Erik's reconnaissance of Swedish infrastructure

Today we talk about infrastructure daily, in a way we didn’t 10 years ago. We complain most that it is poorly maintained and that trains are constantly delayed. Commuters in metropolitan regions are accustomed to delays but even freight transport and industry are affected, this in turn affects Swedish competitiveness. Meanwhile, Treasury cash for infrastructure investment is limited. There will never be enough money to do everything and fulfill all requests. Priorities are necessary, and this is what this reconnaissance is about.

High-speed trains between major cities

High-speed trains are ’in’ at the moment. The total cost of the high-speed rail link between Stockholm and Malmö and Stockholm and Gothenburg is estimated to cost between 190 and 300 billion SEK. This sum represents what the Swedish State spends on infrastructure over a 15-year period. And this figure does not include the cost of new stations and connecting track. What the final cost will be is anyone’s guess. If high-speed train plans are to go ahead then, other investments will have to be shelved. The question is how many of these other investments would be axed? Of course there are many that would love to be able to take the train between Stockholm and Gothenburg in just two hours. It's good for the environment and the Swedish economy. Or is it?

When the high-speed train between Stockholm and Gothenburg is completed, it will annually transport as many people as local transit networks transports in a day. The two major Stockholm subway stations handle just as many passengers as the national rail company SJ handles in a day. It’s the same picture everywhere with nearly all of the journeys we make are within the region where we live. With reason this is where we should spend the money, rather than on expensive rail traffic. The environmental benefit is also to open to discussion. When the high-speed train is in place, it will be hailed as an environmental act, but to build the actual track, it’s not!

Who should prioritize investments?

And so we come to the priorities. Who will make them? Politicians who feel pressure from their home region, the Swedish Transport Administration or some neutral party with economic calculations as their argument? Lobby groups are many and they are strong. The manufacturing industry, for example, that are absolutely bent on expanding railways and the road network. More than once we have seen the "threat" that investments will end up overseas unless the State spends on a rail double-track or a motorway exit. This is understandable. Swedish industry is at a geographical competitive disadvantage against companies on the continent. However, improved transportation facilities are good for growth, and so it is important that we give priority to the right choices.

Another lobby group is the one that represents construction companies and engineering consultancies. Many make their living on building infrastructure, writing reports, conducting environmental studies, drawings and so on.

Behind each proposal on new infrastructure investment is finely written reports that show how socioeconomic they are. And it seems easy to find a professor to back-up the position anyone wishes to take on this issue. Opinions on the economic calculation correctness vary greatly with transport companies divided on this issue.

The Swedish Transport Agency is responsible for the ASEK report that presents the values and principles that should be used in the transport sector economic analyzes. A new version is published every year in April, while a larger audit is done every four years. The Swedish Transport Agency designs both the calculation tool and sets up projects on a list that is then presented to our politicians. I see a conflict of interests here.

To sum up, I can say that there are simply not enough financial resources to match our wishes and needs. We must have economic calculations made on the basis of priorities. The Swedish Transport Agency should prioritize their investment plans and where profitability comes first.

For me this is obvious since it’s the politicians who will take the final decision on how we prioritize. They must learn to abandon the "rules" for the sole benefit of the environment or a particular region. But when they do, they must have a very clear reason for doing so. There can’t be a lot of fuzzy arguments when it is taxpayers’ money that’s at stake. Finally, I believe that our Infrastructure Minister Anna Johansson is not only the third minister to talk about high-speed rail, but I also believe that she will be the first who will bury it. Sweden simply cannot not afford it.

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