Government must think fast to tackle challenges facing UK rail plans

With reference to the proposed high-speed rail link between London and Birmingham, ’Experts stay on the right track for rail expansion’ (<I>The Engineer</I>, 22 March 2010), there are a few issues that have been missed, at least politically.

The first is that of failing to observe that the existing trains operate at 125mph, but were purposely designed for 140mph. With present journey times being approximately one hour 22 minutes, including stops, means that there is scope to improve the existing services by using the trains as they were designed to be used, at 140mph. By using double-block signalling, such trains could be, at a comparatively low cost, used as originally intended.

With the present rail distance between London and Birmingham, the proposed 45-minute journey time equates to an average speed of 150mph. For this average speed, why are the new trains being designed for 250mph operating speeds?

Second, those countries presently running conventional trains just above 200mph do not have trains capable of cruising at 250mph. Those countries that have gone notably faster than 200mph are using magnetically levitated trains, namely Japan and China. In addition, Japan has a notable quantity of its electricity generated using nuclear fuel rather than fossil fuels.

As Britain reaches a point where present electricity-generating stations, predominantly using fossil fuels, are reaching the end of their service life, a power-hungry, high-speed railway will face a major challenge regarding a suitable electricity supply.

As for the new trains, where will they come from? The UK has lost its railway train design and manufacturing capability for the UK in the UK, and imports what it needs. If other countries follow Japan’s example for speeds notably above 200mph, using maglev, then the government’s proposal for a dedicated high-speed railway in the UK using conventional track and overhead wires looks increasingly unlikely.

Andrew Porter, EADS Astrium