Let’s be courageous, part 20

(… continued from Let’s be courageous, part 19, posted on 12 Nov 2016).

When extolling the virtues of HS2, ministers have been known to characterise the UK’s railway network as “Victorian” and to promote high speed rail as a “21st century” technology. So, for example, in his recent statement to the House of Commons announcing the Government’s preferred route for Phase 2b of HS2, the Secretary of State for Transport, the Rt Hon Chris Grayling MP, associated delivering HS2 with building “the transport infrastructure essential to the economy of 21st century Britain” (see footnote 1).

But is high speed rail really a technology of the 21st century or is the Government backing a horse that has already seen its best days and is stumbling along inevitably towards the knacker’s yard?

In truth, high speed rail technology dates from the middle of the 20th century – the first Shinkansen service opened in Japan in 1964 – and fifty years is a very long time in a world where technological development is very rapid indeed. My own experience working for a supplier of equipment for use on the UK’s railways taught me that the railway industry is ultra-conservative and slow to adopt change – a philosophy driven by the best of motives, which is to put safety first – and one only has to look at the time that it has taken for in-cab signalling technology to be accepted to appreciate this point. However, there are revolutionary transport systems waiting in the wings, and there must be a very strong prospect that HS2 will begin to look very much yesterday’s transport solution not long after the full system is in service, if not even before that.

Also far from being a revolutionary transport system, HS2 has much more in common with its Victorian ancestors than ministers would have us think. Railway development has, up to now, been largely evolutionary, not revolutionary. It has been rather like Trigger’s broom (see footnote 2), but every time a new handle or head has been fitted, metaphorically speaking, the railway has been improved. Fundamentally, however, it remains recognisably a broom, and there is not that much that separates The Rocket from HS2, essentially speaking.

The feature that associates high speed rail and its Victorian roots so fundamentally is inherent in the inclusion of the word “rail” – since very early on railways have employed metal wheels running on metal rails, and so does HS2. However, many of the other technological features of HS2 that make it possible are hardly new:

  • Electric traction was first used as long ago as 1883 (see footnote 3), and the overhead high-voltage system was adopted as the standard by British Railways in 1956
  • Streamlining of trains was introduced into passenger service in the 1930s, firstly in Germany but with the UK following closely behind, and the streamlined LNER class A4 pacific Mallard took the world speed record for a steam-powered locomotive in 1938 and still holds that record today
  • In-cab signalling was first trialled in the UK in the 1910s and, although systems for high speed trains have required specific design over the last few decades they are still fundamentally the same operationally in that they assist the train to be manually driven

I freely admit, of course, that developing a high speed railway is not just a question of painting go-faster stripes on the train sets. The higher speeds require the track and track bed to meet much more stringent design criteria and higher speeds can only be achieved on track that is capable of supporting them. However, the basic similarity of the track design means that HS2 trains will be able to run on the heritage rail network, albeit not at their full speed capability, and this is a considerable advantage of being wedded to the Victorian metal wheels on metal rails concept. This feature is exploited by the designers of HS2 to allow the HS2 service to include “classic compatible” trains, which allow the new HS2 links to be employed to by-pass the congested parts of the heritage network and yet still serve stations on that network.

But do we need to be bolder if we are to build a railway that serves the 21st century? After all there is an option that breaks away from the Victorian metal wheels on metal rails concept, providing that we are willing to cast off the shackles that the classic compatible concept binds us with. I refer to the magnetic levitation, or maglev, technology, where there is no contact between the train and the track, or at least not at operational speeds, as the train rides on a “cushion” created by a levitating magnetic field and propulsion is normally provided by electric linear motors.

I will give more consideration to the maglev option in part 21.

(To be continued …)


  1. See column 133 of the House of Commons Official Report for 15thNovember 2016.
  2. In an episode of the classic BBC TV situation comedy Only Fools and Horses first broadcast in 1996, road sweeper Colin “Trigger” Ball claims that he has “had the same broom for 20 years”, but also admits to having fitted “17 new heads and 14 new handles” in that time.
  3. The Volk’s Electric Railway in Brighton is the oldest operating electric railway in the world, and was built four years after the first demonstration line was in operation in Germany.

2 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by LesF on November 24, 2016 at 12:19 pm

    When I hear HS2 enthusiasts discredit our rail network as “Victorian” I cringe because only the routes (most of them) are Victorian; the tracks and signals have been renewed several times.
    The great strength of our railway is that it has the corridors to deliver large numbers of people into city centres, then carry on to join communities together. Unlike HS2 which relies on inefficient terminus stations and out of town parkways that will suck commerce out of the cities they’re supposed to serve. HS2 call it a network but also admit that it “will be a largely segregated railway”, damaging the network it’s supposed to enhance.
    Innovative modes such as maglev and Elon Rusk’s Hyperloopy vacuum tube may be worthwhile for very long distances over flat open country but are no use for the UK.
    The main competitor to rail will be the autonomous car that allows door-to-door journeys while the user works, and we should evaluate its future before embarking on a wildly expensive and unnecessarily destructive new railway.


    • I’m not sure Les that I can accept your writing off of maglev as “no use for UK” without some further justification of why you might think this. After all Tokyo to Nagoya is about the same distance as London to Manchester. Also the better acceleration and braking performance of maglev, surely allows more intermediate stations to be a possibility, the lack of which is a serious drawback with HS2. Maglev also comes into its own, surely, in hilly terrain due to its better performace on gradients and tighter curve radius, so I’m not sure why you think it is better suited to “flat open country”.
      I will be reviewing maglev in part 21.


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