High speed rail and politics

It is often alleged that projects to develop high-speed rail systems are cases of “pork-barrel” politics. Lots of money, sexy projects, and politicians can’t resist “targeting” the spending to areas of benefit for their reelection campaigns.

With respect to the funds to assist high-speed rail that were in the “stimulus” package early in Obama’s presidency, I addressed this charge: as best I could tell from the information available, it was not pork, at least at the legislative stage.

On the other hand, I have heard allegations that certain lines and stations in Japan’s system are “porky” in that they were built in regions that supported key Liberal Democratic Party politicians, but had less obvious merit in terms of the coherence of the rail system itself. ((This does not mean that the shinkansen project as a whole has not been beneficial, only that certain parts of it may have had political, rather than technical, criteria behind their selection as priorities for spending.))

The distinction here is in the extent to which a public project is sited in a way consistent with programmatic criteria, on the one hand, or for political objectives, on the other. There is not always a bright line between programmatic decisions and pork-barrel decisions in individual cases. Sometimes the objectives are even aligned! Yet conceptually, the distinction is fairly clear. If the decision regarding where to place a line (for example) are based on objective criteria, where some panel of nonpartisan experts scores various competing proposals in order to determine which ones have the most merit, it’s not pork. If politicians determine where to put a line based on the value of that line for their party (or individual politicians’) constituencies, it’s pork. ((Note that this implies that the criteria to evaluate programmatic vs. porcine policy are thus largely ones of the process of decision-making, and certainly not normative judgments of whether one likes a given policy choice or not!))

So the politics of a proposed high-speed system in the UK are interesting. Normally, at least in US discussions of pork-barrel politics, we assume that projects get sited based on their providing benefits to the districts of politicians who are strategically positioned to influence the choice of routes and stations. We do not normally think that the electorally secure politicians whose districts the lines will traverse will oppose the project, while the project will mainly benefit locations not currently represented by politicians in the governing party or coalition.

Yet the latter pattern is what we observe in the UK currently, as The Independent reported on 26 June.

David Cameron is pinning his hopes of an outright victory at the next election by pushing ahead with a controversial high-speed rail project. Ministers are convinced the expensive rail link will give Tories the breakthrough in northern cities that they need to gain a majority.

The PM is risking the wrath of the Home Counties, where 14 Tory constituencies with rock-solid majorities are affected by the building of the £33bn line.

The news article goes on to note that the high-speed rail line may cost the Conservative party votes in these “rock-solid” districts, but the party will win them in the 2015 election, anyway. The project will be popular enough in northern areas where the party is targeting many seats for possible pick-up in the next election, so there will be a net gain for the party.

At least within the classic US frame, pork is about rewarding incumbents for their incumbency, and rewarding voters or interest groups for their support of the incumbent. But apparently that is not the case in the UK, for this project.

The difference lies in the highly party-centered nature of parliamentary politics, UK style. As opposed to the more decentralized parties and candidate-centered politics of the US presidential system, in the UK politically based decisions on where to build projects are driven by collective party needs, instead of by needs of individual politicians.

This is exactly the pattern we should expect in a political system like that of the UK. If there is pork–and generally it is assumed that there is some just about everywhere, but not a lot in the UK–it should be based on party criteria. If the article is accurate in its portrayal of the politics of high-speed rail, party pork is precisely what we are seeing. Top governing party leaders propose to spend on a project that may earn the party votes in areas it needs to win the next election, even if the project is opposed by some of the party’s own secure incumbent MPs.

7 thoughts on “High speed rail and politics

  1. The source of confusion is having a high speed train pass through your constituency, without stopping, simply creates noise and benefits no one there. Its the equivalent to having a flight path overhead. Train stations benefit the areas they are put in, but not the tracks themselves.

    I actually agree that high speed rail is a boondoggle. I am definitely in favor of shifting transportation from cars to trains, for all sorts of reasons. But at least in the US, cars are mainly used to get people around metropolitan areas (and then to a great extent to go to and from work). The biggest bang for the buck will come from investing in commuter rail.

    High speed rail is more about getting people between metropolitan areas, and the main alternative is planes (people drive between cities too, but apparently mainly so they can use their car in the destination metropolitan area, so high speed rail won’t change this if the transportation options within metropolitan areas remain the same). This is also important, just it should have a lower priority than changing transportation patterns within a metropolitan area.

    • Good point, Ed; I suppose if it were a US-style “bring goodies to my district” process, those Tory constituencies would be sure to have stations in their areas. In fact, it might be required to get approval to build the system, even though additional stops in less-dense areas would undermine many of the broader benefits of the program.

      I can’t agree completely with the other statements in Ed’s comments, however. High speed rail is an important replacement for short-haul air travel as well as highway congestion. I do agree, however, that we need more investment in commuter rail. To the extent that they are tradeoffs (which they may be, but not completely), I’d have a hard time choosing. If the commuter train we are talking about runs from Ramona to La Jolla, I am all for it. If the high speed rail line has a stop within half an hour of Ramona and will take me to San Francisco or Sacramento without having to endure Southwest Airlines, well, then I want my bullet train.

      At some point, the investment in corridors and station infrastructure for the two types of system is complementary. Of course, the two systems can’t share the exact same tracks, and costs of one may come at the expense of the other, due to budgetary constraints. But both (as well as metro rail) need to be part of an integrated transportation policy.

  2. In Canada, you now see both pork patterns, with a spectrum in between.

    In my experience, local papers in poorer areas and poorer provinces often judge candidates by how likely they are to [continue to] bring home the bacon. In many cases this is couched in euphemism, but in Newfoundland, they don’t even bother with the fig leaves.

    But you also now see a lot of wooing of non-traditional voter blocs using pork and other policy trinkets, particularly (and successfully) by the Tories, such as in electoral ridings around Toronto with 40%+ visible minorities, where the Conservatives did not win until this spring’s election.

    I have no idea why this would require a party-centred political system in particualr (of which Canada would be higher on the list than the UK). I think it only needs a centralized or closely-held pork-distributing mechanism, which party-centred systems would be more likely to supply.

    @Ed: I agree that trip lengths skew shorter (of course), and therefore emissions too, but surely it is clear that commuter rail is more effective over short-distance trips, air is best at longer distances, but the mid-range is ideally addressed by high-speed rail. And while North America has some work to do in adding commuter rail, it has barely begun to work on HSR. And in any case, reducing emissions in one area (commuter rail) should not preclude reducing emissions in aviation or via inter-city rail.

    • I noted some significant degree of pork promises in the recent Canadian campaign, as reported in the media. The attempts by Quebec City politicians to get federal funding for a hockey arena and various bridges and highway projects were prominently reported. This seemed to me rather unlike anything I am aware of in a typical UK campaign.

      Ross’s 4th paragraph gets it about right. I would add only that “a centralized or closely-held pork-distributing mechanism” should be very highly correlated with a “party-centered” political system. (The classic in political science on this point would be Gary Cox’s The Efficient Secret (Cambridge, 1987); also recommended would be some of the late Fiona McGillivray‘s work on trade policy in the US and UK.)

      As for why Canadian pork-distribution is (apparently) a bit more decentralized (and I do think only “a bit,” to use a very sophisticated political science measuring concept) than that of the UK, it likely is due to its “brokerage” politics. In turn that is connected to the diversity and decentralization of the broader country and its form of federalism. Whether this aspect of Canadian politics will remain with the demise of the Liberals as the great broker is questionable. The combination of a more conservative Conservative Party and (at least for now) a main challenger that is social-democratic might be expected to make Canadian politics less about brokering and thus even more party-centered. But for now that’s just a hypothesis, and it may turn out that Canada simply needs some degree of legislator-attributed pork in order to be governable. Interesting times in Canadian politics…

  3. The trade-off between high-speed rail and local stations is easily solved, when communities insist. See the Cologne–Frankfurt high-speed rail line. Each state had objections to the bypassing of the cities on the Rhine. Two smaller stations were built only 21 km apart: Montabaur and Limburg Süd. Passenger traffic at Limburg is rather low (2,500 people per day), although commuters to Frankfurt am Main value the fast connection. The two tracks become four at these stations: two have platforms, and two allow through trains to pass the station unobstructed at speeds of up to 300 km/h. There are about five ICE trains every two hours; four whistle through on the centre track, one turns onto the local platform sidings at Montabaur and Limburg Süd. Problem solved, although the two extra stops add 10 minutes to those trips. Interestingly, Limburg Süd is the only station in Germany that is exclusively served by ICE trains.

  4. The UK government has announced that it is going ahead with the HS2 project, with some changes to mollify opposition within the Conservative Party and some of its constituencies along the route.

    The changes mean that more than half the route will now be mitigated by tunnel or cutting and there will also be a reduction in the impacts on people and communities, ancient woodlands and important heritage sites.

    The extra tunnels will add around 500 million pounds to the price.

    Meanwhile, Nick Clegg engages in some homestyle over the benefits of the project to his Sheffield constituency.

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