17th January 2009 Articles
Even America is investing in high-speed rail. It’s time Britain did the same, says the transport minister
On the day America elected Barack Obama, the people of California took a less noticed, but still momentous, referendum decision. They voted in favour of the country’s first genuinely high-speed railway connecting San Francisco and Los Angeles.
The vote for a $10bn bond, supported by Republican Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, means work will soon begin on a railway that will slash journey time between the west coast’s two main cities to at little as two hours and 38 minutes, on trains travelling up to 220 miles per hour. At present the same journey takes around six hours by car. On rail, it needs a full day.
The go-ahead for the California scheme followed a robust campaign in which advocates touted the transport and environmental benefits of high-speed rail. Elsewhere, cities like Charlotte and Phoenix are building light-rail systems, while Denver and Dallas are moving to extend existing systems. These victories challenge the generation-long supremacy of road and air travel in America. Railways fell into disuse for inter-city passenger traffic outside the (still far from high-speed) northeast corridor between Washington DC, New York and Boston. But now rail is making a comeback.
Equally significant for future policy are Japan’s evolving plans to pioneer the next generation of high-speed rail technology with a “maglev” line between Tokyo and Nagoya—to be open by 2025—cutting the existing “shinkansen” bullet train time for the 214 miles from one hour 40 minutes to less than an hour. What impressed me on a visit to Japan in November to study the “shinkansen” experience was not only the potentially revolutionary nature of the “maglev,” but that the justification for the new Tokyo-Nagoya line, to be entirely privately financed, depends on traffic saturation on the existing 45-year-old shinkansen line, and not a desire for even higher speed travel per se. Packed trains with up to 1,600 passengers leave every five minutes from 6am until 10pm on the existing line, which is close to capacity.
Such moves in California and Japan should be of great interest to Britain. Over the next few months the government will look at the case for building new rail capacity between our major cities. When doing so, we will address the question: do you overcome congestion on the main inter-urban lines by building conventional new lines, or instead opt for next generation technology? In the 1960s Japan went for the latter, and introduced a system of innovative infrastructure planning that led to the first shinkansen being built, helped by loans from the World Bank. In Britain we are grappling with a similar issue of projected capacity constraints between London, Birmingham and Manchester. Too often experts draw the wrong lesson from France, and argue that the distances between our cities are too small to justify new investment in really fast trains. But the distance between London and Manchester is similar to Tokyo-Nagoya. High-speed rail doesn’t just suit longer distances.
The British postwar railway decline was less severe than in the US, but our network is still recovering from decades of neglect. The failure to electrify much of the inter-city network in the 1950s and 1960s was particularly baleful. Yet the prospects for rail in Britain are brighter than at any point in half a century. Rail has become more competitive and attractive for both passengers and freight, driven by a mix of road congestion, global warming, and high-speed trains.
Even within our existing constrained infrastructure, still recovering from privatisation, the railway network has undergone something of a renaissance in the last decade. Passenger traffic is up by 50 per cent, while freight is up by only slightly less. Passenger numbers, meanwhile, are now higher than at any time since 1946.
Britons still love their trains. But we can do better. On 14th December a new timetable will increase the number of rail services by more than 5 per cent. At 104,500 a week, we now have the highest number of trains on the network since the 1963 Beeching report, which closed many of Britain’s rural rail lines.
On the congested west coast main line, passengers can see the benefit of £8.8bn investment, which now means a shuttle-style London to Birmingham service running every 20 minutes, and London to Manchester services also three times an hour. The standard London to Birmingham journey time is down to 82 minutes. Fast trains to Manchester take just over two hours, and it is just over four to Glasgow. In the 1970s it took six, at least according to a British Rail poster on my wall at the department of transport.
But this isn’t enough. We need to do more to tackle overcrowding. 1,300 extra rail carriages over the next five years will help, as will £26bn over the next decade to improve capacity. This includes both Crossrail, and the Thameslink upgrade, which together will transform north-south and east-west rail links through London.
Such improvements benefit the environment and wider society as much as individual passengers. Rail passengers account for barely half as much carbon per mile as motorists, and a quarter as much as air passengers. Moreover, greater rail capacity, and reduced journey times on affordable trains, can do much to integrate Britain, helping to overcome the north-south divide and connecting up our regions. (And I welcome the positive approach the Conservatives are now taking to rail investment, and hope we can build cross-party consensus on future strategy.)
November was the first anniversary of the reopening of St Pancras. We got a taste of what it must have been like for the Victorians, who saw railways not only as a faster means of transport, but a social revolution. I am confident that 21st-century Britain will see many more such transformational projects. With St Pancras, we were just getting started.