Trains, Planes and Dead Time

Note: This post is over 4 years old. It was first published in November 2010

The UK government is currently working on plans for a new rail line, called HS2, intended to connect London to Birmingham, Edinburgh, Liverpool and Glasgow. The overall cost for the lines and rolling stock is estimated at a staggering £20.5 bn – £34 bn. This is a huge sum considering the UK’s current financial situation.

It’s fascinating to look at the case that’s been put forward by Network Rail (see here) – you’d expect a carefully researched, well argued case containing a clear investigation of many possible alternatives. In fact, it reads far more like a sales pitch by the people who want to build the line. This is rather disturbing.

Here’s a interesting quote from page 5 (emphasis added):

New routes would need to connect the major economic centres and provide journey times to rival air travel to make it viable.


So, they’re arguing that in order to compete with air travel, train travel has to compete on speed, and that this is the main defining factor. Let’s be honest, a train is never going to beat a passenger jet in a race. Speed is only one factor. This reminds me of Rory Sutherland’s TED presentation, in which he talks about the vast cost of improving the rail line that linked London to the Channel Tunnel:

“The question was given to a bunch of engineers, about 15 years ago, ‘How do we make the journey to Paris better?’ and they came up with a very good engineering solution, which was to spend six billion pounds building completely new tracks from London to the coast, and knocking about 40 minutes off a three-and-half-hour journey time. Now, call me Mister Picky. I’m just an ad man… But it strikes me as a slightly unimaginative way of improving a train journey merely to make it shorter. Now what is the hedonic opportunity cost on spending six billion pounds on those railway tracks? Here is my naive advertising man’s suggestion. What you should in fact do is employ all of the world’s top male and female supermodels, pay them to walk the length of the train, handing out free Chateau Petrus for the entire duration of the journey. […] Now, you’ll still have about three billion pounds left in change, and people will ask for the trains to be slowed down!” – Rory Sutherland


Of course Rory’s joking, but his main point is dead on. We’d all love to rebuild the UK’s aging rail network, but if we can’t afford it right now, what else can we do to? We need to think more obliquely about ways to understand and solve the problem. Here’s another quote from the Network Rail report (page 6):

“The analysis in the new lines study uses the latest government guidelines and modelling for calculating the benefits. It includes things like the value of the time saved by users […]”


It fascinates me that they think it’s OK to assign a monetary value to time saved by travellers – but then provide no explanation, reference or link to their model. Besides, instead of trying to reduce total travel time, we should start thinking about how to reduce dead time (i.e. time when you are unable to do anything useful). Free, reliable, high-speed Wi-Fi, power points and table space would help a lot in this respect. And in terms of over-crowding – this is usually only a problem during peak hours. Why not incentivize travellers to use unpopular travel times? Airlines have aggressively used variable ticket prices to their advantage for years – why haven’t UK train companies?

To top it off, let’s consider what kind of time-saving HS2 will give a journey from London to Birmingham. It currently takes 1 hour, 42 minutes to get to Birmingham. After HS2 is built, travellers will save just 35 minutes. Is it really worth it?

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