Train in vain?

France did it, Japan did it, and now Britain is considering it: linking the countries’ cities together with a network of high-speed train lines.

Following the success of the Channel Tunnel Rail Link, or HST-1, Network Rail is to commission a study into five new lines, to run alongside the existing routes of the East Coast mainline, from London to Edinburgh via York and Newcastle; the West Coast mainline, from London to Glasgow via Birmingham and Manchester; the Midland mainline, from London to Sheffield via Nottingham; the Great Western line, from London to Cardiff and Penzance; and the Chiltern Line, from London direct to Birmingham. If built, the scheme will see 180mph trains carrying passengers alongside the existing lines, which would be dedicated to freight.

It’s an exciting prospect, certainly in engineering terms. HST-1 aside, the last major new rail line built in Britain was in 1899, and the creaking infrastructure is definitely in need of attention. According to Network Rail, there’s a real need for it as well: passenger numbers have increased by 40 per cent in the last decade, with more people travelling by train now than at any time since 1946, and numbers are expected to swell by another 30 per cent in the next ten years. Improving rail infrastructure could also help get people off the roads, the argument goes, by reducing congestion, fuel use and carbon emissions; it could also make rail a definite alternative to flying, for domestic services and for short hops to Europe.

But there is a danger of getting carried away. As we all know, the existence of a rail line is no guarantee of there actually being a train. The speed of the services is only one factor: people will only consider the train if the service is reliable and affordable — and that means that it’s going to have to be cheaper and more comfortable than flying as well as offering the other advantages of unlimited luggage and lack of airport hassle. The huge cost of the project — surely a problem in these times of possible recession and definite credit crunch — is going to make it difficult to keep prices down.

And there are other factors to be considered. Even if the new lines halve the journey time from London to Cardiff or Glasgow, is it really going to be practical for anyone further north than Birmingham, or further west than Swindon, to use the Channel Tunnel to get to Europe, travelling via London, rather than flying there direct? And if the bulk of rail investment over the next half-century is directed at these lines, what does that mean for the creaking, packed and overstretched commuter services which carry the majority of Britain’s rail passengers?

Like all infrastructure issues, the more you look at it, the more complex it gets. There are clearly a whole series of delicate balancing acts ahead, and that’s before we even get to the thorny issues of planning and public consent for the construction work. From our travels around the country, The Engineer staff have a gut feeling that there’s a definite need for faster and more reliable train services. But making it happen, on our crowded, fractious and risk-averse island? That’s going to be an interesting and far from smooth ride.

Stuart Nathan

Special Projects Editor