Two different discourses on railway infrastructure investment: the UK and Denmark

Helene Dyrhauge |

My previous blog post focused on the Commission’s problems of implementing its infrastructure strategy due to strong and diverse national interests. This blog post focuses on two different national discourses – the Danish and the British – on infrastructure investments and argues that national infrastructure investment are rooted in different state traditions, in relation to the role of the state in providing public transport services.

During the 19th century, the UK industry developed and invested in railway industry with limited interference from the British Parliament and government. By comparison the core Danish railway infrastructure investments were financed by the state, just as most of the railways were state owned. Despite some private railway investments and companies the Danish railways have predominately been state-owned. Thus different national approaches emerged, which continue to influence national railway policies today (for a longer discussion please read my book).

How is railway history relevant for HS2 and Danish rail infrastructure investment today? The distinct national railway histories continue to shape railway policies today. Indeed the UK discourse focuses on cost of investment, questioning the need to spend so much money and the actual economic benefits of HS2. For example the McNulty report focuses on efficiency savings and the Office of Rail Regulation’s (ORR) periodic reviews of Network Rail’s targets and spending. However, the discourse on efficiency and benefits occur in the shadow of the failed Rail Track, which did not invest in or maintain the network.  Indeed the discourse today recognises the need for maintaining the infrastructure and improving safety standards – thus lessons have been learnt.

The discourse on cost and efficiency is also evident in the public discourse on HS2 investment, where several anti-HS2 groups have emerged arguing that HS2 is neither green nor cost-effective. Whilst these groups are quite diverse their discontent focuses on cost of investment and environment. The former group links into the existing and prevailing discourse on how best to spend the taxpayers’ money. The latter discourse on the environment includes conversation groups, which are concerned about the impact on diversity and habits, the environmental groups also includes property owners who are concerned about their land and compensation from the state in relation to expropriation. Thus the environmental opposition discourse is not a unified group. By comparison supportive groups argue that HS2 will be an environmental alternative to the congested road – especially for freight.  Overall the HS2 discourse has two nodal points: cost of investment/efficiency and the environmental impact, each nodal point is disputed.

By comparison the Danish railway discourse does not challenge the need for new investment, instead it focuses on where the lines should run – for example if there should be a new line between Vejle and Billund (airport and Legoland) or if there should be a bridge/tunnel over Kattegat instead of the current strategy for new railway infrastructure, which is based on 1 hour travel time between the major cities in Denmark and aims to electrify the network. This debate is not new, infrastructure investment has often been used as a political bargaining chip in Denmark – today there are several roads in north-west and north Jutland thanks to a cross-party group in the Danish Parliament (nicknamed ‘the transport mafia’). Moreover, the investment will be financed by North Sea oil through ‘Togfonden’ (the Train Fund) some have questioned whether the oil income will be sufficient, but it has not been the main nodal point. Overall, the discourse on railway infrastructure investment does not challenge the need for new lines instead it focuses on where the railway lines should run and how best to connect Jutland with Copenhagen. Interestingly there is less focus on connecting the towns in Jutland, but then there are all the roads built by the ‘cross-party transport-mafia’ linking the geographical periphery to the core congested motorways (E45 and E20)!

However, a related Danish discourse has been the discussion past rolling-stock investment, where the IC4 trains ended up being delayed by almost 10 years and costing much more than anticipated. Indeed the central nodal point in this discourse has been the question of when and if the government and DSB should stop throwing good money after bad. The discussion about rolling stock for the new planned investment has not fully emerged and one can only hope the politicians have learnt from previous decisions!

Fundamentally the British and Danish railway discourses reveal two different approaches to the state’s role in providing infrastructure, which begs the questions; to what extent should the state ensure mobility and territorial cohesion? And, to what extent should the state finance and maintain railway infrastructure, especially when faced by EU market opening? Finally, the different national discourses and state traditions do not feed into the EU infrastructure discourse instead diverging national discourses and the EU discourse remain separate because they are rooted in diverse state traditions with different objectives.