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Boastful Boris’s big bad boondoggle

So, Boris wants to build a new railway line. Between Leeds and Manchester. He says he wants it to do “…what we did with Crossrail in London”. An interesting argument given that the only thing the still-unopened Crossrail has done so far is saddle the people of the South with some very big bills.

But that aside, there really is an awful lot of woolly-headed thinking going on here.

First of all there is the idea that the North should be as rich as the South; that “our” economy needs “rebalancing”, as the saying goes.

But should it? Maybe there are reasons the North is poorer than the South. There was a time – during the Industrial Revolution – when the opposite was the case. Probably due to presence of coal mines and ports. But historically, that was the exception. Historically, London has always been the richest part of the British Isles – doubtless due to its proximity to the Continent.

For how long have I heard politicians going on about doing something for the North? As long as I can remember. Surely, you get to a point when you realise that nothing can be done? Maybe the best option is rather than moving the jobs to the people to move the people to the jobs. Except you can’t because no one can afford to live down South because the government won’t allow anyone to build a house.

Western civilisation will end if anything is built on this land. Oh, it already has. OK, OK, some housing is getting built but very little.

Secondly, we have the idea that the government can do infrastructure. This is not completely stupid. A new rail line can make a profit. But typically it is the owners of land near the stations that gain and not the rail company. This is how Japan’s bullet trains got going with the first line being built between Japan’s biggest city, Tokyo, and its second biggest, Osaka. It was probably – I don’t think anyone was counting – a success. But the problem was that after that everywhere – from Nowhereyama to Nowhereshima – wanted a bullet train. And through the wonder that is that state, they got them. That’s a lot of debt.

Thirdly, we have the idea that railways are the answer to… well… anything really. Actually, I am being unfair. Nowadays, what railways are good at is moving large quantities of people or goods from one point to another. They are great for commuting in large cities. They are great for intercity travel [so long as the total journey time is less than three hours at which point aircraft are better]. They are great at moving huge quantities of grain from Saskatchewan and Manitoba to the St Lawrence. But for everything else they’re useless. There was a time when railways were the national transport. But those days are long gone. Nowadays they are niche players. Roads are better.

It occurs to me that it’s just possible – and I cleave to this hope – that Johnson’s announcement is part of the plan to cancel HS2. “HS2 is a marvellous idea but, zoinks! it’s expensive. Look at Leeds – Manchester. A much better bet. This shows this government’s commitment to rail, blah, blah, blah…”

36 comments to Boastful Boris’s big bad boondoggle

  • John B

    It is politics not economics. The Conservatives are on very shaky ground, a GE is in the offing, the Brexit Party will cannibalise more Tory votes than Labour, so a real possibility of Chairman Jeremy in Government with his Politburo.

    Building railways promises local jobs to build it, promises that it will cause an inward rush of businesses to the North or magically make businesses sprout out of the ground overnight… and more jobs. People generally believe we have an economy just to have jobs. Really we could just throw everything we make in the sea as long as there were jobs, and if we threw it into the sea outside the 12 mile limit, it would be exports – even better because jobs and exports make us all rich.

    He is buying Labour votes in Labour territory with promises funded by the taxpayer. So what’s new? Maybe a price worth paying to get out of the EU and stop the Socialist thugs getting their hands on the keys to the Kingdom.

  • Ted Schuerzinger

    First of all there is the idea that the North should be as rich as the South; that “our” economy needs “rebalancing”, as the saying goes.

    To be fair, a lot of the government-sector jobsworth positions in London need to be axed. I suppose that’s a form of rebalancing.

  • Stonyground

    I live in Yorkshire, I’m not rich but I would say that I’m comfortable. I’ve just about got everything that I need and will be retiring next March at the age of 61. My wife and I bought our house in 1993 for £39,000. I think that the price of our house had a significant effect on our current financial position.

  • Natalie Solent (Essex)

    It occurs to me that it’s just possible – and I cleave to this hope – that Johnson’s announcement is part of the plan to cancel HS2. “HS2 is a marvellous idea but, zoinks! it’s expensive. Look at Leeds – Manchester. A much better bet. This shows this government’s commitment to rail, blah, blah, blah…”

    One of the Brexit Party’s policies (they don’t have many, by design) is to cancel HS2. It seems to have flipped from being popular for all the usual reasons any rail project is popular (“job-creation”, etc.) to not being popular, not so much on grounds of expense as on the grounds that by making London easier to get to it might suck the life out of Birmingham, and because of property blight and destruction of nature. The latter two occur with any big transport project but only start to matter when the project is disliked for other reasons.

    Patrick, why do you prefer Leeds-Manchester to HS2? Is it just because HS2 is even more of a bondoggle, or is there another reason?

  • Mr Ecks

    We need NO more railways.

    It may be part of a cancel HS2 plan. Or just hot air.

    Under a real free market there is no reason the North and Scotland should not prosper. The main reason for the North’s troubles are :

    1–A love of socialist bullshit. Esp the Jockonese. That is slowly changing thanks to Brexit and middle class Marxist scum taking over ZaNu and importing new voters.

    2-The London centric and socialistic antics of the useless British state. Brexit is step one of fucking that pile of shite up. But free of the E-Spew is only round one. Knocking down the shite state in near total is essential to the future of all of us.

    And you can keep your population where it is. The North have enough unwanted imports with unwelcome habits without importing any more from the South. Stop the London State money machine and stop 99% of the imported 3rd world from disembarking and the overheated south will cool down and prices/costs will fall.

  • Patrick Crozier (Twickenham)

    Natalie, merely because – I assume – it’s cheaper. If we have to waste taxpayers’ money let’s waste less of it.

  • Having done the Leeds to Manchester route quite frequently (to get to Huddersfield and Halifax respectively), it does suffer from problems of overcapacity at peak times, but surely the answer to this is to have additional trains running during peak periods rather than a whole new train line.

    There is the additional point that Leeds Central station has reached its capacity already and the only way to expand the number of platforms would be to build an annex on the old Elida Gibbs factory site feeding trans-Pennine routes only.

    There are problems with speed restrictions caused by ageing infrastructure, but again, this can be solved more effectively and cheaply by investing in upgrading what is currently there rather than trying to HS2 the entire line.

    Hopefully this is a boondoggle waved in the face of Northerners so that there will be less kvetching when HS2 is eventually cancelled. The entire case for HS2 is completely flawed and I suspect that the same applies to a new high speed line from Manchester to Leeds.

  • Patrick Crozier (Twickenham)

    Actually, there is something I particularly loathe about HS2 and that is the name. Originally, there was the Channel Tunnel Rail Link (CTRL). That was a dreadful waste of money as well but it meant an end to the embarrassment that was high speed from Paris to the Tunnel and low speed from the Tunnel to London. But about week before it opened people – I use the term loosely – stopped calling it the CTRL and started calling it HS1 – the implication being that there must be an HS2 on the way. Sneaky.

  • pete

    If London-centric politicians and other policy makers want the votes of northern people they cannot afford to let the north/south disparity in wealth and infrastructure grow too wide. London’s wealth depends to a significant extent on being the place where a lot of the world’s money is administered by a few thousand people. There’s no point being politically attached to a city if that wealth stays mainly inside the south east to be shared amongst a few million who have no more money making skills than people elsewhere in the country but are just fortunate to be in a region made rich by others. If that wealth isn’t shared about more there is little point in the UK existing as a coherent unit and it might as well split up.

  • Patrick – As I recall the UK signed up to an EU commitment to link all EU capitals by high speed rail under the TEN-T (Council Directive 96/48/EC of 23 July 1996)

    By renaming CTRL to HS1 the UK Government could claim to have delivered on that commitment. I suspect that HS2 will be cancelled as soon as it is politically expedient to do so. I also suspect that the lack of progress to date is evidence, not of the usual bureaucratic sloth, but the fact that it is due to be cancelled as soon as it can be.

  • I grew up in Edinburgh and from time to time revisit. Mutter ‘trams’ in Edinburgh and watch the people mock and the politicians blench – I have personally witnessed both phenomena.

    That was the green agenda: back when Labour started it, asking any questions meant you were a bad person. This is the ‘re-elect Boris’ agenda, possibly complemented by the ‘replace HS2 with something cheaper’ agenda. I suspect both are less harmful. And I predict people will not be shy of asking Boris questions, which always assists in minimising absurdities.

  • bob sykes

    Go over to the antiplanner blog and learn about railroads. They are great for moving bulky cargo. They are very bad at moving people. However, in a few high density cities, there is really no choice but railroads. In small- and medium-sized cities, buses are best.

  • Ryan Midgley

    One thing I was confused about was the promise of more money for infrastructure in Manchester. I travel from Bradford to Manchester every other day. Yes to better and more frequent trains on the Caldervale line…

    Once I get to Manchester there is the choice of trams (overpriced), local trains (not regular enough) or bus (extremely cheap compared to WYMetro)…

    Why does Manchester need more spending?

    If they are serious about improving the train links across the Pennines, it needs to run from Liverpool to Hull. This would mean missing out Bradford as, despite local MPs and Councillors bluster, it’s not possible to build a completely new line that would take in a new City centre station.

  • Roué le Jour

    Didn’t railways used to be a good way of moving soldiers about?

  • In small- and medium-sized cities, buses are best.

    Which is all very well, but bus shelters open to the wind and rain are a disincentive, especially in a wet and windy place like the UK (here in Scotland more so).

    If we’re going to say “Use buses within towns / cities” and rail for intercity connectivity then we need to find a way of investing in the infrastructure in such a way that the services are used (especially off-peak) without pricing people off the very services we want them to use.

    Too many non-city centre bus services are only available during peak hours making them impractical / unreliable for commuting. Having a service where the last bus is 6PM is worse than useless.

  • Gavin Longmuir

    19th Century railroads have a firm grip on the imaginations of the usual Leftie suspects — it is a little puzzling to see that the sainted Boris apparently has been seized by the same delusion. Whether Boris is spouting empty rhetoric or whether he actually believes his story about the rail link, it makes one wonder if too many hopes have been poured into the rather fragile vessel of his prime ministry.

    There are better alternatives. Instead of spending untold gold building a temporary parliament in London while refurbishing the Palace of Westminster, why not spend that gold building a brand new parliament in Huddersfield? Or York? Or Newcastle? And selling the PoW to, say, the Disney Company to create a tourist attraction? That may even cover the cost of building the new Parliament. And moving Parliament out of London would do a lot to stimulate new thinking in the UK.

    Or if that is a bridge too far, how about suspending most government regulations (including much of the less useful parts of Health & Welfare) north of the Watford Gap and eliminating business taxes for businesses in the “Free North” province, to attract international businesses and local start-ups in the way that seems to have made such a difference in Ireland?

  • Bruce Hoult

    My rule of thumb when arguing with people on the internet is that unless there are at *least* 1000 people an hour, every hour, wanting to travel (each direction) between a city pair, don’t even think about building a high speed railway line.

    Is there currently an A320 departing every ten minutes — or an A380 every half hour? No? Then forget about trains.

    Even the humble De Havilland “Dash 8” (Q300/Q400 these days) cruises at more than twice the speed of most fast trains (250 km/h) and 20% to 50% faster than the fastest currently in service. And it can travel 1500 to 2000 km from a 1200m to 1500m runway. With infinite routing flexibility as demand changes.

    The A320 travels 50% faster again, needs only 500m more runway, and is much cheaper per passenger mile.

  • Bloke on M4

    and in 10 years how viable is this going to be?

    It’s not true that every job can be done from home or from a remote office, but most of the people on trains aren’t going to work on lathes or to do heart surgery. They’re going to sit in an office, punch things into computers, answer things on phones etc. They can do it at home or from a pod in a workspace or if you can get half a dozen people near one location, you can put them in a Regus office.

    There’s a reason that season ticket sales are falling…

  • staghounds

    Every blonde joke would be improved by following the punch line with “And now I am the Prime Minster!”

  • CaptDMO

    From the US….
    Gosh, those railroads are pretty useful for oil energy distribution, where pipelines are deemed “unfair”.
    I can’t believe they aren’t used to ship….new cars.

  • Chester Draws

    I can’t believe they aren’t used to ship….new cars.

    They are in Europe. We saw loads of them coming out of the factories in Slovakia on rail carriages.

  • JohnK

    Anyone who has travelled by rail between Manchester and Yorkshire will be aware that there is a thing called the Pennines between them.

    The existing line has to run through tunnels and cuttings to get across the Pennines. The idea of a “high speed” line is an obvious fantasy unless BoJo has several billion pounds going spare.

    The existing lines no doubt need upgrading with station improvements and better rolling stock (no-one will regret the demise of the hated Pacers), but there is absolutely no need to spend billions to shave a few minutes off the Manchester to Leeds journey.

    Sadly, BoJo does like to announce infrastructure projects. I suppose that is something that makes politicians feel good. Luckily, most of them, such as the fatuous garden bridge, never get built.

    Just deliver Brexit by 31st October, BoJo, and we will build statues of gold in your honour across the country. That would be a lot cheaper than even one mile of high speed rail.

  • there is absolutely no need to spend billions to shave a few minutes off the Manchester to Leeds journey.

    From what I’ve experienced of the Leeds->Manchester express route, if you deal with the overcrowding at peak times by increasing the available capacity (more trains and/or more carriages), you’ve solved most of the actual problem of connectivity across the Pennines.

    Leeds to Manchester Victoria by express is 47 minutes (08:06 departure from Leeds gets into Manchester Victoria at 08:53). Anyone who thinks that is so unacceptable as to require tens of billions in publicly backed capital expenditure is an idiot.

  • Rob

    A 45 mile “high speed” railway. By the time it has left one city and reached top speed, it will enjoy this for about ten minutes before it will have to start slowing down.

    It is mind-bogglingly stupid.

  • bob sykes

    Oh, just stop it. Just as Trump is better than America deserves, Boris is better than Britain deserves.

  • Mr Ed

    the “Free North” province

    I recall going to Leeds by train in the early 2000s, and noting that a ticket check booth on leaving the platforms resembled more a frontier post where you’d show your passport, as if you were actually entering the Socialist Republic of Yorkshire, as some called it. I don’t think a ‘Free North’ would go down too well with the hordes of public sector types in the Northern cities, and the ‘Northern Powerhouse’ seems to be a fascist/Keynesian project with a policy of ‘picking winners’ by subsidising them.

    I think Boris is hoping to ‘prime the pump’ and that somehow getting more people from one crime-infested Northern city to another crime-infested Northern city faster will somehow improve the economy, rather than the quality of life for some commuters. Given that there is rather a lot of hill between the two cities, a train doesn’t seem the obvious way of getting between them, it’s too short to fly and there is already a motorway running between them. The obvious thing to do if you are going to ‘do something’ is make it easier to run more and better trains at peak times, or ban public sector workers from commuting trains.

  • James Hargrave

    Most of Leeds to Manchester was either 4 track or two separate lines of two tracks apiece thanks to widening by the LNWR well over a century ago. But the duplication was removed in the 1960s, a decade well know for exciting forward-thinking under the two Harolds.

  • Paul Marks

    In some ways Prime Minister Johnson is similar to President Trump – neither is going to stop the rise of domestic government spending, the difference being that President Trump can not control Congress, and Prime Minister Johnson actually wants more government spending on many things.

    However, in other ways they different – government railway (railroad) schemes have been discredited in the United States by the farce in California and other States. President Trump, indeed no Republican, would suggest more of such schemes.

    The evidence in Britain is much the same as it is in the United States – with the horrible experience of “Cross Rail” and other projects. However, the British leadership has historically been fairly indifferent to evidence – this is NOT a new thing under Prime Minister Johnson, the British government (under all political parties) makes its policies on the basis of what is fashionable – evidence is essentially not relevant in the British policy context.

    Of course American politicians and administrators can also ignore evidence (for example the evidence of the harmful effects of such things as occupation licensing, minimum wage laws, and rent control has not stopped such things SPREADING in the United States), but the disregarding of evidence of failure in a policy is more extreme in the United Kingdom.

    Lip service is paid to the concept of “evidence based policy” – but it has been for a very long time the case that policy is “fashion based” not evidence based. Essentially British politicians and administrators pick up various fashionable ideas (from university and so on) and then try and apply these ideas – regardless of evidence of failure.

    There is also, and this is a very serious point, no accountability for failure in the British system – dishonesty is punished, but incompetence is NOT. Whether it is the failed tactics of the First World War (a war that was won because the Germans were hopelessly out resourced – victory, at least victory of a sort, came despite tactical decisions, not because of them – even extreme incompetence, such as the British Generals at Suvla Bay in 1915, was not punished, and the only officers sent home in disgrace after the “Black Day” of July 1st 1916 were British officers who STOPPED attacking or LIMITED their attacks, because they realised that the situation was hopeless), or the terrible failure of Irish famine relief efforts of the 1840s.

    I would argue that the Irish famine relief efforts of the 1840s were a turning point in how British government operates – before then the British government was a largely aristocratic affair, corruption and vice were tolerated but failure was NOT tolerated. The famine relief efforts of the 1840s were run by men of total honesty and moral probity – they were the new Victorian professional administrators. Their policies failed horribly – but that was not considered important.

    The failure of the policy was ignored – what was judged was good intentions and going through the correct bureaucratic procedures (getting the paper work correct – even though the paper work and procedures had only just been invented) – so the failed British administrators in 1840s Ireland had honours heaped upon them. As the basis upon which they were judged no longer had anything to do with the success or failure of their policy.

    There already is a railway line (indeed more than one) between Leeds and Manchester – there is no particular reason why billions of Pounds should be spent on building another line that will be (in theory) a few minutes faster. But reason and evidence are not what any of this is about – it is (like most policy in the modern world) a matter of what is fashionable – and Keynesian “infrastructure” spending (Economist magazine stuff) is fashionable.

    It is all a far cry from 18th century Britain – where failure could get you executed. As Voltaire put it “The British hang an admiral from time to time – in order to encourage the others”. That was not the case after the high minded Victorians took over – and it is not the case now.

  • So, you’re not a fan of Boris then Paul?

  • Paul, while I agree that the modern smart set are biased towards fashion and away from evidence to a degree that would be comical if we did not have to cover the consequences, Niall pedant Kilmartin has to qualify

    corruption and vice were tolerated but failure was NOT tolerated

    as a full description of the pre-1840 state. After admitting, not wholly humorously, that he himself joined the army “as a sprig of the nobility, more for ornament than for use”, the Duke of Wellington wrote caustic descriptions of “the instruments (i.e. officers) sent to assist me” that are hilarious in retrospect precisely because they suggest that incompetence, even clinical insanity, was not seen by the Horse Guards (i.e. the UK-based military administrators) as an absolute bar to deployment. The Duke was never one to understate a grievance, and such hostile observers as French general Foy granted that the officering of the British army was in general good, and government is at least in principle doing its job when it comes to army and navy and so in principle capable of getting it right, but I think you can certainly find evidence of toleration of incompetence pre-1840, and evidence of competence afterwards (I would offer Basiljet’s Victorian London sewers, well-designed, well-built and still in use today).

    As ideology in modern times leads government into fresh areas where it should not be, exposing both its innate, not merely accidental, incompetence in those areas and its refusal of the lesson that government should return to being uninvolved, your overall point gets plenty of confirmation.

    I shan’t mind the new rail link if it is paid for by cancelling HS2 and/or a thousand PC quangos.

  • Matthew H Iskra

    As somebody who worked with the rails in the ‘ol US of A (Southern Pacific RR before their ruins were purchased), I concur with the summary: rail is very, very good at large heavy loads going long distances, repeatedly. Coal from mines to ports or power plants – perfect. Inter-model freight from port across a continent to another port – perfect. The rest? Trucks. Or ships. And containers. The TEU, the twenty-foot equivalent unit, rule the routes – much to the irritation of many Europeans whose metric pallets did not fit inside them.

    I am not so sure I agree with railroads as being good for commuters, but I live in California not London or Tokyo. My commutes in New York City or Washington DC were… less than ideal… and replaced quickly by car.

    Again, just my humble opinion.

  • Lee Moore

    Boris is going to lose seats in the South to the “Lib” Dems. Hence he needs to win seats elsewhere to balance those out, plus a few. Hence a quick visit to Wales, where there are quite a lot of seats vulnerable to a quite modest Tory rise, because Plaid lowers the tipping point. Much the same in t’North, minus Plaid. Hence “I love you Northerners, have a new railway.”

    The messaging is quite straightforward. We are not your snot nosed supercilious prim no-smoking Mrs May Tories any more. We are your old fashioned beer, smokes and Rugby League Tories. Tha’d rather have us than that whining London Commie.

    I really don’t think a lot of higher level econometrics has gone into this railway thing. It’s not a railway. It’s not even a proper bribe. It’s just Boris popping into the pub and buying a round for the lads.

  • Alasdair Robinson


  • Johnathan Pearcr

    In densely populated countries such as Singapore and Malta (I live in Malta for several weeks a year) there’s a case for investing in rapid transit transport to prevent the chaos of congestion and the pollution, etc. In Malta the consequences of rising population and car use are painfully evident. Singapore has gone for transit and heavy taxes on cars (there’s are loads of taxis). Maybe that jurisdiction finds it easier to come to such a solution than a more rumbustuous place like Malta, where local politics is deeply corrupt and where people are less keen on not having freedom to zip around. Under the Singaporean Lee dynasty it operates as a sort of benign dictatorship: but at least it sort of works.

    Malta used to have a train service from Victorian times but it was later abandoned. Ah, the Empire…..

    Two former colonies with radically different approaches to transport.