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Bullet Trains and Flights of Fancy or How to Raise Scotland's Game on Transport by Dr. Iain Docherty, Senior Lecturer, University of Glasgow Business School - Meeting of 14th February 2006.

Dr. Iain Docherty, Senior Lecturer, University of Glasgow Business School addressing the meeting.d

Dr. Iain Docherty, Senior Lecturer, University of Glasgow Business School addressing the meeting.

© John G. Fender 2011

Iain Docherty began his presentation by outlining the interest in High Speed Rail (HSR) and looking at developments in France. It is now 35 years since SNCF was given the go ahead to build the first TGV line and this was completed in 1978.

It is also 28 years since the Florence - Rome Directissima was opened. This means that the UK is 35 years behind the European leader in terms of delivering domestic HSR. Although the figures are contested, it is fair to say that the UK is the most car dependent country in Europe and suffers from chronic traffic congestion at various points around the national road network and particularly in urban areas.

So why HSR? HSR is not usually about speed, but rather capacity. It is capacity that drives new lines and high speed is secondary because it is more effective to maximise the capacity of the infrastructure. Dr. Docherty pointed out that HSR is also about politics. For example, French HSR is at least as much about investing in national technology companies as it is about providing domestic transport. Many European HSR networks are more about stimulating regional economic growth than about transport, but many arise from political desires. So why is HSR so desirable? There are a number reasons, the main ones often being capacity and the politics of regional development.

It should be remembered that building high Speed railways is easier on the continent due to land values being lower and that there are national interests at stake in many of the companies that supply the technology. It is often the case that the "classic" rail network is staved of funds to pay for High Speed Rail networks, but the economic benefits of high speed rail may not be as great as many are led to believe. For example, the two French cities with the greatest economic growth, Toulouse and Strasbourg are furthest from the TGV network.

High Speed Rail should not necessarily be considered a "flight of fancy" but as a reasonable alternative. Aviation has approximately 80% of the market share for travel between Scotland and London and this is felt by some to be unsustainable. A key point is that building runways is not paid for by the public purse, but railways are. Contrast this with the example of Paris to Marseilles, where it is rail that has 80% of the market instead of aviation.

Looking at the various rail systems, Iain Docherty pointed out that building, for example, a Maglev system, brings a particular set of engineering problems and issued of land acquisition. It would be very difficult to build a maglev system running into a city centre and such a system is very difficult to integrate into existing transport infrastructure.

Conventional HSR has been operating in Europe and in Japan for decades and it is considered to be more cost effective to upgrade existing railways to high speed status, as the technology is available "off the shelf", is tried and tested and is still being improved. For example TGV's can now travel at speeds in excess of 300 km/h. Conventional HSR is that it can be easily constructed in stages and each stage can be brought into use on completion. It can also be integrated into the existing rail network relatively easily.

The UK needs to close the GDP gap key competitors and needs to "work smarter" instead of "working harder" which seems to be the UK way. There is a need to focus efforts around the city regions enabling the knowledge economy to develop. On a global scale, these regions, London, the North West and central Scotland, need to be linked to provide a larger unit and HSR is one way that this could be achieved by tying the centres together with fast and reliable transport.

The Scottish Region would like to thank Dr. Iain Docherty for hosting the meeting at the University of Glasgow Business School.

Report by John Fender.


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