21 February 2011
Low-speed rail freight and the threat to it from high-speed passenger trains
Brian Micklethwait

Later today, assuming all goes well, I will be doing an interview with Sam Bowman, who blogs and is the blogmeister for the Adam Smith Institute, among other things.  During my homework for this interview I came across this blog posting by Sam, which featured this graphic:


As Sam says:

This is why we like deregulation.

This piece of graphics began life as one of the illustrations in an Economist report entitled “High-speed railroading”, and, more to my present point, subtitled America’s system of rail freight is the world’s best. High-speed passenger trains could ruin it.

Indeed.  High speed rail achieves little, in terms of speeding up rail travel by regular humans, and even less in terms of making money for any humans.  But if unleashed anywhere, a point I am reading here, there and everywhere is that its most significant impact is upon the one thing that long distance rail does really well, which is transport stuff over long distances at low cost, but rather (sometime very) slowly, for customers who value the cheapness and don’t mind the slowness.

The word “trundle” always comes to my mind whenever I observe some exotic cargo train … well, trundling through a passenger station I happen to be waiting at when this odd circumstance occurs.  But the real pay-off comes when goods trains trundle, not on the urban and suburban lines I travel on, but for hundreds upon hundreds of miles.  They become the sort of land equivalent of supertankers, another notably efficient form of transport that has been doing very well recently.

Superimpose on those same long, long railway lines trains which are very fast, and with the political demand attached that they run on time, bugger the cost and the havoc caused, and there goes your profitable and efficient freight network.  And it all then has to go by road.  There is nothing intrinsically wrong with roads, of course, but the kind of people who are most manically in favour of high-speed trains tend also to be manically against roads.  What the hell are they thinking?

Seriously, what is the lefty fascination with high-speed trains?  Is it just that the child in all of us loves fast trains that look and behave like rockets, and lefties are the people who are most inclined not to care about the cost of things?  Is it really that simple?

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