Making tracks

To the dismay of people who see rail transport as the solution to traffic congestion, few European track companies are building new lines.

In the EU, the reason is often an outdated way of financing railway projects, which leads to costs in excess of benefits.

This is not to deny that routing is an obstacle in densely populated areas. Britain’s new high-speed track linking London and the Midlands, HS2, was announced six years ago yet its path has still not yet been finalised.

But projects are slow to advance even when no homes are displaced, no historic views ruined. One such project is in Gran Canaria, a Spanish island off the coast of West Africa. Another is in Savo, Eastern Finland.

TGC Ferrocarriles

For more than a decade Gran Canaria has been talking up a GC railway line, to link its wealthy south with the bustling north via the airport. The regional government has been allocating over a million euros a year for planning the 54 km of track and 11 stations.GCrail

But those plans have a price tag of € 1½ billion. That’s three times the price, per kilometre, of the high-speed railroad between Madrid and Albacete, completed in 2010. Gran Canaria’s population is only 840 thousand.

Roque Calero, professor of mechanical engineering at the University of Las Palmas, is scornful of the idea. He told Canarias Ahora in 2014 that the train would have no advantages over the island’s existing transport system, while consuming great amounts of money and energy.

Most people, locals and tourists alike, would still need buses or taxis to get to the stations, so they would probably drive the whole way. Competition from road transport would hold down fares, and the train would make large operating losses.

Why do municipalities waste money and goodwill on absurd infrastructure projects? Alongside fascination with symbols of modernism, it is because they expect the investment and operating costs to be financed from national taxes.

A down payment of a few million seems worthwhile if it might bring an injection of €1½ billion into the local economy.

This waste would be avoided if the planning work concentrated on the economics of the proposed line, rather than arranging tendering and architectural competitions.

Internalise costs

Railways will always have some externalities – costs and benefits affecting people who can do nothing about them – but the state financing model treats all impacts as external. We should try to internalise as many of them as possible.

If a railway line is genuinely useful, it will raise property prices, so let’s tax the real estate gain to pay for it. If this is not legally possible, let’s route the track to new residential and tourism areas whose developers are willing to chip in.

image22636
Highway GC-1. Substantial local investment in road infrastructure.

Even shops might pay something if the line really brings them more wealthy consumers. In fact, most shopping centres in Gran Canaria are already well served by good local roads.

If the possible beneficiaries of the GC railway project were asked to pay a share, its price would shrink greatly. It would soon turn into a tram line snaking through each town along the way, picking up passengers from many stops. Express trams could bypass minor towns to create a rapid service between major ones.

This is starting to sound like the present bus system, which does the job without the need for new track. The American Public Transportation Association calculates that, measured by capital cost per mile, a rapid bus service is always cheaper than a tram service, usually many times cheaper.

For the distances and patronage involved, and given its large existing investment in highways, Gran Canaria has picked the wrong horse.

Separate the flows

In the technocentric approach to railways, the project is first costed by architectural firms, construction companies and rolling stock manufacturers. Then politicians try to find that sum. A better paradigm would begin by setting the maximum cost.

We’d do this by identifying the stakeholders and calculating how much investment is worthwhile. When we know what makes economic sense, we ask for construction bids. This in itself will hold down the price, because the bidders will know what we can afford.

Transport can give a region a competitive advantage. Those who receive the benefit should help to pay for it. The key to making a project work is to identify the beneficiaries.

The railway of Gran Canaria would not be useful for freight. It is intended to serve workers and visitors. Unfortunately these groups have different needs.

IMG_20140209_180935
Taking the scenic route: Gran Canaria’s dramatic interior.

Locals going to work want to make the trip as quickly as possible. Tourists and resident pensioners have plenty of time but want an enjoyable journey. The solution is to separate the two flows.

Put the leisure travellers in a train and give them a scenic route between north and south. This train will free up and speed up the bus services, which already serve the locals well.

The line will not need vast soaring stations like modern-day cathedrals. Its rolling stock can be cheaper and simpler. It might be powered by batteries or FES, simplifying bridges and tunnels. The aim is to lower costs so that local financing will suffice.

This does not mean the regional government has no part to play. It has a vital role in finding and zoning a new route for the line. The existing route largely follows the motorway, passing through dull urban scenery. The scenic line can open entirely new vistas, and even development opportunities.

In return, the Cabildo of Gran Canaria can insist that the railway conforms with the island’s new drive towards the use of renewable energies. The old railway plan would have increased energy consumption by transport.

With light rolling stock, and given the climate of the region, Gran Canaria could even have a railway that is entirely solar-powered. This would be a world first and a genuine prestige project.

The development axiom of  the new millennium is not “speed at any cost”. It is “appropriate technology”.

Savon rata

Four thousand kilometres north of the Canary Islands is a railway project involving lower projected costs and greater distances. But this problem is more intractable.

Mikkeli is a town in Finland that has been trying to get a direct railway connection to the capital since the 19th century. Its population is 50,000 and it is on the route to larger towns like Kuopio.Savo_cutoff

The railway line to Mikkeli from Finland’s capital, Helsinki, starts off in the right direction. But then, after 100 km , it veers east and slightly south.

It does not resume its northerly direction until 60 km later.  Consequently, the rail track from Helsinki to Mikkeli is 280 km although the straight line only about 200 km long.

The train to Mikkeli takes almost three hours, and the bus is no faster. This is too slow for a day tripper or the most determined commuter.

Hence Mikkeli’s desire for a Savo Cut-off, to make the line straight. It has not been built because, like Gran Canaria, it has always envisaged the project as a gift from the state railway company, VR, to be paid by the rest of Finland.

The lake line

Mikkeli’s transport dream is not easily accomplished. It’s only a few months since the Transport minister announced the end of the passenger rail monopoly. Finland’s municipalities haven’t yet got used to the idea.

Heinolan_rautatiesilta_2015
Heinola railway bridge, built in 1932. Photo by Markus Säynevirta, 2015. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

Anyway, a saving of 50 minutes in travel time will not achieve miracles when the straight-line journey from the capital to Mikkeli will still take two hours.

Factories, offices, schools, shops and hospitals will all generate traffic, but people who live in isolated places tend to have needs that can be satisfied locally. It takes time for infrastructure to alter this regional balance of travel.

However, the first part of the Savo Cut-off already exists: the track from Lahti to Heinola, a town of 20,000. Although the line would need to be rebuilt for passenger traffic, the cost would be fairly low.

The only question is whether Heinola can find investors, developers and others who would benefit from a passenger line and be willing to pay part of its cost.

 

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