Tuesday, 29 April 2014

HS2: a wasted opportunity to transform British transport

With the HS2 project passing its second reading in the House of Commons on 28 April, Britain is one step closer to entering the age of high speed rail at last. Despite passing with a landslide of 451 votes to 50, HS2 remains controversial. While Transport Secretary Patrick McLoughlin insists the improvement in rail services would reduce the north-south divide, HS2’s opponents argue that at £50 billion it is too expensive and that the money could be better spent elsewhere. But the chief objection to HS2 ought to be that it is not ambitious enough.

HS2 will connect London with Birmingham where the line will fork, with a western line continuing to Manchester and Glasgow, and an eastern line going on to Leeds and Edinburgh. Once completed it would reduce journey times from London to Leeds from 132 minutes to 82 minutes, London to Manchester from 128 to 68 minutes and London to Birmingham from 84 to 49 minutes. The first phase from London to Birmingham is due to open in 2026, and HS2 is projected to reach Leeds and Manchester by 2033.

26 Conservative MPs voted against HS2 and others abstained, citing the damage to ancient woodlands and the potentially negative effect on house prices. The fact that the route of HS2 will go through their constituencies has of course got nothing to do with it. It is classic nimbyism, clothing a self-interested agenda in pseudo-environmentalist language. 

Others claim the money would be better spent on improving the existing railways. This has effectively been the British rail policy for decades, and the result has been painfully slow progress. In 1938 the Mallard managed 126 mph and took six and a half hours from London to Edinburgh. Today the journey still takes five hours, and our trains manage 140 mph. Without new track, faster trains will still get stuck behind the slow trains, and the poor state of the track prevents new trains from reaching their top speed. 

Meanwhile a report by the Institute of Economic Affairs has deemed it “highly unlikely” that HS2 would bring about a significant economic boost to the north. The IEA reached this conclusion on the basis that HS1, the high speed Eurostar link from London to Paris and Brussels, had not brought significant growth or jobs to East Kent. This comparison is unfair, given that the objective of HS1 was to improve rail travel to the continent. 

The real tragedy of the debate on HS2 is the inability to recognise a golden opportunity to revolutionise British transport. Why not break from the existing system of expensive trains primarily serving business, and introduce a high speed network that is affordable for all? This would enable long-distance commuting, allowing job-seekers in the north to work in London, and potentially ease the strain on rent and housing in the south east. An HS2 founded on this basis could also reduce the appeal of internal flights and reduce congestion on the motorways, with train services at last being able to compete financially with the car.

Bringing down rail prices can only be achieved by increasing the capacity of trains and ensuring they are used. Why not have double-decker trains like the TGV in France, so that each train can carry far more passengers? Why not plan an HS3 and HS4 to improve the appalling services between cities such as Liverpool, Sheffield and Hull? Why not follow Germany in building the track beside motorways, thereby addressing some of the environmental concerns?

As a late-comer to the era of high speed rail, Britain has the opportunity to learn from other countries and develop a new rail transport model. The failure to grasp this chance should be the main criticism of the HS2 project.

Saturday, 22 March 2014

Five Myths About Slums

The tourist tours around Dharavi slum in Mumbai have sparked much debate - is it an important eye-opener or just poverty porn? I decided to find out for myself, and found it to be a worthwhile experience which shattered some of the preconceptions about slums I had picked up at school and in books.

1. Slums are where the poorest people live

The word 'slum' has nothing but bad connotations in the west. We immediately think of self built shacks, open sewers, disease and deprivation. A slum is commonly thought of as being defined by its poverty. But in India, the definition of a slum is simply a settlement built on land owned by the government. This means it is likely to be informal or even illegal, but it is not home to the poorest. As our guide explained, the poorest people in Mumbai can't afford to live in a slum.

2. A slum is on the periphery of a major city

This is what I was taught in geography lessons. But given the real definition of a slum, this doesn't have to be the case. Dharavi is relatively central in Mumbai, making it quite a desirable location. With two motorways and several trainlines nearby it is a convenient location for commuting. In fact, some people choose to move from their homes in the suburbs to Dharavi in order to reduce the length of their journey to work.

3. A slum is a self built makeshift settlement

Slums come in many forms across the world and even within India or just Mumbai. A slum may be a small collection of shacks. Dharavi is home to one million people, and most of them rent their accommodation. Houses are bought and sold and cost the equivalent of several thousand pounds. The standard varies, but many have two stories, and looking out across the slum you can see satellite dishes everywhere. Many people have smartphones and wireless broadband is the norm.

4. A slum is unproductive and most people don't work

Slum dwellers are generally thought of as being self-sufficient at best, and probably struggling to feed themselves. Dharavi's economy on the other hand is valued at 700 million dollars, and produces a range of goods to be sold domestically and even internationally. The biggest industry in the slum is leather, despite the traditional Hindu customs. Recycling is a major field of activity, employing hundreds of workers to sort, clean and sell plastic or metal containers. And fashion conscious westerners wearing Ralph Loren clothes may be surprised to learn that their garments may be produced in a slum. Thanks to its location Dharavi has a thriving economy and there is little unemployment.

5. A slum is a dangerous place

The stereotype of a slum as being a place of rampant criminality is widespread. The picture of Rio 's favelas shown in the film 'City of God' is just one example. However, our guide told us that Dharavi is safer than most other parts of Mumbai, and that the risk of pickpockets or mugging was far higher in the touristy area of Colaba. Dharavi didn't escape the ethnic violence that swept across India in the 1990s but today the Hindu, Muslim and Sikh communities live peacefully together.

Of course, Dharavi is just one slum, and our guide emphasised that it is not the norm. Dharavi appears suspiciously often in books, articles and TED talks covering slums. However, at the very least, Dharavi shows that some of our fundamental ideas about slums are flawed.