We need planes, trains and automobiles

Justifying high-speed rail as a way of stopping people from flying is a perverse anti-travel argument.

Rob Lyons

Topics Science & Tech

On Tuesday, the UK transport secretary, Andrew Adonis, announced plans to expand high-speed rail services in the UK. Yet his proposals seem to have less to do with allowing people to travel with greater speed and comfort, and more to do with getting people off planes. Perversely, the Labour government is promoting a transport initiative on anti-travel grounds.

‘For reasons of carbon reduction and wider environmental benefits, it is manifestly in the public interest that we systematically replace short-haul aviation with high-speed rail’, said Adonis. ‘But we would have to have, of course, the high-speed network before we can do it.’ By the end of this year, the government plans to have a published route for a rail line from London to the West Midlands, to be built by 2020 at an estimated cost of £7billion, with a framework in place to expand further north in the future. The high-speed link is part of a package announced in July by Adonis to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from transport by 14 per cent by 2018-2022.

Britain’s only current high-speed link, the 68-mile stretch from the Channel Tunnel on the south coast to St Pancras station in London, is hugely popular. Already, 80 per cent of non-car journeys from London to Paris and Brussels are by rail rather than air. Rail could soon add a major slice of travel to Amsterdam, Rotterdam, Cologne and Frankfurt as high-speed links develop in Europe.

Unsurprisingly, the airlines aren’t keen on Adonis’s proposals. Ryanair boss and anti-green rent-a-quote, Michael O’Leary, was as blunt as ever. On the notion that extending high-speed rail could cut short-haul flights to Europe, he said: ‘It is insane. The only link you have is one highly priced tunnel. People are not going to travel to the UK regions, including the Lake District and Cornwall, on a train that only stops at Kent and London St Pancras.’ O’Leary was only slightly less dismissive of the idea of moving domestic travellers from planes to trains, describing it as a ‘valid alternative if you don’t mind the inefficiency and high cost of rail services’ and complaining that while domestic air passengers currently have to pay £20 in tax to travel from London to Glasgow (where planes have 80 per cent of the market), the government continues to ‘subsidise the shit out of the railways’.

Others were over the moon, if only metaphorically. One anti-flights campaign group said it was delighted by the plan to ‘wipe out the market for domestic flights’ in the UK, declaring that ‘no more Ryanair or Flybe is a good thing’ – even if the UK government is still keen to expand airports, too. It is true, as many commentators have pointed out, that people seem to prefer trains to planes in countries like Spain and France, where such high-speed links have almost wiped out domestic air travel in favour of the train. For example, journeys have doubled on the new Madrid to Malaga line in Spain, while the Paris to Lyon line is so popular that the French government has now got the headache of trying to expand the service from two lines to four. No wonder President Obama has plans to replicate such rail success in the US. Britain, however, is different.

Of course, a high-speed line to Birmingham would be nice, but it would not make a huge difference to journey times (it’s only 120 miles and it currently takes just 90 minutes) and it would have zero impact on air passenger numbers because very people fly such short distances. As transport commentator Christian Wolmar points out, even expanding the line to northern English cities like Manchester, Leeds and Newcastle wouldn’t help because air travel from London to those cities is still a small part of the domestic travel market, or is simply being used as a way of connecting to international flights at those local airports. Only by expanding the high-speed link to Scotland could such a link really make a major difference to journey times and the numbers of people flying – and that could cost £30billion. As Wolmar points out, while there are plenty of good reasons to improve our train network, the environmental case is not one of them.

A north-south line would be good, but it is no solution to Britain’s transport needs. The line would still leave some travel destinations – from Bristol, Exeter and Wales in the west, to Norwich in the east and Aberdeen in the far north – badly served. The likely upshot would be an even-greater concentration of business and population in the major cities of the Midlands and the north, while people elsewhere would look to new airports to enable them to get both to London and to cities further afield.

The problem for the government is that the low-carbon argument will always be trumped by the no-carbon argument. Any form of mechanised travel – even trains – will produce greenhouse gas emissions. So the logical conclusion of making climate change the top priority in transport policy is that it would be better if people didn’t travel at all. As one anti-flying activist put it: ‘Adonis and others were keen to explain that we’d still have to expand all the airports to cater for predicted growth in demand (which is generated by the expansion, but don’t let that spoil anything).’ This argument surely gets things the wrong way round, though, as if airport terminal buildings had a hypnotic effect on people, willing them to fly when they never wanted to before. People have always wanted to travel; new airports, train lines and motorways make it easier to do so. Nonetheless, if we put emissions reduction at the centre of transport policy, the logical conclusion is that it is best not to travel at all.

If our current transport technology creates environmental problems, we need to find solutions to those problems, not stop travelling. For example, while replacing petrol and diesel with biofuel could cause all sorts of problems in the short term with food supply, replacing the much smaller volumes of aircraft fuel with biofuels could be a practical, low-carbon solution. The plans for rail electrification could give us much greater flexibility about how to power trains: coal and gas for now, but nuclear, wind and solar in the future. The no-travel, no-carbon outlook is tantamount to societal suicide.

Obsessing about high-speed rail also misses the point that every form of transport has its strengths and weaknesses. There are all sorts of factors that people take into account when choosing if and how to travel, like cost, convenience, speed, comfort and flexibility. If you want to travel from city centre to city centre, trains are great for journeys of up to three hours. No check-in, no driving, just turn up and let the ‘train take the strain’. For longer journeys, the hassle of air travel is off-set by the speed (and, given the stupendous prices charged on Britain’s railways, flying is usually cheaper, too). For trips to less popular destinations, or where you need transport at the other end, the car is often the best choice.

So, to make Britain a truly mobile society, we need trains, planes and cars, and the best possible infrastructure for all three. And we need a government that is committed to the idea that mobility is a good thing rather than one that puts the brakes on our transport future.

Rob Lyons is deputy editor of spiked.

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Topics Science & Tech


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