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New rail lines
High speed trains and high priced fares
Proposals for a second high speed line (HS2) between London, Manchester and Leeds were announced earlier this year by the outgoing Labour government, at a cost of £30 billion. Construction of the first phase from London to Birmingham is due to start in 2017.
The new line would be routed through the Chiltern hills, an area of outstanding beauty north of London, by tunnel and using disused lines. Journey times to Birmingham would be cut to 46 minutes.
Britain lags well behind other European countries such as France, Spain and Germany that already have high speed line networks. In Spain for instance passengers travel the 307 kilometres from Madrid to Zaragoza (the equivalent distance of London to Liverpool) in 74 minutes. In France some airline companies no longer offer flights from Paris to Lyon because journey times are quicker by train.
High speed trains are also less polluting than airplanes, a high speed train travelling from London to Paris is ten times more fuel efficient than a passenger aircraft making the same journey.
However, while some of the advantages of high speed trains are clear, not everybody will benefit because of the high cost of fares. For instance, domestic passengers on the new high speed service from St Pancras to Kent, using the channel tunnel high speed rail link (HS1), have to pay on average 35% more than on the existing conventional services.
Only 15% of commuters that travel from the north Kent and Thanet area have switched to the new faster service. Others are deterred by the extra cost, but also the fact that many don't want to enter London via St Pancras. South East Trains, which runs the franchise, has already cut the number of coaches on each train by half due to the lack of demand for their high speed service.
Train companies that use the high speed line pay access charges and this cost is passed onto passengers - even though the cost of building the line in the form of £5.2 billion worth of debt has been taken on by the government, and the train operating company that presently runs the franchise has already received £80 million in government subsidies.
As with much of the rest of the public transport system, private companies receive large government subsidies to run transport while extracting huge profits. But when these companies fail, their liabilities are underwritten with public money - as in the case of Railtrack, Metronet (on the London underground) and the East Coast main line.
The cost of train travel in Britain is already the highest in Europe - on average 50% higher - despite the huge subsidies that are given to the train companies. The privatised railway system costs three times more than it did under publicly-owned British Rail.
The building of a high speed rail system would be of enormous social benefit but only if it is properly planned with consideration given to the environment, and is fully integrated and affordable. To achieve this, the whole public transport system should be renationalised but this time under democratic workers' control and management and run in the interests of the whole of society.
In The Socialist 16 June 2010:
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