Thursday, August 01, 2002

When going through the channel tunnel the other day, I started thinking about infrastructure. Europe in the last few decades has gone on a binge of large scale infrastructure projects. In particular, lots of what engineers call 'fixed links', which is a fancy word for 'bridges and tunnels'. We have the channel tunnel, the bridge and tunnel project connecting Denmark and Sweden (The Ostend fixed link, I think it is called), a large number of projects for tunnels through the Alps, the proposed Messina bridge connecting Italy and Sicily. Plus we have various fast rail projects. While may of these will not make back the money invested in them in strict accounting terms, none of them seem especially extravagant projects. (Well, maybe the Messina Bridge). All of them are used or will be used by very large amounts of people. This compares with the United States, where there are no major projects of this type being built, and there haven't been for quite a while. Major infrastructure projects in the US these days seem to be about increasing the capacity of their urban infrastructure (eg the Big Dig in Boston). The conclusion is the fairly obvious one that the US basically built its infrastructure between 1880 and 1950, and there isn't much left to do. (That said, there are no bridges and tunnels in the US as big as the biggest ones in Europe. This may be simply that the US is much less densely populated and they haven't built cities near the trickiest bits of terrain, or perhaps they are just lucky. Once you have the Messina bridge and the Swiss tunnels, there are few obvious places left in Europe for big bridges or tunnels (except for the Straits of Gibraltar, but nobody would actually want that in the present world). There are still lots of places to build fast train lines in Europe, but we will wait and see how much gets done.
(Clearly Brussels - Antwerp - Rotterdam - Amsterdam is needed however, from what I saw on the weekend).

When a country rises economically, it seems that one thing it does is build key infrastructure links. These consist of transport systems in cities, and motorways, railways bridges and tunnels. There then comes a point where the key links are built, and you expand them in response to growth in towns and cities, but it largely becomes a maintenance exercise rather than a building
exercise. London had its rail system by about 1900, and New York had its by about 1920. Japan built its infrastructure largely in the 1960s and 1970s. Singapore and Hong Kong are presently in the position where there's is half built, but it will be more or less done within ten years in both places. China is undergoing a massive and frantic rush of building railways, roads, bridges and tunnels, and will undoubtedly be going for decades yet.

Japan seems disfunctional, as it has all the infrastructure it needs but is completely unable to stop. It has gone from building an adequate network, to building everything that could reasonably be needed and now on to building things that nobody could possibly need.

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