China and Japan have won the high-speed rail race. With bullet trains crisscrossing the Asian supercontinent, it has made the grandfather of rail, the United Kingdom, look as slow as the original rocket. Why does the UK not have bullet trains, and what is the future of high-speed rail in the British Isles?
A bit of history
Way back in 1804, a British engineer named Richard Trevithick built the first railway engine, but steam locomotion would not take off in a big way until 1829 when inspired engineer George Stephenson built the rocket!
Great Britain would become a powerhouse of locomotion engineering and would build a rail network that would be the envy of the world. But then, things slowed down.
Eventually, government reforms contained back the vast network of railways, and car companies came to dominate the landscape. With the inclusion of lorries and major highway systems, the train was regulated only to high-capacity city to city routes – leaving many rural areas out of luck.
What exactly happened?
So why did innovation stop in England? Why did they no longer invest in railways, and how did Japan and others come to dominate high-speed rail travel?
There are five significant reasons why the UK doesn’t have bullet trains or faster rail today. Let us examine them one after the other.
The first is the short distances. About 80% of the UK’s population live in a minimal area between Manchester, Leeds, Bristol, and London. Spending a lot of money to go not-very-far more quickly is questionable – we are looking at saving under an hour for the longest routes, and dramatically less time for cities near London. The European rivals who have high speed rail such as France are already enormous countries and the benefits would be instantly realized if they could cross them faster.
The second reason is the population density of the United Kingdom. Because of first reason, it’s pretty hard to lay out a new network; because unlike, say, France, in the UK, there aren’t huge areas of space between significant population areas, with the exception of the ‘space’ south of the ‘Central Belt’ of Scotland.
Historic Hostility to Investment in Rail
The third is the historic hostility to investment in rail. Successive British governments have not followed up on the potential of high-speed rail, and plans have fallen to the wayside. Despite petitions and public support for faster trains, the government has been reluctant to invest in these vast projects.
Our fourth reason is much more interesting, and it’s called Path dependency. Britain invented railways, and pretty much filled the country with them tout de suite. Once they’re laid out with slower rail travel, you have all the disadvantages of being an early adopter. This means countries like Japan and especially China are laying out high-speed rail for the first time ever, with no existing slow rail lines to compete.
The fifth and last reason is because of economic decline. Partly a cause of our third reason and partly a consequence of it, Britain has always struggled to raise sufficient capital in the post-war period for large nation-building projects. Especially if like Japan’s high speed rail network needs to be consistently subsidized for decades to come. The result is that the UK has long distance slow rail routes that are operating at near capacity.
Experts have said that a new North-South railway line should be built, and the government has finally moved on that project with the HS2 railway (High Speed 2).
High-speed trains will travel between London and Birmingham on 134 miles of dedicated track. They will pass through more than 30 miles of tunnels and over 10 miles of viaducts, delivering quicker journeys on more trains with more seats. Phase One has a funding envelope of £45bn and will open between 2029 and 2033.
It is set to reduce the time it takes to travel from London to Birmingham by 45 minutes, from the current time of 82 minutes.
From here, the network will extend North to Connect to Manchester and beyond to the twin cities of Edinburgh and Glasgow. The whole route, once connected, you can travel from Scotland to London at a time of only 220 minutes, which is a saving of only 40 minutes.
There are other arguments that the government should instead invest in more modern ideas or futuristic technologies, such as building a Hyperloop or Maglev technology. This would bring the travel time to cross the British Isles down to under an hour; but it took England this long to create a single high-speed train line, I think we are pushing our luck.
The United Kingdom may have started the rail race, but without serious investment for arguably little gain, its railways will only go as fast as the steam trains of yore, leaving the future to the giants of the East.
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