1 Feb 2010
One of the claimed advantages of rail over air travel is that it runs city-centre to city-centre. But most journeys are not of this nature. Most people live around cities rather than in the middle of them and at least one end of their journey involves a connecting stage of some sort. It is most likely to be made in a car. Having got into the car, the temptation is to make the whole journey in the car. It is not just a matter of time but of convenience. High speed rail does little to make the car less appealing in comparison, especially when it is expensive unless bookings are made well in advance.
What would tip the balance in favour of the train? One factor is penetrability. The convenience of the local transport network is critical. It means frequent services that go as close as possible to where people want to travel to where they live and work. Buses are obviously an essential part of the mix, but it must also include trams, light rail (above) and local train services. It may also mean that long distance trains should stop more frequently, with well-located stations on the edge of conurbations. It is to satisfy this kind of developing need that the Great Western main line has evolved into a sort of long-distance metro service, where little sustained high-speed running is called for.
If this is the future, then high speed rail begins to look like an irrelevancy that will suck resources away from where they are most needed.