Monday, 28 January 2013

HS2: Steampunk futurism

Steampunk is a retro-futurist science fiction genre which tries to conjure up an imaginary steam-driven future. A future in which 19th century fashion and technology still reign supreme. Steam and chunky mechanical gizmos tend to feature heavily, while the internal combustion engines and sophisticated computer systems that define modern life are largely airbrushed out.

Imagine what the 21st century might look like if the late 19th century was the recent past and the 20th century had never happened: that's steampunk.

Steampunk fashion

Airships and futuristic-looking steam trains are in. Cars are out, especially modern ones full of composite materials and advanced driver aids.

Steampunk airship
Steampunk train

Steampunk is a cool, fun and entirely harmless genre of science fiction, whose fruits include the rather wonderful gentleman rhymer Professor Elemental and his Fighting Trousers.

Unfortunately it's all gone too far: steampunk fashion has now infiltrated the government and is being used as the basis for our actual transport policy, including £32 billion planned for the white elephant HS2 high speed rail project. It's as if the 20th century never happened. 

The transport phenomenon of the 20th century was personal transport: the car and to a lesser extent the bicycle. Suddenly people could go where they wanted to, not just where the transport planners had decided they may go, unleashing amazing flexibility and efficiency in people's lives and the economy. With some help, the personal transport revolution can roll on into the 21st century as bikes replace cars in urban areas, and cars are totally reinvented as self-driving personal chauffeurs. That future is already happening, for those with eyes to see.

Many of HS2's cheerleaders invoke the great vision and optimism of the Victorian era and call for a repeat of the grand thinking in infrastructure that epitomised that time. But Victorian engineers didn't put their efforts and build their fortunes with a vast network of livery stables and ever-larger carriages to boost old horse-based transport, nor into faster ways to nap flint for hand-axes, instead they seized the new technology of the day and set out to exploit the possibilities of steam engines, locomotives, metal ships with screw propellers, huge urban sewage systems, iron and steel, mass production and all the rest of the industrial revolution that transformed the world.

Much of this would have seemed strange, improbable pie-in-the-sky to people of the day, but the reason we now look back at those achievements with such admiration is because the nay-sayers and traditionalists were comprehensively routed by the engineers' and industrialists' vision and their bold realisation of it.

Alas, today the nay-sayers and traditionalists hold sway and many who think of themselves as bold modern visionaries cannot see beyond the ideas and technologies of the 19th century, the heyday of the train. Roads, cars, bikes and self-driving cars are viewed with disdain as a passing fad not to be pandered to.

Let me spell out some of the problems with their thinking and obsession with HS2.

First, time. Construction of phase I to Birmingham is not expected to start until 2017 with the first passengers travelling in 2026, phase II to Manchester and Leeds is expected around 2033. Realistically, we are talking about 15-20 years before this is a part of our transport network. Considering the pace and maturity of development in self-driving cars, I expect we'll be unveiling a great 19th century rail project just as 21st century self-driving cars become a reality. Like a Victorian launching a new, faster sailing ship just as steam ships were eclipsing sails entirely. We'll find ourselves wishing we'd build roads instead, improving and extending the trunk road network which will support 21st century transport.

Secondly, there's the total lack of flexibility and adaptability, both of which are key to modern society. If you build a high speed rail link between two cities then you link those two cities and that's it. If you link two cities with a motorway, you not only link the two endpoints but also all points in between, spreading economic gains across a wide area and leaving people with flexibility and freedom. A non-stop train line between Birmingham and Manchester doesn't do much for people in Stoke or Stafford, but a major upgrade of the M6 would. It's more 19th and 20th century thinking: the Man In Whitehall decides where you may want to go, builds the transport infrastructure to get you there and never mind if you want to go somewhere else. Roads are inherently more flexible and adaptable.

Third, demand and economics. Most people travel by road not by rail, because road travel cheaper and better. People's preference for road rings out loud and clear, but the cloth-eared experts in the Transport Department press on with their grand plan, cheered on by the retro-futurist train fetishists who have still not noticed that the 20th century happened.

Fouth, phased benefits. We are already spending money on HS2 and once construction begins we'll start spreading negative externalities far and wide across the English countryside, but no passengers will benefit until almost 2030 because the whole line must be finished before any of it is usable. With a new road or a road upgrade, as soon as you finish one section you can open it and the benefits start flowing.

Fifth, speed. The whole point of high speed rail is that it's fast, and it certainly is that. But there a Hare & Tortoise effect: the top speed of HS2 is 200+ mph, but that is not your average journey speed thanks to all the time you waste getting from home to the HS2 railway station, waiting for your train, and then making a connecting journey at the other end to your real destination. By contrast cars will take you from where you are directly to where you're going, avoiding a lot of messing around and boosting your average speed. Not to mention being more comfortable, convenient, having greater load carrying capacity, more flexibility if there are problems, and probably also cheaper. A self-driving car is also far more useful to the old or disabled, people who find public transport stressful and difficult. It's all part of that 20th century personal transport revolution that some of us have noticed.

Sixth, cost. The M6 Toll motorway cost around £33 million per mile, the M25 western widening cost about £150 million per mile. One was a new motorway in relatively open land, the other was a major upgrade to an extremely busy motorway through an expensive and densely populated area of the south east, so these probably give a fair range of minimum and maximum costs for building and upgrading motorways in the UK. 

Using the M6 Toll price, the £32 billion cost of HS2 would build almost 1000 miles of new motorway. England is about 400 miles from top to bottom (HS2 is only happening in England), the entire UK is about 650 miles, so 1000 miles of new motorway would go a long way. It is easily enough to extend works into Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, whereas HS2 will exist only in England.

Even using the very high M25 upgrade cost, the £32 billion HS2 money would upgrade about 210 miles of old motorway which is about two complete laps of the M25 or half the length of England, and it's hard to believe that similar widening projects on the M1, M6, M5, M4, A1(M), etc would cost as much as the western M25. We are talking about a lot of new road capacity.

Bear in mind that in both cases I am comparing the actual finished cost of road projects (including a ~30% overspend on the M25 widening) with the probably optimistic initial estimates for HS2. Given the strength of opposition it's hard to see HS2 coming in on budget. It's clear that £32 billion is enough money to completely overhaul the road network of Britain, building new motorways, widening old motorways, and upgrading A-roads to dual-carriageway or motorway. Self-driving cars will allow us to turn this network into efficient, flexible 'road trains' or platoons of cars which slipstream each other to save fuel and road space, giving you the efficiency of trains, but still all the flexibility and low cost of cars.

I won't even get into how much cycling infrastructure you could build with £32 billion, except to say that anyone who says there's no money to do it properly is wrong. There is plenty of money, but it's all being funnelled into a single massive, pointless vanity project by people whose imagination and vision of the future have been stunted by a neo-Victorian steampunk image of technology that is now a century past its prime.

It's time to wake up to reality, kill HS2 before any more money is wasted on it and channel the money into modern infrastructure to leave a valuable, useful legacy for the future.

Update: one more important benefit of roads over high speed rail is fairness. Anyone with a car can enjoy the benefit of a new road, whether they're in a supercar, a limo or a 10 year old Citroen. But HS2 ticket prices are likely to exclude most people, leaving it as a plaything of the well off, people on high days and holidays and those with generous expense accounts. Yet another reason why the eventual pay-off from a new road will be larger and more widely spread than the pay-off from a new high speed rail line.

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