A future for rail?

By | Category: Travel tips & opinions
Eurostar trains

Eurostar provides the fastest speed on our lines

The basic principles of a railway remain much as they were when James, Trevithick and Stephenson were developing engines running on metal rails.

The high speed train in the version of HS1 and HS2 might seem new to British readers but it was as long ago as 1964 that Japanese bullet trains went into use travelling at speeds up to 130mph between Tokyo and Osaka. What Britons may envy is that the average delay on the line is less than a single minute, an achievement that travellers on Britain’s Southern Northern and Thameslink lines can only dream of. Today bullet trains can speed along at up to 200mph. Discounting the Eurostar service which travels at up to 186 mph, in the UK the fastest speed is 125mph on certain parts of the rail network although to many passengers that seems about 120 mph more than their trains seem to travel at.

But Mallard over ninety years ago travelled at much the same speed then that our high-speed trains do now! (Mallard is  the middle of the three engines)

When, or if, HS2 begins, speeds of up to 220mph could be achieved.

But the principles remain the same; trains running on a track powered by electricity overhead cables. Overhead cables are prone to weather problems and when I regularly used the east coast line I gave thanks on more than one occasion that old 125 diesels were around to help out

Long before HS2 becomes a reality, Chicago will have a high-speed transport system that links the main airport (O’Hare) with the city centre. Travelling at up to 150mph, Elon Musk’s plan is to build new underground tunnels where necessary and passengers will travel in small carriages accommodating up to 16 people. At present if you catch the Blue Line in from the airport the journey takes about 40-50 minutes depending on where you want to alight. Musk’s idea is that it will take twelve minutes!

Musk’s idea is that the system will be up and running in three years.

How much is it costing the city of Chicago? Nothing. Musk and his backers are footing the bill.

Who, in any of our governments has the foresight to approach Musk and ask if he would be interested in developing a similar line in this country to, say, link Leeds – Manchester; Swansea – Cardiff ; Glasgow – Edinburgh; Southampton-Portsmouth-Brighton or even Plymouth – Exeter – Bristol? Maybe he could even develop a fast way of getting around all the terminals at Heathrow!

hyperloop plan

an early hyperloop design© Tesla Motors

In California, Musk has a hyperloop system in planning that links Los Angeles and San Francisco. Virgin Hyperloop One, earlier this year, has signed a deal to build a system linking Mumbai and Pune. There are announcements of hyperloop developments in the Middle East, in Canada and in parts of Europe but in the UK… nothing other than a statement by Richard Branson that he was interested in a hyperloop link between Heathrow and Gatwick

A hyperloop system, as explained by Musk many years ago is where pressurised pods, (think of those on the London Eye for a rough idea of size) or capsules ride on air in a sealed tube at speeds of about 750mph.

Virgin Hyperloop One. Image © Virgin

It isn’t the only system under development. Maglev systems where two sets of magnets operate to propel a train, carriage or pod up a track. Here the speeds wouldn’t be as fast (maybe only 200-300 mph) but in destinations where maglev systems operate at present, (China, Japan and South Korea) speeds are way below that figure and the distances covered are much less than hyperloops systems are suggesting. It was in the UK that the first commercial maglev system ran linking Birmingham International station with the airport there. Today it is no longer a maglev system (it was replaced in 1995) as the maintenance required was deemed to be too inexpensive.

What I am suggesting is that traditional rail systems may be ending their natural life and that newer forms or rail-type transport may supplant what we have planned. Where is our next generation of passenger movement ideas coming from?

its time for the next big leap in passenger movement

For visitors and travellers, the prospect of hyperloops or maglev systems has many advantages. It means that visitors can see more in the short time that they have to spend in our countries.  Visitors would travel further if train times were faster so fulfilling one complaint often made by destinations outside London – that travellers stay close to London and well-known sites like Stratford-upon-Avon. It means that day trippers can spend more time at their destination instead of wasting it on slow-moving trains. It also means that congested roads would probably see a drop in the number of cars using them. That should also produce a drop in vehicle emissions.

Just as there are fewer flights between London and Paris or Brussels due to the fast Eurostar service so the same should happen if long distance hyperloop or other twenty-first century technology was employed.

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