High Speed Rail – UK Debate

It isn’t often that one gets the chance to read a good, healthy debate on a subject that one believes in. Debate seems to have given way to vociferous argument that is more often than not heavily biased without the chance for counter argument or balanced reply. The Guardian has been host to an interesting “debate” over the requirements of high speed rail in the UK.

In the original article, Simon Jenkins argued against high speed rail not necessarily (I believe) as an argument against high speed rail per se, but rather from the position of spending the money that would be put in to such projects and pumping in to much needed improvements in other rail services, and even urban transport.

Train services cross-country or to coastal Britain are deplorable. Stations are mostly miserable places. The Hatfield crash – the 9/11 of the railway – led Whitehall’s hyper-safe inspectors to panic. They raised the cost of track maintenance by five times (according to Modern Railways magazine) as against British Rail. Meanwhile, 15 years after privatisation the west of England track is still not electrified, a contrast with Europe that is more glaring than the absence of a bullet-nosed glamour project. The trouble is that making services run on time is politically boring.

Today I found the response to this article by Mark Bostock. Whilst fundamentally arguing against the points of the original article, the main point is that the UK’s rail network is built on a railway system that was created by the Victorians for the Victorian era. Patching up the system to bring it up to modern standards can’t be as effective as building new ones. Additionally he cites many examples from across Europe where new systems can be built within budget, benefit the country as a whole and would certainly address the issue of the current deplorable state of the UK’s rail network.

The biggest danger to delivering the high-speed network is not funding but cynicism. We need confidence to get this major investment right, giving the next generation the benefit of a rail network we do not currently enjoy

I find myself agreeing with both sides, at least to some extent. On the one hand the UK finds itself in a position that the old systems, created well over a hundred years ago that didn’t envisage high speed anything, nor the current levels of demand for use, need to be replaced; this requires a fresh start with new rail lines providing with the capacity and infrastructure it badly needs for now and the immediate future. A fundemental flaw in the UK’s rail network is that the combination of weight and dimension restrictions means you can’t run standard European rolling stock on the UK network. The practicality of this is that you won’t be seeing double-decker trains on the network any time soon, the introduction of such units would see and increase in capacity without the need to change station lengths, this is just one example.

At the same time there is a need to provide local and regional transport improvements; in this case I would argue that needs an innovative approach that updates the current systems but from the perspective of replacing these with new designs and approaches; this is not necessarily a case of digging up the whole lot and starting again (but then again why not apply this to some routes), but at least look at the problem as a whole and find a balance. Cost is an issue, but the long term advantages need to be considered as well as negative impacts in the future of not making these changes.

The biggest issue facing the UK is mentioned in the above quote: cynicism; this is a problem the UK faces regardless of the ideas or intent – arguably this is a problem in the US as well. Too much is made of headline grabbing events that make more about rail failure than is necessary (for example the delay to Eurostar services during the period of bad weather the UK experienced) and not enough is made of the positive news (like Eurostar running without issues every day of the week, and cutting out the hassle you get when trying to make the same journeys by air, or even the new Javelin high speed commuter services that have been introduced in the South East of England). Ultimately this will need a strong, confident decision made by the government to actually get on with the project in a way that benefits the country now, during the construction (source locally) and ultimately in the future when the system is operational.

Regardless, it is good to find such debates taking place. I look forward to reading more.