Another Climate Friendly High Speed Rail Project Bites the Dust

Guest essay by Eric Worrall

Even the 30,000 flights per year which connect the 190 mile Singapore to Kuala Lumpur route were not enough to sell a high speed rail project to investors. But Professor Bent Flyvbjerg of Oxford University thinks Elon Musk’s Hyperloop might be the answer.

Is high-speed rail travel on a track to nowhere?

By Tim McDonald
BBC News, Singapore

It was supposed to be a slick, gleaming piece of transport infrastructure that could shuttle passengers from Singapore to Malaysia’s capital Kuala Lumpur in 90 minutes. 

But at the start of this year, the $17bn (£12.5bn) 350km (217 mile) high-speed rail link between the two cities was cancelled for good. 

Malaysia’s former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad first hit pause on the proposed line after he took power in 2018, as part of a financial belt-tightening push.

A subsequent coronavirus-fuelled budget crunch then made the project all but irredeemable, with both nations using a joint statement last month to blame “the impact of Covid-19 pandemic on the Malaysian economy”.

Malaysia had proposed cost-cutting changes, but Singapore wouldn’t agree, and the deal fell through.

The UK’s HS2 scheme – which is being built from London to Birmingham, and then on to Leeds and Manchester – was originally expected to cost £56bn, but that figure has since almost doubled to £98bn.

The impact of the pandemic on both the UK government’s coffers and rail passenger numbers has led to opponents of the scheme saying it is no longer justifiable.

Prof Flyvbjerg says another problem with large-scale high-speed rail projects is that they take so long to complete that better alternatives might be available before completion.

For example, the first stage of the HS2 isn’t due to open until 2028 at the earliest. 

He’s hopeful that Elon Musk’s Hyperloop – whereby pods containing passengers travel at great speed through vacuum tubes – might turn out to be a better, more cost-effective alternative to high-speed rail.

Read more: https://www.bbc.com/news/business-55624103

To be fair, BBC contributor Tim McDonald mentions elsewhere in his article that there are 21 profitable high speed rail routes in China (15 main routes + 6 lesser routes). Japan also has profitable routes. But pretty much nobody else seems able to repeat Japan and China’s trick of building sometimes profitable high speed rail tracks.

As for Hyperloop, I’m happy to give Musk a Covid pass for not hitting his 2020 / 10km prediction, but a few hundred metres of Hyperloop in the Nevada desert is not exactly proof the technology is ready to solve the world’s transportation problems.

However Hyperloop fares, I think we can safely conclude that the Green New Deal vision of high speed rail everywhere is a non-starter.

I guess climate champion John Kerry will have to keep his private jet after all.

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February 4, 2021 at 08:45PM

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