Nov 2007 - A high speed rail network for Britain? NOT SO FAST...

01 June 2013

THE GOOD NEWS... Britain has its first highspeed rail line. It’s a break-through - we really should have something to celebrate! After all, we’ve joined the European big boys! Trains in the UK can now hit speeds of over 180 mph! THE BAD NEWS... The high-speed track is only 70 miles long. It runs from Kent to London and the only trains that run on it is the Eurostar. THE WORSE NEWS... It doesn’t look like getting any better. The government likes the idea of a high-speed North-South line – which would practically eliminate the attraction of domestic flights. But it doesn’t feel inclined to do anything about it.

Frankly it’s getting embarrassing how far we trail behind our European neighbours.

The French have been developing high speed trains for 40 years. The French rail company’s (SNCF) Train de Grande Vitesse (TGV) holds the record speed for a conventional train (see page 9). The country has an everexpanding network of track that can support TGVs.

Germany has a dense network of high-speed tracks, and high-speed lines run through Spain, Switzerland, Belgium and the Netherlands.

In Spain, RENFE is planning a Barcelona-Madrid run that will, when it opens, accomplish the trip of 375 miles in two-and-a-half hours at a speed of up to 230 mph. This is a quarter of the time it takes by car and quicker than by plane. There is already a high-speed line between Madrid and Seville using French-style trains.

In the Netherlands a high-speed line between Amsterdam, Rotterdam and Antwerp is expected to begin operating this year.

So why is it that when it comes to high-speed links the UK is so far behind its western counterparts?

The most telling point is that France has been planning high-speed trains for four decades. That will never happen in this country under the present privatised system – for the simple reason that planning ends with the conclusion of a franchise. If a company has a franchise for 7 years, it has no interest in year 8. This means that long-term planning for UK rail is, and will remain, non-existent.

The other major problem is the government’s halfhearted attitude towards climate change. If it was determined to cut carbon emissions, an obvious target would be the elimination of internal domestic flights. A high speed north-south rail link would remove the need and the demand. The public knows this, the union knows this and the Department for Transport knows this.

In fact, everyone knows it is true: but no one does anything about it. Perhaps it is just a symptom of the fact that the wheels of government move slowly: the sad fact is that the wheels of trains are having to do the same thing as a result.

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