The real European lesson for Cameron: High speed derailment of political support in France and Italy.

This article is by Madeleine Wahlberg.

In a recent announcement Cameron said “The rest of the world is getting on board the high-speed rail revolution and it is right that we should too.” [Hansard 6 Mar 2013: Column 958] What he doesn’t seem to have noticed is that actually much of Europe has slammed on the brakes of HSR.

You can search on the STOP HS2 site for the many blogs that have tracked the details of this withdrawal from HSR. Here is an update on two recent interesting political developments in Europe that are relevant to ‘learning lessons’ from Europe.

Firstly, the Italian elections resulted in No TAV supporters being elected into the Parliament and the Senate; and Mario Monti, who was the front man for the lobbyists in favour of the controversial Turin – Lyon line, has been deposed. No TAV are the Italian group who have been opposing the Turin – Lyon HSR proposal for over 22 years. This election was a clear rejection of Monti (who had never been elected) and we should remember that HS2 was first promoted within the Labour Government by someone who was also never elected – Adonis – who still lobbies heavily for HS2. Perhaps if he ever actually stood for election, he would find that he got the same treatment as Monti.

These unelected technocrats will do all they can to pretend that HSR is just a rational issue of so called hard facts about capacity crises, but voters know different! The obstinate facts about the Turin – Lyon case are that freight traffic on that route is dramatically reducing, fundamentally removing the case for spending billions on a new HSR tunnel (see below for reasons). All that remains is the mafia and developer interests in forcing this useless mega project through, using the ‘good offices’ of unelected people like Monti. Well, elections are coming up in May. Cameron has registered the threat of UKIP and Labour might ponder the local impacts of the Green Party – the only parliamentary party against HS2.

As well as deposing Monti, No TAV are pleased to now have direct representatives in Government (from ‘Five Star’ and ‘Left Ecology and Freedom’ parties). In HS2’s case we find too many MPs who are willing to totally agree in private that HS2 is desperately wrong for the country – that it is not just a case of tinkering with compensation – but they are not yet willing to vote accordingly in Parliament. Time to get representatives with more integrity???

The second piece of news regarding the same Turin – Lyon line is that a French Deputy (MP), who has for long supported the case for that line, has now come out categorically against it: “you are no longer able to count on me to defend the indefensible”. He should know! The MP is Dominique Dord a member of the Union for a Popular Movement (centre-right, Chirac, Sarkozy party). Here is a link:

Dord spells out how the legitimation of the Turin-Lyon line is based on completely bogus figures for the projected growth in freight transport. Firstly there are problems about the methods that were used for the calculation (30 years ago!). When criticised on this by the Cours de Comptes (translated as the court of auditors, something like a public enquiry), Sarkozy surreally and limply said “but they have always been calculated this way”.  This reminds us of our Department for Transport still failing to respond to critical updating and remodelling of the HS2 capacity figures: ‘Sorry Guv, the figures may be wrong but we’ve always done it this way!

The second problem with the freight figures is that the real world hasn’t turned out the way the projections assumed. As Dord says, 30 years ago China and India were minor players in the world economy. Something has happened since then – and that something means that a huge proportion of the goods trafficked to or through Italy and France now arrive by boat. And from Genoa and Marseilles they cross the Alps through Switzerland and Austria: “They have no reason to transit between Lyon and Turin”. Any goods for Northern Europe do not transit through France and Italy – they go by boat to Dutch and German ports. Therefore, as a matter of FACT, freight traffic going between Lyon and Turin has radically reduced over the 30 years and not increased by the 300% it was supposed to by those pushing for the new HSR. And guess what – there is an EXISTING train line between Lyon and Turin that operates way below capacity and with a bit of direction and a few incentives could take even more freight off the roads.

So there we have it. Powerful interests are still pushing for a scheme based on incompetent modelling and uncorrected assumptions that were made 30 years ago. Meanwhile, as Dord also says, there are far higher priorities for infrastructure investment and, by the way, something of an economic crisis going on… and might it be wise not to waste BILLIONS???

Now then Mr Cameron, these are the lessons that CAN be learned from Europe:

  • Get up to speed on the major re-think about HSR that is going on across the EU.
  • Learn from their mistakes – it’s truly foolish to make the same mistakes!
  • Set up a public enquiry to openly establish the need, FULL costs and benefits of HS2.
  • Voters don’t like to see their money wasted, especially in an economic crisis…

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3 comments to “The real European lesson for Cameron: High speed derailment of political support in France and Italy.”
  1. Every time anyone commented on this site that many many countries have hsr, are planning hsr, building hsr or expanding hsr we were told in no uncertain terms that as we are in the UK that had no bearing. So I propose that we agree that what the italian electorate decide is up to them and whatever they do in Italy has no bearing in tjhe UK. This is just using your logic

    .There are plenty of reasons why the italian electorate rejected Monti as you are well aware. and as you are also aware Lord Adonis was appointed by Tony Blair in his role as prime minister of the democratically elected labour (well quasi well sort of labour!) government.
    It is worth repeating that at the last election all four parties including UKIP supported HS2. Quite staggering that a party that has only been on the scene for 5 minutes is already u-turning on a major issue. If they ditch any more policies we won;t be able to tell the difference between them and the lib dems ! In 2015 it will be this governments ideologically driven agenda with its socially divisive policies that will lose them election not HS2.

    • Just to correct you on one thing. The Conservatives did not support HS2 at the last election ( nor did UKIP for that matter ).

      They had a High Speed Network in their manifesto but you simply can’t imply that everyone who voted Conservative approves of HS2. As you well know a High Speed Network could mean all sorts of things — 124 mph vs 250 mph , a route along existing corridors vs a straight line route that minimises journey time but maximises environmental damage , lots of stops opening up access to the maximum number of people vs a handful of stops.

      Sure the Adonis plans were out in the open as one possibility but there were plenty of Conservative sources who were suggesting these would be changed. Part of the resentment against the current government is precisely for this reason. We might expect a Labour Government to want to spend vast sums of public money and maybe in some weird way they think there are “looking after their people” in the North West but residents effected by HS2 in the Midlands and the South feel betrayed by Cameron & Co. There are lots of voters who will hope to punish Cameron for his betrayal and hang any consequences.

    • Thanks for joining the debate Vitman. I understand the point that you are making but it is because Cameron said “The rest of the world is getting on board the high-speed rail revolution and it is right that we should too” that this article pointed out that that wasn’t the lesson to learn from Europe. The re-think on HSR across Europe is of course far wider than just the Turin-Lyon line mentioned as an exemplar, including from the President of SNCF (French Rail). And of course I agree that across Italy, Monti was rejected for more reasons than his support for the Turin-Lyon project but in those areas, his support for that untenable project was central to the voters opposition to him.
      But it is also true that there are huge similarities across the European HSR proposals that do need to be highlighted. The problems with HS2 are not just because of choosing a poor route! Across European HSR we see the regular underestimation of costs; the over-estimation of demand; and ‘porkies’ on new jobs generated by HSR. Stuttgart proposals are on the line for all of those too: the independent arbitrator who was asked by government to mediate in that dispute was scathing about the incompetence of DB – technical incompetence, economic incompetence, finance incompetence, and political incompetence. Now when our MPs* praise DB using the phrase “unalloyed success” to describe DB, is it not important to point out the fallacies of that view? There are lessons to learn from European HSR, but not the ones that Cameron suggests!

      *Kwasi Kwarteng MP on the Transport Select Committee (TSC) 12th July 2011 [Q232 HC1185iii].

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