The high-speed railway – a white elephant project
The term “white elephants” describes huge infrastructure projects which, despite great amounts of tax money, create little value for the public. Sweden has seen few such disaster projects, and our politicians have generally been careful with public resources. Yet, as the plans for a high-speed railway between Stockholm and Gothenburg begins to take shape, the vague, ominous contours of a white elephant have started to appear. It is time to highlight what is about to go wrong with this project, and as legal experts in the field, we would like to highlight a three elephant-like features.
First, the high-speed railway risks becoming a white elephant due to the project’s complexity, paired with the Swedish Transport Administration’s poor competence in the field. Swedish express trains already have the worst punctuality in Europe, and also rank poorly in comparative safety studies. As a high-speed railway is a more complex form of infrastructure, the Transport Administration’s poor track record and low capability in the area are bad indicators of what is to come.
A second sign that a white elephant is taking shape is a poor ability to define the process. This becomes clear for the high-speed railway when studying the Swedish Transport Administration’s investigation of the project. The Administration has here failed to define the procurement process for the project, which is a prerequisite to assess the project’s timespan, cost, competition and overall form.
Finally, a sign that a white elephant project is taking form is that the project is carried on even though socioeconomic analyses show that project would not be profitable. Indeed, academic scholars, think tanks and technical research centers have repeatedly shown that the construction of a high-speed railway would be a poor investment. The predicted future travel patterns and analyses of freight transport show that the gains will not compensate the costs for this project.
The political sphere in Sweden has a long tradition of responsible public financial management. Before the Swedish Minister for Infrastructure Tomas Eneroth proceeds with the high-speed railway, it would be a good idea to consult the kind of expertise which can provide advice, and which does not have any self-interest in the matter. Until that happens, it is time to start talking about the elephant in the room.