What Chance Change? Driving Development through Transport Infrastructure

Locomotives of Local Growth: Short- and Long-Term Impact of Railroads in Sweden

By Thor Berger (Lund University) and Kerstin Enflo (Lund University)

Abstract: This paper uses city-level data to examine the impact of a first wave of railroad construction in Sweden, between 1855 and 1870, from the 19th century until today. We estimate that railroads accounted for 50% of urban growth, 1855-1870. In cities with access to the railroad network, property values were higher, manufacturing employment increased, establishments were larger, and more information was distributed through local post offices. Today, cities with early access to the network are 62% larger and to be found 11 steps higher in the urban hierarchy, compared to initially similar cities. We hypothesize that railroads set in motion a path dependent process that shapes the economic geography of Sweden today.

URL: http://ideas.repec.org/p/hes/wpaper/0042.html

Review by Alexander Horkan (final-year PPE student, Queen’s University Belfast)

What impact did the introduction of railroads to Sweden have on town-level growth? This is the question being explored by Thor Berger and Kerstin Enflo, both of Lund University, in their EHES working paper circulated as part of NEP-HIS-2013-08-05. The paper focusses on the early development of the Swedish railroad network, between 1855 and 1870, and examines whether towns with early access to the network[1] experienced higher levels of expansion of economic activity, using population growth as a proxy measure for this. They expand the possibility of their have been effects beyond merely the initial shock and scrutinise whether there was a long-run impact on economic development over the 20th Century.

Berger and Enflo contribute to the discourse on the value of transport infrastructure to lowering trade costs, which frequently hypothesises that large infrastructure projects foster economic development ‘ahead of demand’. Although an intuitive suggestion serving as a core belief of policymakers regarding the localisation of growth and planning possibilities, it is historically troublesome to provide evidentiary credence that such growth is independent from endogenous, observable and unobservable preconditions. Modern transport infrastructure is rarely assigned randomly to locations, instead being focussed around connecting ‘hubs’ that inevitably possess advantageous biases towards growth. This builds on various works detailing how such biases plague neutral analysis of development, as infrastructure projects are seemingly inextricably linked with political interference at either end of the spectrum, whether promoting growth in areas of economic sterility, or those already growing through endogenous factors.

Berger and Enflo show how railroads affect the location, not the level, of growth

Does railroad access increase the overall level of growth, or just the location of growth?

This paper seems to be of extreme relevance to current debates surrounding the future of a high-speed rail network connecting Birmingham to London in the UK. Contemporary debates have been hazy, lacking clear focus on precise and demonstrable economic incentives, leading to many questioning the value brought to northern cities. This research can increase the scope of such debates, providing clear evidential support that early adoption of technological advancements in transport infrastructure ignites and fosters long-term economic growth, yet simultaneously causes large negative ‘spillover’ effects on nearby, unconnected towns. Such research seems valuable and relevant to both sides of the question and must only serve to enrich any subsequent discussion.[2]

Proof of their hypothesis is offered through the calculation of comparative populations of cities both connected and unconnected to the railroad network between 1855 and 1870. Through using a difference-in-difference framework, they show that those who gained early exposure to the rail network grew larger, with additional population growth of 26% on average. Such increases imply that levels of urbanisation in 1870, and the aggregate rate of growth by the same point, would have ‘decrease[d] by 15% and 50% respectively’ (p. 3) independent from rail infrastructure. These calculations prove correlation between the exposure to railways and subsequent growth, echoing work by Fishlow (1965).

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Where Bergen and Enflo really contribute to expanding existing literature, however, is by providing robust justification to draw direct causal relationships between railroad placement and subsequent ‘ignition’ of economic development. This is achieved through a tripartite construct, initially matching observationally similar towns and their growth patterns before the railway introduction. These measures ensure that observable differences are not key to explaining growth of specific towns, i.e. they were not already growing faster than surrounding cities.

Secondly, they calculate a strong instrumental variable; this relies on proposed routes drawn up by Adolf van Rosen in 1845 and subsequently by Nils Ericson in 1856. As such routes were constructed in relative isolation of political and economic pressures; favouring conditions of topographical simplicity and military strategic importance (avoiding coastal areas traditionally predisposed to growth) such an instrument is robust in corroborating the evidence of the first measure. By estimating the pre-rail differences in population growth for towns included in these original plans, and calculating their relative differences as close to zero, further corroboration is given to assertions that there were no pre-existing conditions conducive to growth in these towns.

The final measure is the imagined construction of these proposed lines, and further ‘low cost routes’. By creating this strong counterfactual, the authors presuppose that these lines that were not built, due to political obstinacy and lassitude, and those proposed later, to link profitable hubs of commerce would show large increases in populations if the driving factor behind growth was some unobservable, predetermining factor. Conversely however, if growth failed to materialise, it would be clear that the most significant force at work was early exposure to railways.

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What can policymakers today learn from the Swedish case?

In his 1964 paper Robert Fogel identified the aggregate contribution of railroads to the US economy through social savings, deeming it of very little significance to social savings against a comparable counterfactual canal system. The measures used by Berger and Enflo are inversely interested in the relative impact of the railroad on cities. The negative ‘spillovers’ to nearby, unconnected towns examined in this paper further confirm Fogel’s argument that, whilst railroads had little impact on aggregate economic activity, they had large effects on relative growth patterns.

The final key significance Berger and Enflo draw out is the persistency of the impact of early exposure to rail networks. There are a myriad of reasons for this: high value sunk investments provide large barriers to both entry to and exit from the market, prompting concentration of economic activity in specific places. Additionally emerging towns become identifiable with growth and development, thus almost gaining critical mass and organically attracting further growth by this virtue. This emergent path dependency mirrors that cited by Bleakley and Lin (2012) regarding US cities being focussed around portage sights, despite the increasing irrelevance of such a factor. The implications of this paper however shadow those of Redding, Sturm and Wolf (2011) and Jebwad and Moadi (2011), examining man-made advantages over natural ones, contributing more greatly to discourse on policy implications and growth strategy.

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Throughout the paper, however, despite great lengths to isolate geographical preconditions for local growth, there was an absence of discussion regarding elasticity of demand for rail services across the country. It seems remiss to address reduction of trade costs, whilst ignoring the possibility for elasticity of demand for such services, for example during winter months where winter roads open new avenues of trade, significantly reducing goods transportation costs via substitutions. Such questions could raise insightful analysis of unexplored geographical factors in northerly cities not experiencing the same degree of negative ‘spillovers’ suffered by more central ones.

The scope of this rigorous analysis could be expanded beyond current high-speed rail debates explored above to varying fields. Pertinent could be investigation of whether such findings have significance surpassing large-scale travel infrastructure and technological advancements, to the increasingly relevant information and communication sector for example; examining whether early adoption of communications advancements and infrastructure lead growth in specific locations.

Notes

[1] Less than a third of towns were connected by the end of this period, and only around a tenth of the peak network size had been realised.

[2] For a wider discussion of the minutia of this debate please refer to:

http://www.ft.com/cms/s/0/63ff3bfe-8dbd-11e3-bbe7-00144feab7de.html#axzz2xvZqcMe0

and

http://www.economist.com/news/leaders/21588862-britains-plans-high-speed-railway-are-deeply-flawed-spend-money-boring-stuff

 

References

Bleakley, H. and Lin, J. (2012). Portage and Path Dependence. The Quarterly Journal of Economics 127, 2, 587{644.

Fishlow, A. (1965). American Railroads and the Transformation of the Ante-bellum Economy. Vol. 127. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Fogel, R. (1964). Railroads and American Economic Growth. Baltimore: John Hopkins Press.

Jedwab, R. and Moradi, A. (2011). Transportation Infrastructure and Development in Ghana. Mimeo.

Redding, S. J., Sturm, D. M., and Wolf, N. (2011). History and Industry Location: Evidence from German Airports. Review of Economics and Statistics 93, 3, 814{831.

 

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2 thoughts on “What Chance Change? Driving Development through Transport Infrastructure

  1. kerstinenflo

    This is an excellent review of our paper about the “Locomotives of Local Growth.” Alexander Horkan has made a thorough job by condensing our paper and bringing its results to a wider audience. It has everything one could wish from a review: it is well-written, critical and precise. Alexander contextualizes our results nicely by relating them to the classic works of Robert Fogel and Albert Fishlow, as well as to the very recent literature dealing with infrastructure investments and the persistence of localization patterns. We were especially impressed to see how Alex elegantly connects our paper about the Swedish railroads in the 1850s to current debates surrounding the future of high-speed rail networks, such as the one connecting Birmingham to London in the UK. This is exactly the type of policy-relevant questions that we wish to address with our research into historical infrastructure investments, and it’s nice to see this message echoed in the review.

    One common objection to connecting historical infrastructure investments to the situation today is that “everything has changed, so how can we compare?” Back then, in the 1850s, there were neither airports nor cars and alternatives to train were much more limited than today. This is, of course, a valid objection. In essence, it deals with the very broad question about how much we can actually learn from history, when everything is contextual and choices we face today are very different from then. We believe that history offers a great deal of advice, as shown by Alexander’s efforts to put our findings into a more modern context.

    In fact, one should not forget that there were alternatives to invest in rail already back in 1850. Actually, Nils Ericsson, the main commander of the railroad project, was not too keen on the idea himself. Instead, he advocated investing in better canals and networks for water transportation. Our results show that Ericson possibly underestimated the costs of loading and re-loading connected to water transportation and compared to rail. Therefore he could probably not himself foresee the dramatic effects that the railroad would bring to the cities that got it, compared to cities left with water transportation possibilities only. Today, loading and re-loading of air passengers appears increasingly costly due to passport and security controls, and the question is whether not a similar issue in relation to rail could be raised today. Perhaps the situation of the 1850s isn’t so different after all.

    Alexander wisely raises the role that substitutes to the railroad may play for the demand for rail transport: “It seems remiss to address reduction of trade costs, whilst ignoring the possibility for elasticity of demand for such services, for example during winter months where winter roads open new avenues of trade, significantly reducing goods transportation costs via substitutions.“ We find this point interesting and deserving of serious thinking. It is true that the winter months provided expanded opportunities for heavy goods transportation, and if the possibility to use winter roads differed across the country, results could be affected by the relative access to alternatives. However, there is little empirical evidence for such differences as the growth stimulus of the railroad does not seem to differ for inland towns, towns further north or towns that lacked waterborne transport. One way to interpret this result is that railroads were a sufficiently superior mode of transportation. While existing means of transportation—such as the “winter roads”—historically enabled farmers and manufacturers to transport their goods to markets, the railroad gradually displaced many of these existing modes, effectively reducing the demand for their services to nil.

    Finally, we thank Alexander for taking the effort to read and comment on our work, his great review and insightful comments. We hope to hear more from Alexander in the field of economic history in the future.

    Thor Berger and Kerstin Enflo.

    Reply
  2. Pingback: About | Thor Berger

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