Off track

It’s been a pretty disappointing few days if you believe the UK should start thinking big when it comes to sorting out the nation’s transport problems. And even more dispiriting if you live in Scotland and the northern regions of England.

Reaction to the long-awaited report from the government’s transport special adviser Sir Rod Eddington was dominated by one big idea, that of road pricing.

This was inevitable, because as political hot potatoes go the prospect of asking motorists to fork out extra cash every time they take a trip to the shops is positively roasting.

Amid all the furore over congestion charging and a debate that seemed to be about roads, roads and even more roads, there was relatively little in the national media concerning the strategy for that most beleaguered plank of the UK’s infrastructure, its railways.

There was intense speculation in the run up to the Eddington report that he would back the idea of a rail revolution in the UK, symbolised by the construction of a new north-south high-speed line possibly based on Maglev technology.

In the event, Eddington was barely even lukewarm in his support for such a project. Its benefits, he concluded, were likely to be too marginal and too uncertain to justify the cost and environmental impact of building it.

The Eddington study is impressive in its breadth and its detail, but on this point we have to disagree strongly. We have heard a lot in the last year about the transformational effect the Olympic Games will have on the eastern side of Greater London. The expense, we are assured, will be more than outweighed not just by the prestige of staging the event but by the lasting economic benefits that will follow.

Well, if you are looking for a project that will deliver benefits 10, 50 or 100 years after its completion, how about a rail line that brings the UK closer together.

One part of England, namely Kent, will soon begin to experience what it is like to have a high-speed rail line when the Channel Tunnel Rail Link, now renamed High Speed 1, begins ferrying passengers from the further reaches of the county into central London in less than half an hour.

To put that into context, residents of the town of Ashford – which is significantly closer to the White Cliffs of Dover than it is to Nelson’s Column – would beat commuters from one of the outlying London tube lines into the office.

High Speed 1 is a great thing, a genuine engineering achievement that will benefit those who use it. Those in other regions of the UK deserve the chance to enjoy similar benefits from at least a High Speed 2, and possibly a 3 and 4 as well.

Andrew Lee


The Engineer & The Engineer Online