September 08, 2006

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?

- 24 comments by 1 or more people Not publicly viewable

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  1. I think it’s a fine idea but I know very little about the technicalities so I have no opinion on whether or not the costs justify it.

    The premise that many people would choose to travel by train is a nonsense.

    I don’t think this is entirely true. I often prefer to travel by train because you can get a seat with a table and a power socket and work, or read if you prefer. If you don’t have connections, it’s also much more relaxing. I think more likely the cost of tickets is the main problem, although the £10 return from Leamington to London is pretty compelling.

    08 Sep 2006, 14:47

  2. Yeah cost is defintely the biggest factor, for instance, unless you live IN London, you still have to mess around getting a tube in and out. This can still add quite a bit to the cost especially if you live in Zone 6 like myself. The time it takes me to get a tube to say kings cross for a connecting train to coventry, i’d be two-thirds of the way there by car inlcuding a 30mile drive around the M25. Unless you are travelling much further, say manchester, newcastle etc, it just isn’t worth it, both in cost and in time. £10 tickets are great but they take even longer as they generally mean you take a much slower train as it will stop at more stations, if I had to I;d take virgin simply because its much quicker, even though more expensive, but I’d never do that as it would still only cost me about £11/£12 ish to go by car. Medium length journerys just arn’t worth it.

    08 Sep 2006, 18:00

  3. Sorry, but London to Manchester won’t take 45 minutes if the line is built as your map suggests – The line only seems to connect Airport and ‘Parkway’ stations – i.e. does not actually run into the city centres. This poses two possibilities to link into the city centres:

    1) Change onto another train/alternative transport
    2) Run the HSL trains onto ‘normal’ railways to city centre stations (if the line is built as a railway, as opposed to Maglev)

    Option 1 is likely to add time and inconvenience to passengers travelling between city centres, so, if we say half an hour city to station transfer time at each end, the journey now takes 1hr 45 mins, compared to the current fastest train time of 2hrs 5 mins. Will passengers pay a premium fare for 2 extra changes en route just to save 20 minutes? I don’t think so, particaularly for shorter journeys.

    Option 2 suffers from possible capacity limitations on the lines into principal stations. For example, there is very little, if any, spare capacity at Birmingham New Street currently, and substantial (read: Expensive) works are likely to be required to provide any extra paths, and would probably involve demolishing some of the city centre to achieve it.

    Another option would be to build new HSL stations in the city centres. But lack of available land in many city centres may prevent progress here.

    Don’t get me wrong, I love the idea of a high speed line – but only if it’s well planned and actually links city centres and the existing transport network -not just airports and suburbs of the cities, and doesn’t impact on the performance of the conventional rail network.

    09 Sep 2006, 09:20

  4. 45 mins – does that include stopping to pick up other passengers?

    And I’m not sure if you’re proposing to build Maglev trains and lines instead of Trident or as well as… But I’d be happier whizzing up and down the country if I knew there was a nuke nearby keeping me ‘safe’.

    09 Sep 2006, 12:23

  5. Chris Doidge

    Nukes aren’t there to keep you safe, they’re there so when you’re slaughtered at a few thousand degrees celsius, we can get revenge in our dying seconds…

    09 Sep 2006, 15:21

  6. You honestly believe that?

    09 Sep 2006, 23:21

  7. Rix

    Another (better?) cost comparison would be with the investment in Crossraill and CTRL at St Pancras which largely benefit either the (already overheated) south-east of England or the French.

    Maglev(ideally) or HSR to the North and Scotland has unbeatable arguments in terms of economic regeneration and the environment.

    What is missing is politicians with (i) vision; and (ii) any experience of delivering something other than politics.

    11 Sep 2006, 09:42

  8. I’ve followed Magnetic Levitation technology for quite a few years now. It’s very effective, if expensive, but I don’t agree at all with your end note asking if we should put a rail link before national defence. I haven’t really used the train service much at all; how bad exactly is the line from Birmingham to London?

    11 Sep 2006, 12:35

  9. Do people really need to commute such distances today with new technologies such as video comferencing and email etc? And should we be encouraging commuting that sort of distances, from an environmental point of view? How much load would these trains put on the national grid – would we be able to power them without building more powerstations? In my opinion we’d be much better off spending a couple of £billion making our current rail services better and cheaper than stretching it more by diverting money to such a massive scheme.

    12 Sep 2006, 20:57

  10. ...really need to commute …video comferencing…

    People are gregarious and a meeting face to face is still going to be miles better than a video conference. Always will be. I doubt it will ever replace it.

    12 Sep 2006, 22:52

  11. “In my opinion we’d be much better off spending a couple of £billion making our current rail services better and cheaper”

    Such as the modernisation of the West Coast Mainline (cost overrun from £1.5bn to £7.6bn, currently due to be finished in 2008 2 years late)? Upgrade projects are often a lot more difficult and expensive than initially forecast, and benefits I believe are limited compared to adding extra capacity in the form of new build. Although the cost of unsubsidised mag-lev has yet to be revealed, especially considering how ridiculously expensive conventional rail travel is I won’t be holding my breath.

    12 Sep 2006, 23:56

  12. I agree I prefer to meet people in face, and I can see the necesity to go such distances in some cases, but where possible we should really avoid doing so. We live in a pretty small country – if we get the trains currently on the lines at the moment running at their maximum speeds of around 125 mph (eg virgin voyagers) by improving the line then you’d be able to travel almost anywhere in a couple of hours, which is good enough for me anyway. Who’s to say that the optomistic £16bn figure will not grow if it’s managed as well as every other construction project in this country?

    13 Sep 2006, 16:46

  13. Pendolinos are faster than voyagers

    13 Sep 2006, 18:30

  14. ClickRich

    I agree that we should invest in ultra high speed links between the major cities but it can be justified on far more menial returns than your emotive reasons.

    Incidentally, I LOVE driving. I also like a drink which is incompatible with driving. I also see the benefit of getting work done en route- not easy from behinbd the wheel. Therefore I don’t personally subscribe to your one dimensional ‘time’ argument. Time is more productive on the train (as long as you keep those drinks in moderation!).

    I really don’t think Gordon Brown will take that sort of risk at this stage or proceedings. It’s too much of a gamble. I wish that Mr T. Blair had instigated some of these major public investments whilst he’d had the mandate at the beginning of his final term- now, that would have been a legacy to be proud of. Instead, he’s squandering the opportunity with just more initiatives that won’t survive the next change of government.

    14 Sep 2006, 00:26

  15. ClickRich

    Oh… and Trident. Everytime. We’re just a tiny island without it. Anyway, it’s a different pot of money so it’s a mute point.

    We’d get easily recoup the £16bn from this thing over the next 25 years anyway. Plus, the macro-economic cost will be less due to the intellectual property and expertise created for UK industry to commercialise elsewhere (we’re good at that- just look at defence and airport construction).

    14 Sep 2006, 00:30

  16. Pendolinos are designed for a top speed of 140mph but are limited to 125mph and will stay that way unless the WCML is upgraded further to enable 135/140 mph running (which looks doubtful in the near future). Voyagers/Super Voyagers are also 125 mph top speed. So currently they are both as fast as one another. – although the bulk of Voyager routes are not built for 125 mph running.

    With regard to Birmingham – London – is there really any need for a further speed upgrade? The fastest time is already around 1hr 25 mins or so – is it really worth substantial extra investment to shave a whole 5/10 minutes off that time?

    If a HSL is built, it should be primarily aimed at London – Scotland as this is where the greatest potential is for attracting passengers from domestic air travel. Between Manchester and London, rail now has 60% of the total market (and growing) – so even faster journeys are likely to make little difference to rail’s market share – thus not fully justifying the huge cost.

    For shorter journeys (eg Manchester/Birmingham – London), the existing network should be improved to optimise train performance at a fraction of the cost of a brand new line. I’m thinking along the lines of the current Trent Valley 4-tracking project (providing extra running lines between Colwich Junciton and Tamworth for freight traffic thus clearing the main running lines for passengers and increasing capacity) and the soon to start remodelling to remove the awful bottleneck at Rugby and increase the line speed for trains not calling at the station. These would still shave a few minutes off, but for a relatively small cost.

    14 Sep 2006, 20:35

  17. It’s not just the additional speeds though. If a train from London to Birmingham New St goes 10% faster, you can in theory increase capacity on that line by 10% too. Considering that National Rail consistently refer to a lack of space on the lines, this is not an insignificant benefit of faster trains.

    Pendolinos might be limited to 125mph, but they are faster than Voyagers, because they don’t slow down on corners. Shooting round bends near Leighton Buzzard and Milton Keynes at the speed they manage is pretty incredible.

    14 Sep 2006, 21:39

  18. I do agree that increased line speeds will decrease headways between successive trains thus increasing capacity, but only on areas away from major junctions and stations. Places like Rugby need to be sorted out as, otherwise, all the extra trains will just grind to a halt at these Bottlenecks – thus cancelling out the effects of the increased line speed. Plus shorter time intervals between trains make problems associated with different train stopping patterns worse (eg a service not stopping at Milton Keynes Central catching up with and being delayed by at service in front that has stopped – although careful timetable planning could minimise the effects of this).

    Class 221 Super Voyagers (but not Class 220 ‘regular’ Voyagers) are also tilt-enabled – although can only do so on tilt enabled sections of line (which, as far as I know, is currently only on the WCML), and can easily match Pendolinos for performance on these sections, and also take corners as quickly as Pendolinos do (tilting trains do still need to slow down for some sharper curves – they can’t do all curves at 125 mph!).

    15 Sep 2006, 20:11

  19. What about

    22 Sep 2006, 23:10

  20. What about it? Although a terrible incident, that was a failure of human operation, not the technology behind it. It shows that there are things to address on the implementation of the technology before it is employed for commercial use here, not that there is anything wrong with the technology of MagLev.

    23 Sep 2006, 18:09

  21. I suppose “human error” means that people didn’t follow the procedures as laid down. But are the procedures realiistic?

    23 Sep 2006, 20:16

  22. Without knowing the case in detail, I couldn’t provide a qualified answer. But I’d be very surprised if the human error factor (which can never be totally eliminated from anything operated or maintained by humans) could not be sufficiently mitigated by automation or implementation of better procedures and training.

    23 Sep 2006, 21:50

  23. Nic

    £16bn seems a lot, but the country would end up getting a railway out of it, whereas with something like the new computer system for the NHS, it may not get anything at all.

    Also, very high speed public transport is exactly what is needed for moving the huge armies of ‘big 4’ consultants around the country as they work on government IT projects – after all, they’re very fond of a drink and so generally don’t drive.

    05 Oct 2006, 13:38

  24. Cliff Eaton

    One thing to consider is polution caused by aircraft and that in order to reduce co2 emissions we are heading for an electric future, albeit generated by nuclear power stations etc. I therefore think that the time will come when domestic and european flights will be banned or greatly reduced. therefore Maglev being the only sane option should be financed and run by the airlines with additional investment by all the european governments. If there is to be a trans-european maglev system then I don’t see how the airlines can compete.

    01 Apr 2007, 13:51

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