As the high speed rail debate heats up, there is a lot of interest in what regional impact other countries have experienced with high speed rail (HSR).
As an example, we have recently heard that some high speed services in France may be withdrawn because of limited demand. The line from Amsterdam to Brussels is also under threat after only one year open. In the USA, there are numerous critics of the expansion of HSR being proposed by President Obama.
On the other hand, we hear some positive stories, too. Only a few days ago, a Transport Department minister quoted Lille in northern France. Lille is said to have gained from its position astride the route from London to Paris and Brussels, although it is not clear that other towns in the Nord-Pas de Calais region have benefited similarly. Publicity for a research report on the Cologne-Frankfurt line announced that ‘new research shows that high-speed rail does deliver economic growth’ and so ‘supports arguments for high speed rail networks which are already being planned in the UK’. On closer inspection, though, the research seems to show that benefits were restricted to towns with stations. This could be problematic as the UK HS2 proposals envisage very few stations, which could limit regional benefits.
Given these sometimes contradictory stories, what broader conclusions can we draw from overseas experience?
Here it is relevant to consider the views of two prestigious international organisations. The European Union, in its recent publication High Speed Europe, makes many assertions about the benefits of extending the HSR network in the EU, but none of these are about cutting regional disparities. The OECD, representing a large group of advanced industrial countries, is sceptical about the impact of transport infrastructure on regional disparities.
Its report, The Impact of transport infrastructure investment on regional development, notes:
“a lack of information which could provide a firm, quantitative basis for claims about the impact of transport infrastructure investment on regional economies and regeneration”
and cautions that “improved infrastructure can not only attract investment into an area, it can also draw it out”.
So is it the case that, while individual cities may benefit, wider claims about the positive impact of high speed rail on regional disparities are more difficult to sustain?