Yesterday, the United Kingdom’s Transport Minister Lord Andrew Adonis made his most forceful defense yet of high-speed rail, arguing that the development of a new high-speed line connecting the country’s largest cities is a necessity. He made his speech after trips to Japan, France, Italy, Spain, and Germany, where he examined those nations’ own experiences in implementing very fast train networks. Lord Adonis called for cross-party support for investing in U.K.’s rail system, arguing that it would reduce congestion on the most overcrowded segments of the existing network, decrease carbon emissions, and improve connections between currently isolated regions.
This is quite a turnaround, considering that just last November, the U.K.’s governing Labour government chose to prioritize a third runway at Heathrow airport rather than set its sights on a high-speed rail line. Conservative politicians, who are likely to win national elections next year, have been strongly pushing for a 200 mph line to rival those found in mainland Europe, and Labour has slowly come around the idea, recently introducing plans for a “High Speed 2” PPP company that would build a new link between London and Glasgow, via Heathrow, Birmingham, and Manchester.
Such a project would decrease travel times between the capital and Birmingham to 40 minutes, and detailed plans will be introduced by the end of the year — before the elections. Trains would run by 2020. Labour clearly sees the conservatives’ advocacy for high-speed rail as a popular move that should be imitated to garner electoral support. Any concerns that the U.K. is somehow an exception and that fast trains “wouldn’t work” there have been pushed to the wayside, and the bi-partisan support Lord Adonis advocates is already basically in place. The project’s route and financing, however, still need to be established.
Lord Adonis spent much of his speech quoting President Obama directly, arguing that the U.S.’s planned $13 billion investment in high-speed rail could be repeated by the U.K. What’s ironic about the use of Mr. Obama’s rhetoric is that while the U.K. has a definitive corridor in which to invest, American plans are all over the place. The U.S. may have $13 billion reserved, but it has no concrete understanding of what it wants from a high-speed program, unlike the U.K., which undoubtedly wants 200 mph trains between London and the northern cities.
If U.S. Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood went on a similar fact-finding mission to Europe and Japan, perhaps he would understand that definitive allocations to very fast high-speed rail in the most-used corridors makes a lot of sense, and that we have a strong interest in focusing our investments. So far, however, we’ve just gotten a bunch of non-specifics. Lord Adonis is taking lessons from us — but we need to do the same right back.