Getting Britain moving

2 min read

What are the really big issues facing the UK? A brief list might include global warming, energy provision, the pensions time bomb, bird flu, international terrorism, Iraq, NHS funding and building a skilled workforce for the future.

Quite enough to be going on with then, but we humbly submit one further candidate for the roll call of national challenges; our transport infrastructure.

Yes, that old chestnut. It's odd that the default response to the question of getting the UK moving efficiently, cost-effectively and productively seems to be a resigned shrug of the shoulders.

In comparison with some of the big ticket issues above, it should be a challenge that is within our abilities to meet.

No factors beyond our shores dictate how we get ourselves around these islands. No demographic trend or force of nature says do one thing or the other when it comes to road, rail or air.

Yet as a nation we seem paralysed by the issue of transport, metaphorically when it comes to solving our problems, literally when we try to go anywhere. In this light, it is welcome news that Sir Rod Eddington, the government's chief transport adviser, is likely to throw his weight behind a new high-speed train link connecting London and Scotland, possibly based on Maglev rail technology of the type used in Japan.

The Engineer has argued for some time that the UK needs not just a high-speed link but an entire network of them, offering dedicated lines between the nation's major cities and freeing up existing tracks for a rejuvenated local and regional infrastructure.

Take things a stage further, and why not build a freight-only network parallel to the new high-speed routes? This would get lorries off the road, reducing overall congestion and boosting the economy.

We know, we know. How on earth do we reach this rail utopia from the creaking infrastructure, ageing rolling stock and hit-and-miss punctuality that characterises so much of what we have now?

In the end, as so often, it all boils down to money and political will. The railway network has acquired the reputation of a bottomless pit for public money that rewards mediocrity and delivers little in return.

Like transport in general, this has made rail an issue where politicians would rather tinker around the margins than indulge in the ambitious and costly thinking needed to deliver a revolution.

If Eddington can persuade the government at least to begin the process by sanctioning a high-speed link, that would be a start.

Andrew Lee
The Engineer Magazine & Online