February 28, 2009
High-speed trains
19th January 2009

Andrew Adonis's argument (January) for a high-speed line from London to Birmingham and Manchester does not justify its £20bn cost.

Trains to Manchester already take under two hours. Once trains get this fast, demand for greater speed is relatively small, but it costs a lot, as more wind resistance requires much more powerful engines. Adonis notes that Japan is building high-speed trains to increase capacity. But trains with 19,200 seats leave Tokyo full every hour for Nagoya; trains with just 2,640 seats leave London for Birmingham and Manchester. The Japanese would laugh at building a new line for this.

The real answer is to build longer, Japanese-length trains. These can be accommodated by extending the Euston platforms. The area around Manchester Piccadilly would fit longer trains too. A train can simply overhang intermediate stations if necessary; this happens at Clapham Junction every day. Longer trains could be introduced relatively quickly, dramatically increasing capacity and costing a tenth what a new line would.

Rather than long distance trains, Adonis should focus on commuter routes. Trains from London to Wimbledon—Britain's most important line by passenger numbers—are slower than in 1951. Commuters value speed as well: houses near fast lines command higher prices, and faster commuter trains increase agglomeration economies. Adonis invokes the Victorians, but they were unsentimental, and only built infrastructure they thought would be used. Today all 20 of the top railway routes are London commuter routes. A rail minister who takes the Victorians seriously would concentrate on these.

Tim Leunig
London School of Economics

Andrew Adonis replies:

Investing in faster and longer commuter trains around London is much needed and is happening (with the £5bn Thameslink upgrade and the new £16bn Crossrail line). But Tim Leunig's view that all of Britain's long-term intercity rail requirements can be met by incremental improvements is dubious.

We are already lengthening Pendolino trains from nine to 11 carriages. However, the complete rebuilding of Euston needed to take double-length trains would be highly expensive and disruptive. The few billion pounds this would cost—plus the disruption saved—would alone go some way towards building a new high-speed line.

Comparing London to Wimbledon with London to Manchester is a classic apples and pears job. The west coast main line aggregates express, semi-fast, commuter and heavy goods traffic. Nor would a high-speed line simply serve London, Birmingham and Manchester: it would cut journey times to other northern cities and Scotland, and enable better services on the existing line, serving Milton Keynes and the south Midlands: one of our main growth areas.

Continental Europe has not adopted an exclusively patch and mend approach to railways. And yet even there its electorates, environmentalists, transport planners and a number of economists are clamouring for more, not fewer, high-speed lines.

Indian mythmaking
19th January 2009

James Crabtree (January) is right that the media impact of the Mumbai attacks was greater because the assaults hit well-off Indians. But it was also because they hit western tourists and, as Crabtree recognises, because they had a cinematic quality (although his comparison to Bollywood is egregious). The story is not all about the anger and fear of India's "tiny peak of privilege." In India itself, the attacks on the train station and hospitals were given just as much importance as those on hotels; it was never forgotten that hotel staff were victims too. And Crabtree underestimates the power of the idea of India. Nobody said that Kansan farmers and Kentucky backwoodsmen did not care about 9/11 because they weren't wealthy bankers.

Yes, elites can be politically apathetic, as much in India as the west, and now maybe some will be galvanised into improving the efficiency of the state that failed 188 fellow Indians. But to think that the attacks could sow the seeds of "national responsibility" amongst India's rich is otiose. Civil society, driven by the middle classes, flourishes and grows apace in the midst of all the challenges. This is because plenty of better-off Indians participate in the same idea of India that the politically active poor have made their own. India needs fixing, true; but it did not need terrorists to prompt it. And it certainly does not need smug historical pseudo-parallels from western journalists either.

Chakravarthi Ram-Prasad
Lancaster University

Literary prizes
15th January 2009

I agreed with much of Tom Chatfield's essay on prizes (January) but there is more. As someone who has judged a number of literary prizes, and as a novelist who has not yet made it onto the longlist of any significant awards, I've noticed a number of issues of which the reading public remain unaware.

Firstly, on every panel there is always at least one judge who has not read all the books. By this I mean they haven't even read the first 50 pages of many submissions.

Secondly, many very fine novels are not submitted for the major prizes. The Booker allows only one submission per publishing house, and unless a book has universal in-house support and a full hand of five-star reviews, forget it. And many good or great books are controversial, or take a chapter or two to really reveal themselves as outstanding. As a judge I've often called in overlooked books which have then made the shortlist, but I'm afraid I have been a lone voice.

For a novelist, not winning makes it increasingly hard to keep up the confidence to write. True, a prize doesn't necessarily equal a better book, but without any recognition it becomes harder to believe this, let alone keep a publisher. And I would question whether we have seen better work published than in pre-prize days, when virtue was its own reward.

Amanda Craig
London NW1

McCartney myopia
31st December 2008

Jonathan Power's interview with Paul McCartney and Robert Skidelsky's essay on the current economic crisis go surprisingly well together (January). McCartney espouses all the theories that got us into this mess—faith in the goodness of people; self- contradiction; and the familiar inability to see one's own responsibility and to shift blame. Quite how a man who is worth £500m can say, "I am not one of the richest men in the world. There are many, many people above me," is beyond me. Skidelsky points out that economists got it wrong because they believed in the inherent ability of markets to be self-correcting and took no account of the lack of moral compass in those who run the markets. McCartney amply illustrates the moral myopia of 1960's "idealism" which is now wreaking havoc in societies that have exchanged their soul for Mammon.

David A Robertson
Editor, 'The Monthly Record'

Bubble psychology
15th January 2009

John Kay (January) fails to mention the real driver of the financial crisis: the housing bubble. Its dangers were not widely appreciated at the time because in a bubble people believe the world has changed and that historical norms no longer apply. This was not cynicism, but naivety.

Some of Kay's points about a "casino" operated by banks are telling. But, as everyone knows, the owners of casinos do not lose money in the long run, the clients do. So how come banks got into such trouble? Because they, like everyone else, were suckered by the housing bubble.

When a bubble mentality takes hold it is hard to rein in. But better regulation of banks must be part of the answer. Limitations on overall leverage would make sense. It is notable that Canadian banks, where leverage was limited to 20 times capital, have not required government injections. Measures to require more capital or reserves when asset prices reach high levels would also make sense. There is no magic bullet that can reliably prevent financial crises. But Kay's analysis, while full of insights, misses the target.

John Calverley
Standard Chartered Bank

Obama's rhetoric
5th January 2009

Philip Collins (January) takes Barack Obama to task for a rare purple phrase—his suggestion that everyone "put their hands on the arc of history and bend it once more towards the hope of a better day." "The best to be said for that," writes Collins, "is that you know what he means."

Foul! As with so many of Obama's words, this is derived from a famous speech by Martin Luther King: "The arm of the moral universe is long; it bends towards justice." Obama has to be careful with his white constituency not to quote too much King. But many of us knew what he meant.

Jonathan Power

Getting houses in order
7th January 2009

John Beddington (January) is right to emphasise the need to increase energy efficiency in homes. Emissions from residential buildings have been growing steadily for 20 years, and are currently responsible for 25 per cent of Britain's CO2 emissions.

Initiatives in the US may provide a solution. The city council of Berkeley, California, has created a fund that gives loans to property-owners who install solar power systems. They can be up to $22,000 (£16,000), are paid off over 20 years, and are collected through a local property tax. There is no need for individuals to raise the money on their own account, and the cost remains with the property so that whoever lives in it pays off the loan and receives the benefit.

Here in Britain, we could go further, perhaps funding all energy efficiency improvements through loans, collecting the repayments through council tax. Local authorities might raise the money initially either through traditional borrowing or by issuing bonds. With a chastened banking system, innovative lower risk schemes like these might be attractive. The investment could help drive economic recovery, and it is generally recognised that new life needs to be breathed into local government.

The details would need careful study, but bold thinking rather than tinkering at the edges is required. We must seek to bring about structural change. As Beddington would surely agree, it is vital that the government finds long-term remedies to this urgent issue before it's too late.

Robert Clark
Onzo Ltd