Thursday, 19 May 2011

Railway lines run South as well as North

I am no expert in transport and its effects on economic development, but I can’t help posing one question about the proposed High Speed Rail Link (HSR) from the Midlands down to London.

What if HSR doesn’t bring economic prosperity from the South East to the Midlands, in the form of corporate locational decisions or productivity benefits and instead funnels economic wealth down South? I’m just asking, after all railway lines, to my recollection, tend to run both ways.

So I did a little research yesterday evening. I asked myself where in the world there is a high speed rail system designed to link major connurbations? There are of course hundreds if not thousands of examples, but I have personal experience of one very good one, namely the Bay Area Rapid Transit in Northern California.

BART, as it is known, links major towns and cities including San Francisco and Oakland in a space-age like transportation system which was designed to negate the need for a car.

However, in a BART impact study conducted by the academics Grefe and MacDonald the impact on business and economic wealth was found to be negligible. In particular, their findings demonstrated that:

There were no instances were BART could be cited as a significant or causal reason for a locational decision from outside the Bay Area.

There were no instances cited where BART provided a significant efficiency of operation for an existing business.

No case was identified in which the availability of a BART service would have a measurable effect on productivity or operating profit.

There was no evidence that BART in any way affected demand for the products from the San Francisco Bay Area’s export-base industries, including the tourism industry.

In conclusion BART did not and does not increase regional economic growth.

The BART analogy is not a perfect one and I intend to keep an open mind about HSR, as I say I’m no transport expert. Whilst I could see the need for a new runway extension at Birmingham Airport in order to improve the region’s links to North America and Asia, I am not, as yet, convinced by the arguments put forward for rail. Quick Google searches on the internet can find plenty of research (I’m told Barcelona is another example) which demonstrate that the promised economic benefits of new transportation systems never materialise. Birmingham and the wider West Midlands conurbation need to be very careful.


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