National bogeyman Dr Richard Beeching is not an obvious figure to turn to for inspiration, amid the white heat of the HS2 debate. But, writes Cameron Roberts, when it comes to the claims and counter-claims over cost-benefit estimates, his legacy warns us not to focus too narrowly on the economics.
Complaining, as Colin Cram did recently in the Guardian, that railway pioneer Isambard Kingdom Brunel couldn’t function in today’s Britain is like bemoaning that today’s structural engineers don’t enjoy the same freedom as the builders of the pyramids.
There are simply too many differences between the late nineteenth century and the present day for the comparison to be valid.
Yes, Brunel faced plenty of resistance to his plans; mainly from wealthy estate owners who did not want to see their land bisected. But, importantly, he had a whole suite of advantages that current railway engineers would never dream of having.
For example, there hasn’t been a massive speculative boom in railway share trading to fund big infrastructure investment, such as Brunel enjoyed, for over a century. He was also on the indisputable cutting edge of technology, while today’s railways have to compete with road vehicles, which are more flexible, and planes, which are faster.
And let’s not forget the gangs of navvies willing who he employed to work in harsh conditions to build the railway for miniscule pay.
So building like Brunel did is out of the question. But how then should we go about building the infrastructure of the twenty-first century?
Dr Richard Beeching is probably the best historical representative for the cost-benefit analysis philosophy that is playing such a large role in the current debates around HS2.
In 1963 he released his famous report, The Reshaping of British Rail, which advocated making the railways turn a profit by making massive cuts.
The report was based on a strict mathematical assessment of the costs and revenues of the railway system, and Beeching argued that trains were simply not the most economical way to provide transportation to huge swathes of rural Britain.
As has been well documented, the report’s recommendations were largely implemented. By the end of the decade, British Rail had lost over half of its stations and nearly a third of its lines.
The long-term effects of these swingeing cuts demonstrate the danger of making infrastructural decisions based purely on a narrow cost-benefit analysis.
Beeching was never asked to consider the effects of his cuts on road congestion, and he certainly could not have been expected to account for the massive environmental costs of increased dependence on road transport.
And yet the cuts which were demanded by his narrow cost-benefit analysis almost certainly contributed to those problems.
Beeching serves as a cautionary tale about the hazards of such a narrow approach: the world changes, and the costs and benefits of any given technological or policy decision can be expected to change with it.
While disagreeing with Colin Cram’s evocation of Brunel to support his argument, I do agree with his general thrust that we cannot let a Beeching-style myopia get in the way of ambitious investment in infrastructure.
And perhaps we can we find a happy medium between the extremes of the capacity building of Brunel and the axe-wielding of Beeching?
We need to think about whether new infrastructure is really worth the environmental, social, and financial costs, but we need to do so in a manner that looks beyond the numbers and considers the impact of future changes.
We should ask some questions about what the real challenges and opportunities of the twentieth century are likely to be, and how these will impact a high-speed rail network.
What, for example, is the significance of new innovations like self-driving cars? What of the slight decline in car use we are currently witnessing?
And what new technological developments can we expect that might render HS2 obsolete? For that matter, what new developments might make it more environmentally friendly?
We need to consider all the relevant social, technological, economic, political, environmental, and cultural variables in order to get a clear picture of what sort of transport system Britain is likely to need in the middle and latter parts of the twenty-first century.