We need Maglev… and we need it yesterday.
Maglev. About twenty years ago it was “the future”. Today, it remains a figment of our imagination unless you happen to visit Singapore or one of the ‘toy train’ test tracks in Germany and Japan. The world’s first commercial Maglev train was – believe it or not – in Birmingham, linking the NEC and the Airport. It was replaced a few years ago with a chain-based train.
But since the 2005 election, politicians are starting to take the proposition seriously again. Labour’s 2005 manifesto pledged a high-speed rail link between London and Scotland (presumably something Gordon Brown will eagerly approve if given the chance) and the government’s report into the various options (basically either Maglev or something like France’s TGV) will – hopefully – come out soon.
It’ll revolutionise British transport. According to pressure group 500km/h you’ll be able to travel up and down the spine of the country at 311mph, which means London to Manchester will take 45 minutes. That’s forty-five minutes. Liverpool to Newcastle (perhaps a more vital link than London-Edinburgh) would take under an hour. Linford Christie couldn’t even come close.
There’s a tonne of economic reasons why we should do it, but I’m not sure they’re the real reason we should start building now.
The real reason is that public transport in Britain is a shambles. Why would most people want to take a train from London to Manchester when driving there takes only a little bit longer (if you ignore the traffic within the M25) and costs considerably less (a London-Manchester return for tomorrow is a minimum of £60 and more like £200 if you want to go in peak-time).
The premise that many people would choose to travel by train is a nonsense. If you enjoy driving even a bit, it’s just not worth waiting at stations and missing connections. And don’t even mention luggage. The reason people do it is that they’re often going somewhere where parking their car is impossible. Or they don’t have a car. Today’s train system is geared towards the business traveller, and a huge proportion of its potential customer base is put off by the sheer stupidity of the way it works and the amount it costs.
For sure, Maglev isn’t going to be cheap. In Shanghai though, it’s about £3 for a single fare. Bear in mind that the length of track there is pretty short and that it was built with what we would probably characterise as slave labour (at British prices anyway). But it is the most reliable railway in the world, and from the video (see below) looks incredible. And the environmental cost is a fraction of aeroplane use.
There’s a danger that the North-South line in Britain will be scrapped because rail bosses think they can just squeeze more intercity trains on to the existing tracks. But this would be a disaster. The fares would still be extortionately high considering the lack of utility gained by travelling on a train (over a car journey).
This line shouldn’t be about increasing capacity. It should be about making the railway attractive again. Per mile, it’ll be half the cost of the Channel Tunnel Rail Link, which has been built on time and nearly to budget.
George Osborne, the shadow chancellor, favours Maglev. But apparently Gordon Brown’s allies say it’s too expensive and impractical. Brown needs to look above the parapet of Westminster bureaucracy and see the benefits of the Tories’ blue sky thinking. He has a simple choice between a revolutionary railway system or congested roads, environmental disaster and a growing North-South divide.
A final thought for you…
Cost of replacing the Trident nuclear deterrent: £15bn
Cost of building a Maglev line between London and Edinburgh: £16bn
Which would you prefer?