More HST less speed?



Photo: The Hovertrain track at Sutton Gault, Joe Smith, January 2013

Embarrassing really: I’m assuming that plenty of headline writers have ground out this one before me. In truth I’m not sure what to think about UK government proposals for High Speed Trains. Economic and transport geographers and similar seem pretty well distributed on the topic. Given mixed views you would think we would have had a livelier public conversation about how we might spend a very large pile of cash on proclaimed economic and environmental goals. Here are some inconclusive and sometimes contradictory thoughts and a bit of themed history trivia:

How many people do you need to build an HST?: I come from one of the world’s greatest railway towns (Derby, of course) so start predisposed to wave a flag for major rail infrastructure projects. Jobs, jobs, jobs etc. Very tempting notion. But am guessing that in terms of jobs and meaningful long term economic development for your buck you’d get a whole lot more out of updating our dismally dated and tired rolling stock and (re-)laying some lines that go between more or less anywhere and more or less anywhere else other than London.

Get me to London – I need to distribute wealth!: I’m puzzled by the notion that fast physical connections to London equal a ‘solution’ to the North-South ‘problem’. The knotty bundle of issues behind the shape of the UK economy are to do with plenty of things, including decades of under-investment in everything from engineering apprenticeships to schools, hopeless industrial relations and a couple of centuries of deep veined elite prejudice. None of this is going to be solved by trimming an hour or two off journey times (my great OU colleagues Doreen Massey, John Allen, Phil Sarre and co. did a sharp job of analysing the geography of Britain’s political economy in the 1980s (1988) – they’d be good people to ask about this latest turn of events).

Slow work: one thing white-collar workers lack in open plan offices and inbox-burdened daily lives is a little time to themselves. So don’t take it away from them with the distinctly ambiguous gift of shorter journeys. (Anyone who needs a little thinking space in their working lives knows how delicious it is to be able to fib ‘I’m just going into a tunne…’

Future work: sure, co-presence matters, but does it matter in the way that it used to? And might it matter even less, possibly very much less, as the kinds of tools we use today to meet virtually (skype etc.) become richer and more intuitive. Indeed virtual meetings are likely to have some real benefits over face-to-face meetings as we get really good at the design and use of these tools.

All trains are green?: Train travel in general enjoys a green glow. But a poorly loaded train or bus can make a 1982 Jag look like the carbon counter’s choice. And a high speed train isn’t so far off air travel in terms of emissions, though it has the great advantage of being electric, so in theory could be driven by renewables / nuclear etc. if that matters to you. But with a limited pot to spend on economic regeneration and environmental transport systems I’d start with cycle lanes and pavements, work up to bus routes and shared car lanes, and then improve existing services. Then repair some of Beeching’s cuts. Then consider new lines.

Mega projects go wrong. Nearly always: Danish social scientist and planning academic Bent Flyvbjerg’s work on why planning is difficult to do right is a good reference point in all this. His (co-authored) book Megaprojects is the most relevant to HST. In short ‘Megaprojects are central to the new politics of distance… There is a paradox here however. At the same time as many more and much larger infrastructure projects are being proposed and built around the world, it is becoming clear than many such projects have strikingly poor performance records in terms of economy, environment and public support’ (2003, 3). Be interesting to know what he thinks of e.g. Oresund bridge now it seems bedded in.

Historical trivia matters but I’m not sure why: Two weeks back I more or less stumbled on an early experiment in high speed rail (my pic above). The experimenters laid a track for the Hovertrain monorail system along the line of the Old Bedford River at Sutton Gault. Hovertrain was being toyed with at the same time as the hugely expensive French Aramis project that aimed to provide personalised rail-based transport in the early 1970s. Crazy business. Aramis was the basis of Bruno Latour’s first book-length work, which was almost as crazy as the project. Did more than ‘following the thing’: gave the thing a voice. Difficult read but funny and interesting. Hope he writes about the Google car.

There are just a few concrete stumps left over now from the Hovertrain project, sulking more than brooding in the wide-open fens. Their only significant role in life is as a perch for the thriving birdlife. I suspect there is enough political energy behind HST to will it into being. Flyvbjerg and Latour would both suggest we go carefully.


Flyvbjerg, B., Bruzelius, N. & Rothengatter, W., 2003. Megaprojects and Risk: An Anatomy of Ambition, Cambridge University Press.

Latour, B., 1996. Aramis, or the Love of Technology, Harvard University Press.

Massey, D. & Allen, J. eds., 1988. Uneven Redevelopment, Hodder Arnold H&S.

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