km so far. In Germany, the Wendlingen-Ulm high-speed line, which was completed last year (and faces the added challenge of running through an Alpine mountain range), cost $71 million per km – less than a third of HS2’s construction costs. Something has clearly gone very wrong with their UK equivalent.

Figure 2: Railways across Europe, total active track (km), 1825-2021

Source: Eurostat and Mitchell, 2007

But what about overall track? As the inventors of the steam locomotive, Britain has a proud history of rail, both for freight and passengers. The Victorian era is defined by the expansion of railways around the country (the so-called ‘railway mania’), with 10,000km of track built between 1844 and 1846 alone.

But since the 1960s, the total active track in the UK has fallen from 30,000km to just over 18,000km. This is largely the result of the Beeching cuts – a major series of rail route closures and service changes made as part of the nationalisation of the UK’s railway system. By way of comparison, the UK now has less active track than Poland, Italy, France and Germany.

So, there are fewer tracks in use than there used to be. And building new lines (especially for high-speed services) is extremely expensive. But both levelling up and achieving net zero will involve upgrading the UK’s rail network as a core part of the policy agenda. The prime minister’s latest announcement brings little hope to either cause.

Data: a global story

Our Data Hub is not just a useful place to look at charts about trains. It also houses the Data Explorer. This is our very own API (a system through which computers can access data from one another automatically), which draws public data from a variety of countries.

We launched the tool in May 2023, testing the water with data for the UK, the United States, Canada and Australia. We are pleased to announce that we now have data for 24 countries, including the top 20 by population. This means we have 210 distinct data series, covering 75% of the global population.

So, if you want to find out about unemployment in Vietnam, consumer confidence in Mexico or inflation in Egypt (plus many more countries and series), make sure you visit the hub. You can explore the data, create your own charts, and even share the charts into our very own timeline. We would love to see your work.

Festival of Economics

On 13-16 November, we’ll be back in venues across Bristol to host the annual Festival of Economics with our friends at Bristol Ideas. The event, now in its 12th year, includes live podcast recordings (Tim Harford’s Cautionary Tales and the Financial Times Money Clinic), book talks and panel sessions over three days.

Come along to hear experts discuss and debate some of most pressing challenges faced by the UK today - from food supply and inflation to housing and health and social care.

And if you want to find out more about the UK’s infrastructure projects, including HS2, we have a session entitled ‘Brunel’s vision for 2050’ where we’ll consider what the famous engineer might think of these endeavours and what he might build if alive today.

The full programme and tickets are available on our website.

If you can’t wait until November, there is another economics discussion in Bristol next week. On Tuesday 17 October, Martin Wolf (Chief Economics Commentator at the Financial Times) will be talking about his new book, The Crisis of Democratic Capitalism, with our Editor-in-Chief, Romesh Vaitilingam.

In the book, Martin argues that for all its recent failings – including slowing growth and productivity, increasing inequality and widespread popular disillusion – democratic capitalism remains the best system and that citizenship is not just a slogan or a romantic idea; it’s the only concept that can save us. It should be a fascinating event. Book now to avoid missing out (17 October, 13.00-14.00, Watershed, Bristol).

Author: Charlie Meyrick
Image: Karl Weller on iStock
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