Tuesday, 18 July 2017

The Wrong End of HS2

HS2 is yet another example of how the capitalist state in Britain uses vast amounts of taxpayers money to benefit private money-owning capitalists, without actually benefitting the real economy. The most grotesque example, in recent years was the bailing out of the banks in 2008/9.  That cost the state around £1 trillion, and has provided the Tories ever since with a stick to beat Labour with, over the deficit.  The latest government figures for HS2 put the cost at around £55 billion, but others believe the cost could turn out as high as £100 billion.

You can go back to the construction of the Caledonian Canal, and probably before, to see examples of such malinvestment.  The canal had been commissioned to reduce the lengthy and risky journey taken by ships around the top of Scotland.  But, by the time it was completed, its purpose had already passed into history.  With HS2, the government does not even have that excuse.  In the age of the Internet, the government is proposing a communications solution that harks back to the age of the train!  That would not be so bad if the government was also investing in an adequate broadband and ICT infrastructure for the country, but currently the governments aspirations in that direction do not even reach a tenth of the height of what already currently exists in places like Singapore!

In the 1950's, when the actual rail network in Britain was being upgraded, as the state came into provide billions of pounds of capital that private owners had previously failed to invest, the government again demonstrated that its motives were geared not to what best met the needs of the real economy, but what best met the interests of money-lending capitalists, i.e. the shareholders in various companies.  Across a devastated Europe, capitalist state's with a history of state capitalism, under Louis Bonaparte, and Bismark, took a different approach.  In scrapping their outmoded steam trains, they invested in the latest, most efficient technology of the time.  They electrified their networks.  In Britain, the state largely shunned electrification, and instead settled for introducing expensive, and inefficient diesel engines as a replacement for steam.  The decision in no small part was driven by the interests of Britain's large oil companies, and their shareholders.

Once again, Britain is only now investing in a high speed rail network, half a century after the rest of Europe rolled out such a system.  But, the question is why?  HS2 will not transport goods, it will only transport people.  By moving long distance passenger transport off the existing lines it may, thereby enable goods to move more quickly on those old routes, but the decimation of the rail network in the 1960's, and the focus on road transport ever since has made the rail network ill equipped to deal with a lot of freight requirements.  In an age where driverless vehicles are being developed, that is likely to be even more the case.

As far as passenger transport is concerned, its also difficult to see how HS2 helps.  A high speed rail network only has real time benefits if it is used to run non-stop services over long distances, but nowadays such journeys can often be achieved faster and cheaper via internal flights.  HS2 does nothing to assist the vast majority of passenger journeys, which occur across smaller distances, and which require the development of more effective mass transit systems, again potentially the development of electrically powered, driverless vehicles will meet this requirement more effectively. And, for Britain's real transport problems, which arise because extensive North-South transport routes have been developed, whilst virtually no effective East-West routes exist, HS2 will only make matters worse, because it will dump even larger numbers of people at points down that backbone, who will then be unable to move away from it in an East-West direction.

The government and backers of HS2 have sold it on the basis of the idea that it will assist in the economic development of the North of the country, but it will do just the opposite.  The real purpose of HS2 is to provide London with an answer to its problem of finding workers, given the astronomical inflation of property prices in London and its environs.  What HS2 will do is to ship City workers into London, in large quantities, from the rest of the country.  It will facilitate the continued growth of the London economy, whilst turning the rest of the country into merely dormitory towns, which have no other purpose than to supply the workers required by London, whilst the economy of much of the rest of the country will decay.

It will mean that more desirable parts of the country will become gated highly priced residential communities, where those highly paid City workers can enjoy lower living costs than in London, whilst surrounding towns and villages will become ghettos, their economy having been decimated, and which will provide the unskilled workers, often on zero-hours contracts, or in fake self-employment, working as domestic servants, gardeners, cleaners and so on, for the inhabitants of these gated communities.  Some of them can already be seen in development, such as at Wychwood Park near Crewe.

The idea that HS2 is designed to strengthen the economy of the North is nonsense.  If that were the case, then why not start the construction from the North, rather than from London?  Why not first construct the necessary East-West communication links across the north of the country before constructing yet another North-South communications link?  The truth was let slip by the Chairman of HS2, Sir David Hartmann Higgins, in an interview on Ian King Live, on Sky News on Monday, when asked that question.

Higgins replied that there would be no point in starting HS2 "from the wrong end", i.e. from the North, because it would mean that all of those passengers attempting to get to London, would have to disembark at Crewe, or Birmingham etc., and transfer on to the existing rail system.  The use of the term "wrong end", shows exactly what the purpose of HS2 is.  It is not to ship potential workers or customers to the North, but to ship City workers from these luxury gated communities in the North into London.

But, even on this basis, HS2 is misconceived.  This is the 21st century, not the 19th or even 20th century.  The vast majority of work today can be done by workers sitting at a computer terminal in their own home, without the need to travel long distances to a formal workplace.  Or at least it could be if we had a 21st century broadband infrastructure like that in Singapore where more or less everyone has 1 Gbps internet connections, that would allow people to live conference, whilst sharing data etc.

Once again a British government is spending vast amounts of taxpayers money in a vanity project that will have no real benefit for the actual economy, but which will certainly benefit the share and bondholders of the companies undertaking the work, some of whom, for example, at Carillion have seen a significant capital loss on their shares in recent weeks.  And, if anything showed the totally unplanned and haphazhard way the British government goes about such spending of other people's money it was the news that development had had to be stopped on a new housing development that lies on the planned route of HS2!  How on Earth was it possible to even consider giving planning permission for such a housing development on a potential route for HS2.  Its bad enough that there is such a lack of co-ordination and planning that leads to Councils resurfacing roads that then get dig up the next week by utility companies, but this is a waste of money and resources on a much larger scale, and for those people who have already bought their houses on that development it now means a period of uncertainty, and disruption, alongside the immediate cost.  The compensation arrangements being provided by HS2 are wholly inadequate for the majority of people that will be affected up and down the country by its construction.

This particular planning decision is akin to all of those housing developments that have been allowed to go ahead in flood plains, and for which there is repeated surprise by the media whenever houses within them get regularly flooded.  Or its like the surprise that was shown a few years ago, when a hospital suffered flooding, and its was discovered that its operating theatre had been built over a stream!  And, of course, the most tragic recent example of this wanton disregard for people, in the use of public money by the capitalist state has come in the Grenfell Tower disaster and the discover therefrom that pretty much every similar tower block in the country, along with some hospitals, has been clad in the same materials, and represent a similar risk for their inhabitants.

It seems to be Britain that suffers most from this kind of waste of public money by the state.  Possibly it is down to the fact that in Europe, under the Bonapartist regimes of Louis Bonaparte and Bismark, the state took a leading role in the industrialisation and economic development of the country, whereas in Britain, the state was always connected to the moneyed class, and its role in the real economy was seen as only providing a safety net, in the form of second rate services for those who could not afford their own private provision.  In Britain the emphasis has always been on the short-term solution, and the cheap solution, and Grenfell is one of its consequences.  But, what appears cheap in the short term often turns out to be very expensive in the longer-term.

A state that is geared to looking after the interests of the moneyed and landed classes is likely to make such decisions that come back to bite it in the arse, because ultimately, it is the need for real economic development that provides the basis for all revenues, including interest, and rents.  A similar approach can be seen in the US, where one commentator said recently that the approach to infrastructure was to wait until a bridge collapsed, often killing lots of people, and then to think about the need to replace worn out bridges.  It comes from a total lack of real democratic control over the expenditure of vast amounts of socialised capital.


George Carty said...

What are your thoughts on rail transport in general? My thinking is that the main advantage of rail transport is that because trains are locked to a fixed running path they can be powered by externally-produced electricity rather than having to carry their fuel on-board (which will become more important in the future due to the increasing scarcity of liquid fuels). This means there is a strong argument for electrifying as many railway lines as possible.

There also a strong argument that we need to remodel our towns and cities to be more friendly to rail travel, by concentrating urban density around rail stations following the Japanese model. An argument for curbing land speculation via land value taxation or outright nationalization of land?

The argument for high-speed rail in particular is to encourage a shift away from air travel (which people like George Monbiot view as especially damaging to the environment). Has Europe yet contemplated high-speed trains to Mediterranean resorts to replace air travel for this purpose, or does the seasonality of such travel mean that it wouldn't be worth the cost of the fixed infrastructure?

Boffy said...


Glad you asked. I was thinking of writing something on what Labour should say on transport before the election, but I've been too busy. I will do it in the next few months. In short, where I live in North Staffordshire its a good proxy for the country. Its organised linearly with the main rail lines running North-South, the M6 running North-South, the A500/A50 running North-South, and the A34 running North South. All of them shift large numbers of people North-South, but they all dissect North Staffordshire separating East and West, and mean that anyone wanting to move East-West, or simply leaving any of these main routes to travel in either of those directions faces huge bottlenecks. The country is structured on a similar basis, but that not only hampers communication and development in the East and West, it also restricts communication from East-West, for example from the North Sea through to the Atlantic.

TO get from anywhere in the middle of the country to the East or West coast takes an inordinate time, which cuts off a large part of the Welsh coast, and Lincolnshire etc. Labour needs to invest in more effective East-West routes both at a local and national level.

Trains in my opinion should be used for shifting large amounts of heavy bulk freight. I think spending a lot on high speed electric trains will probably turn out to be wasted money. Britain is half a century too late. The future for high speed long distance mass transit probably resides with the development of hyper loops. For local transport, I think the fact that France and germany have said they will ban petrol and diesel engine production by 2040 means they already know their car makers will have stooped such production by that time. Volvo, pushed by its Chinese owners has said it will not produce any new petrol or diesel cars after 2020. China needs a rapid development of electric cars to deal with its pollution problems.

One company in Britain is saying that it is rolling out recharging stations where a full recharge can be done in 15 minutes. For local trips, I think the development of driverless vehicles means that its likely that in the next five years you will use something similar to an Uber app to call a driverless electric car to pick you up, which you will just drop off like today you can pick up and drop off a Mobike, as in this video my son produced for them.

But, I think that a large part of passenger transport is unnecessary. Take my son, he travels into work each day, which takes around 45 minutes each way, but with decent broadband, like the 2Gbps they are now rolling out in Singapore, nearly everyone other than those involved in either manual labour, or labour service can work from home from a computer, using video conferencing and so on. Why do companies send executives on business trips anymore, when they could all be done by video-conferencing, and indeed the potential already exists for 3-D holographic projection.

Labour should be looking forward to 21st century transport and communications solutions not picking up 20th century solutions a century too late, which is how long it will be before HS2 is actually in place.

George Carty said...

I'm sceptical of Hyperloop personally, as I think its capacity is too low to justify the cost.

Agree with your comment though that we need much better east-west transport links (both road and rail).