The case for a new North-South rail link is compelling but which technology should underpin the high-speed line? Jon Excell reports.
In 1994 passengers on Eurostar’s maiden journey couldn’t fail to be struck by the contrast between the noisy stop-start trundle through Kent and the 186mph whiz through France’s World War 1 battlefields. It was enough to make even the most ardent defender of the UK rail industry splutter into their champagne. Thankfully, the UK end of the service has now almost caught up with its Gallic half, and high-speed trains run on dedicated tracks as far as Fawkham junction in north Kent. Next year the Channel Tunnel rail link (CTRL) will extend through to St Pancras International in north London, and in 2009 a 140mph domestic service running between London and Kent is expected to be introduced. But while this small corner of south-east England is already reaping the benefits of high-speed rail, the rest of the UK is still in thrall to a network that is frequently slow, unreliable and expensive. And with so few incentives to use rail for intercity travel, this country has become one of the most car-dependent in Europe. This year high-speed rail is firmly on the agenda; a rash of dedicated events dot the industry’s conference calendar and recent comments from the transport secretary Alistair Darling suggest that the issue is at last getting some serious political attention. In perhaps the most hotly anticipated development, later this summer former BA chief executive turned government transport ‘tsar’ Rod Eddington will present what is expected to be the most detailed report yet on the feasibility of a north-south high-speed transport link for the UK. In this climate of renewed interest, a number of increasingly vocal groups are outlining their visions for a transport system that could bridge the geographical and economic divide between north and south. Chief among these high-speed advocates is UK company Ultraspeed, which is promoting a staged construction of a 500-mile £29bn network of magnetic levitation trains (maglev) linking London and Heathrow to Glasgow via Birmingham, Manchester, Leeds, Newcastle and Edinburgh. Maglev trains, which have no wheels, axles, transmission or pantographs, are instead propelled at high speed along electromagnetic guideways. Ultraspeed’s project leader Dr Alan James told The Engineer he believes that rather than attempt to catch up with other EU nations by developing high-speed TGV-style trains, the UK has a golden opportunity to leapfrog the rest of Europe and create a world-beating system. Ultraspeed is championing Transrapid, a 500mph German maglev system developed by Siemens and Thyssen-Krup that’s already whizzing Chinese passengers from downtown Shanghai to the new Shanghai airport at Pudong. Following the success of this system, the operators recently announced that a full 108-mile intercity route from Shanghai to HangZhou will soon begin construction. James sketched out a compelling set of advantages to Transrapid. He claimed that while a typical high-speed train with about 450 seats will accelerate to 186mph in around 13 miles and six minutes, Transrapid will reach that speed with up to 1,196 seats on-board in 2.7 miles and 97 seconds. Transrapid’s higher cruising speed of 310mph could also give it massive advantages in terms of likely routes. Indeed, Ultraspeed has drawn up plans for a system that shoots up the west side of the country to Manchester before zipping across the Pennines and heading up the east side of the UK to Edinburgh. ‘At 500kmh we overcome a fundamental inefficiency of the transport geography of the UK since the Romans, who had to build an east and west road,’ said James. He added that the system is also inherently safe. As the track or guideway is effectively the motor, the vehicle operates as a dumb slave. This means that the system avoids the fragmentation between vehicle, signalling system, power supply and control system that often causes problems for traditional rail. James claimed that Transrapid would be immune to accidents like the Hatfield rail disaster, which was caused by a broken rail. ‘In Transrapid, if the guideway brakes, the circuit is broken so the thing comes to a controlled halt,’ he said. James added that there are big misconceptions surrounding maglev. While some in the industry suggest that the power requirements would be prohibitive, he claimed that a 10-section Transrapid vehicle travelling at 186mph from London to Leeds would use roughly half the power of an equivalent TGV system. But perhaps the biggest myth, he claimed, is that the infrastructure requirements would be far greater than any other high-speed system. ‘You would need to develop less infrastructure for a Transrapid system than you would for TGV,’ he said. James added that while the French can run TGV-style trains on new high-speed lines between cities and use existing infrastructure to run into the cities, this isn’t possible in the UK. ‘The French have got loads of spare capacity, but in the UK the approaches to city centres are so massively congested with existing trains that you simply couldn’t fit high-speed, high-capacity heavy rail on to them. ‘If ever there was a case for the argument that TGVs can run over classic rail infrastructure and save loads of money the Channel Tunnel rail link would have been it but the heavy rail mob just spent £2bn building a new TGV-style line right to the end of the platforms at St Pancras station.’ If you accept Ultraspeed’s argument that a TGV-style system would also require an entirely new end-to-end infrastructure, its proposals become a lot more attractive. According to James, the fact that Transrapid relies on an elevated guideway means that it would use up less land than a TGV system and would be easier to fit to the UK landscape, dispensing with the need for intensive civil engineering to fit the landscape to the route. James believes that the economic arguments for a high-speed north-south link are irrefutable. If the government is to fulfil its aim of redressing the north/south economic balance and making the northern regions of the UK globally competitive it is, he claimed, essential. ‘If you ask inward investors who did not invest in the UK but instead chose one of our competitors, 80 per cent of them would give you transport infrastructure as a key reason why they chose another place to go — it’s hurting, everybody recognises something needs to be done.’ But while few in the rail industry would argue over the economic benefits of such a link, James’s contention that existing infrastructure is non-existent, is, claim some, simply not true. Jim Steer, a respected transport consultant and founder of high-speed link pressure group GreenGauge21, is impressed with the way in which Ultraspeed has set about enthusing the nation, but takes issue with the suggestion that it’s not possible to use existing infrastructure. ‘Network Rail has published an assessment of the level of congestion on the national rail network — and what you find is that some bits of it are full, but there are sections where there is spare capacity,’ he said. ‘The trick as we see it is to develop new high-speed routes in those parts of the country where you’re running parallel with congested bits of the rail network but allow yourself the luxury of being able to link into those bits of the network, typically in the north, where there’s plenty of rail infrastructure that you can use to complete the journey.’ He pointed to CTRL’s proposed domestic routes as proof that this is possible. ‘When CTRL is complete to St Pancras within a couple of years you’ll have the domestic high-speed trains that will run at 139mph on a pretty old piece of rail structure in Kent from existing stations, then get on to CTRL, zip along that and go into central London. So to say you can’t do this is just plain wrong.’ Unlike Ultraspeed, Steer’s group is not currently championing a particular technology or route, but promoting the idea of a high-speed link as well as encouraging debate on some of the key challenges. There is much to be done, he said: ‘The big challenge in thinking of any transport system that’s going to last for 50-100 or more years has got to be about environmental impact and energy consumption, and we need to ensure that we develop a comprehensive view of infrastructure and trains that bears that in mind from the outset.’ Steer explained that these needs are likely to mean an emphasis on creating lower-weight trains. He pointed to the work carried out in this area by Japanese Shinkansen engineers. These high-speed electric trains, which initially only went at 125mph, now regularly travel at up to 200mph. Steer also suggested that it may be worth looking at future automotive technologies for ideas that could be applied now to a high-speed rail system. ‘Rail could be a very good environment in which to develop some of these systems because it’s self-enclosed and contained. I’m thinking in terms of fuel cell technology that would take away the need for independent electric traction supply and also things like hybrid power systems.’ He said that it should be possible to use regenerative braking to generate electricity that could be stored in a battery while also having a complementary diesel system. ‘Technology like that would enable you not only to run high-speed trains over high-speed lines and then on to the existing railway. You could actually run it on to an existing unelectrified bit of railway using the diesel element of a high-speed rail system.’ As Eddington prepares to report to MPs this summer, the high-speed rail lobby feels that momentum is gathering. And whether or not the government takes on-board Sir Rod’s recommendations there’s a strong feeling that sooner or later the case for a high-speed link will prove irresistible.
As Jim Steer suggested, ‘It adds capacity, improves reliability, brings places that suffer from being remote from London closer to London, and it improves safety — what else can you do that brings all those benefits? Widen the motorways? Build some more runways in the south-east?’
The case in favour of the jet set
While TGV-style trains, or maglev, are regarded as the most likely candidates for a high-speed link, the past few months have seen excited speculation about ‘jet-propelled’ trains criss-crossing the countryside at the speed of passenger planes.
Bombardier’s Jet Train is a high-speed locomotive that uses a Pratt & Whitney gas turbine to drive an electric generator. This propels the train at the somewhat more pedestrian top speed of 150mph.
Developed at an estimated cost of $41m (£23m), Jet Train currently exists only in experimental form, with a prototype recently reaching 149mph on the US Government’s railroad test track in Pueblo, Colorado.
Bombardier also acquired preferred bidder status for the Florida high-speed rail project, an ambitious proposal to link Miami, Tampa and Orlando that was put on ice when Florida’s governor, Jeb Bush, convinced voters that they’d be better off investing in roads.
Jet-Train is not the first incarnation of a so-called gas turbine electric locomotive (GTEL). Throughout the 1950s and 1960s North America’s Union Pacific Railroad operated a fleet of gas-turbine powered locomotives developed by GE, but the oil crisis of the 1970s made these noisy, powerful vehicles too expensive to operate.
But Daniel Hubert, chief engineer on the Jet Train project, told The Engineer that huge advances in traction and turbine technology give the jet-propelled train significant advantages over its forebears. He added that the modern version is also considerably quieter than its ancestors, thanks to the fact that the train’s single turbine is installed in a specially sound-insulated room.
However, Hubert confirmed that while there has been some interest in the system from Bombardier’s European division, the existing prototype would require extensive redesign to be capable of operating in the UK.
‘Jet Train was made in North America for a North American market — it would not be possible to take it in its form today and try to run it on the European infrastructure,’ he said.
Ultraspeed’s Alan James is unimpressed with Jet Train’s credentials, claiming that it’s simply not fast enough. ‘150mph doesn’t really cut the mustard in terms of high speed — it might work in the States where the railways are desperately slow,’ he said. ‘And they’ll always claim you can run it on existing infrastructure but that’s impossible in the UK because there’s no capacity.’
Though some in the rail industry have allegedly dubbed the system ‘Eddington’s Rocket’, DFT spokesman Chris Atkinson said that there is little provenance in the rumour that Rod Eddington favours the Jet Train.
‘He would have met John Armitt [Network Rail’s chief executive] and discussed numerous transport solutions — and may well have mentioned that specific idea. It’s all speculation at this stage. No one really knows what Eddington’s likely to say in his report,’ he commented.