Case Study: Adam Smith Institute
As the previous post in this series showed, the so-called Taxpayers’ Alliance have set the tone for the kind of attack copy that can now be expected from the New Conservatives. This posed a problem for other players, the older-established “think tanks”, who were more used to putting arguments without resorting to falsehood and misinformation.
Meanwhile, an issue to unite all those players in forthright condemnation of Government had arrived in the shape of the HS2 project. Nothing could be more antithetic to the principles of the New Conservatism: HS2 is a Government backed public project on a significant scale. Worse, it is a solution to an easily defined problem: the railway’s lack of spare capacity to move not only passengers, but also freight traffic.
All of the New Conservative players have passed severely adverse comment on HS2. The TPA have, as might be expected, led the field. The Adam Smith Institute clearly felt the need to stake out its own position, and so decided to commission its own report on the project, with an appropriately hard-hitting title.
Thus was born “High Speed Fail”, authored by one Nigel Hawkins, who the ASI describe as “an investment analyst, who specializes primarily in the electricity, gas, water and telecoms sectors; he also covers several other sectors”. It may be inferred from this description that Hawkins does not specialise in the Rail transport sector.
This is important: it is one thing to perform a broad economic analysis, but quite another to be able to understand and discuss the specialist technology and terminology of an industry sector in which one has little knowledge. The ASI could, and indeed should, have had Hawkins’ report read for technical competence. They did not.
The result of the ASI’s lack of due diligence was that much of the energy expended in this particular attempt to “keep up with the TPA” was wasted. Hawkins made a series of elementary howlers, partly by trying to use rail industry jargon about which he clearly knew very little. But the comedy value of his report was most worthwhile.
The first wayward note, though, is a simple geographical one: Spain, Hawkins asserts, has “a generally flat countryside”, which will come as a surprise to engineers building high speed rail links there, with all the tunnels due to the not all all flat countryside.
Things went rapidly downhill: readers were told of “British Rail’s failed Advanced Passenger Train (APR) project”. That would be APT. But it is in his assessment of train fleet costs that Hawkins overreaches himself, telling of “the specialised rolling stock, which is expected to consist of 16 high-speed sets that will operate exclusively over the wider-gauge high-speed track and 45 sets that are compatible with the existing track. All these sets will have a 360 km/h maximum speed”.
There will not be any “wider-gauge high-speed track”. Hawkins has misunderstood the use of the term “gauge”. In the case of HS2, this does not refer to the track gauge, which will be the same as on the rest of the national network, but the structure gauge. One clue to this is that maximum speed of 360 km/h: trains that work over different track gauges, as happens in Spain, are allowed a maximum speed of just 250 km/h.
Track gauge does seem to be a problem for Hawkins: after mangling the Spanish AVE from Alta Velocidad Española (correct) into Alte Velocidad Español (incorrect), he tells readers that the AVE from Madrid to Barcelona has “a 5 foot 6 gauge”. It does not: Spain’s high speed lines use the same gauge as that used in the UK. He confuses this with Iberian Broad Gauge, which the established, older networks in Spain and Portugal use.
This inaccuracy is carried on into another mangling of terminology, with the French TGV being translated as Très Grand Vitesse, when it stands for Train à Grand Vitesse - which runs on the Ligne à Grand Vitesse. This may not concern the hard-pressed journalists who have to edit this kind of report down into a feature for their papers, but for rail industry insiders and watchers it hastens the document’s journey to the waste bin.
And that brings us to both the success and failure of this exercise: for anyone influencing policy, anyone in Government, and anyone involved in actually getting HS2 to the stage where construction can start, this report will not have been taken seriously.
However, for newspapers, where specialist journalists have long ago been sacrificed in the name of cost-cutting, and the only transport knowledge is someone who road tests the latest cars, the central message of the report - that the ASI is a serious organisation, and it says HS2 would not benefit the economy - is allowed through.
The ASI, like the TPA, understands the pressure under which the press has to operate today. Armed with this knowledge, it can pass off its ineptly researched rubbish as serious economic thought. Thus the New Conservatism projects its message.