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Wednesday, 28 August 2013

BS2 and The Planning Fallacy

In his excellent book Thinking, Fast and Slow, Daniel Kahneman explains that governments tend to reward bidders who over-estimate the utility of large-scale projects, while under-estimating the cost. This is known in the trade as "The Planning Fallacy". While Kahneman cited research that demonstrates the fallacy in relation to many railway procurement exercises over many years, we also saw if firsthand recently in the West Coast railway fiasco. Now the government is trying its hand again, with BS2 HS2.

The Planning Fallacy suits all those involved, except commuters and taxpayers. At the time of the West Coast debacle, costs were about 40% higher on Britain’s railways than comparable European networks. And taxpayer subsidies, adjusted for inflation, had reached approximately £7 billion per annum. Approximately 10% of trains didn’t arrive on time. Only 42% of rail customers were satisfied with value for money for the price of their ticket. Only 69% said there was sufficient room for all passengers. And only 80% of rail customers were satisfied with punctuality.

This spring, the figures don't look any better. In fact, only 29% of UK commuters thought they got good value for their rail fares. Adding a fancy new rail project doesn't seem likely to fix their day-to-day experience.

There are numerous hard-headed dismissals of the alleged viability of HS2, including John Kay's piece yesterday. And it wasn't reassuring to learn from a Channel 4 news interview with the Transport Secretary that he has set aside a £14bn 'contingency' in an apparent budget of £40bn. It smells like 'waste' to me.

There must be ways to spend that kind of money to improve the lot of today's commuters, rather than saddling the next generation with a whole load of BS.


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