Electric trains and complexity are the future

Hot on the heels of the news that the Science and Technology Select Committee thinks that public transport cannot compete with the car comes the news that there is to be a government review of HS2.

Quite why there is not a simultaneous review of the third runway at Heathrow, I can’t fathom. For, if we are serious about climate warming (and, even if you started out disputing the science, there is now so much individual evidence that there can be very few who think we should not be) then it is much more damaging for the future to invest in flying where the exhaust gases are discharged high into the atmosphere and thus inherently more detrimental.

Some say we will soon have electric planes. Perhaps.

But we already have electric trains. It is true there has been a shameful failure to invest in the electrification of Britain’s railway infrastructure and that also the infrastucture is Victorian so difficult to modernise, particularly, when having (quite rightly) to comply with 21st century health and safety requirements which were never even thought of during their dangerous and desperate construction. But, given that electrification is the simplest, easiest way to a carbon free future – with the help of Britain’s enormous offshore wind potential – it seems to me unquestionable that railway building and electrification is the most important part of our future transport provision.

Electric cars might play a future role, though importantly, for cities particularly they are still going to throw up fairly similar quantities of brake dust along with worn tyre particles and road abrasions.  For long distance goods vehicles electric power seems unfeasable. Hydrogen might perhaps be possible – but that seems pretty dangerous when every goods vehicle on the road would be equipped with a pressurised tank to store it – bearing in mind the road traffic accidents that involve HGVs, relatively rare though they may be, tend to involve death or serious injury, simply because of their size. I suggest we are really asking for trouble to have large quantities of them hurtling around the road system at 60mph. Yes, I know some buses in Aberdeen are hydrogen fuelled, but I very much doubt they ever get above 50 for very long, they are not as heavy as an articulated lorry and there are only a dozen of them or so.

So for goods distribution it seems to me you are back to the railway again and, in particular, reinvesting in something that was a British nationalised railway invention – the Freightliner. The routes are much reduced from former times, which used to suggest a 55 mile distance between freightliner hubs, and indeed the railway, which is now running a much more frequent passenger service, would probably not be able to cope with any large scale freight increases. An increase in rail capacity is, therefore, definitely required.

Rail is generally good at trunking large flows – but for the climate’s sake it now needs to be better at the small ones too – but what about the last few miles, the local distribution? I would suggest electric flatbed tractors and trailers (lorries) could be based in freightliner depots to handle this local distribution. It would seem to me there would need to be at least one freightliner depot in every county – as a start – and the rural counties would need an immediate upgrade. So too would parcel firms currently trunking overnight to hubs – these would have to convert to rail and rail would need to become a 24 hour railway and not one that shuts down most nights for essential maintenance. All this points to a requirement for extra capacity. At the moment that extra capacity is provided by the road system by putting everyone on the bus. You cannot do that for freight. So some of those parallel routes that were cut by Beeching as surplus are going to have to be reopened and redrawn.

Where HS2 fits into this is uncertain. If it is to supplement capacity from Birmingham to London then it is highly likely to be necessary.

But if, as currently proposed, it is not going to connected to HS1 to enable direct travel to the continent then that is unutterably stupid. If you wanted to go from Birmingham to Brussels then however quickly you are whizzed to London if you then have a half mile waIk or a taxi ride and more hurry up and wait to ensure your connection, I think most people would rather fly direct.

If, as we must, we are trying to persuade people to fly less then why make the greenest alternative, train travel, and in particular international train travel, so extraordinarily difficult?

I consider even the idea of this fantastic speed a matter of vanity rather than practicality. Britain is a relatively small country so this terribly fast travel from Birmingham to London in 50 minutes instead of the current 90 minutes. That is pretty marginal. True, in a day for a return journey that is a whole 1 hour twenty minutes saved, but in these days when, if we have a good internet connection many of us can be working, and those that aren’t can be listening to or looking at, something interesting, speed is not of the essence, but capacity and resilience is.

So HS2 needs to offer useful increases in capacity to make for a more resilient railway, which means it needs to be well connected (as the French have done) to the existing system and not run as a separate premium, prestige service.

Britain already runs the most intensively operated railway in Europe – unsurprisingly, as England is also the most densely populated country in Europe. But HS2 in ‘speeding on by’ will leave out as many people as it includes, which will not offer the best service to the largest number. Much better to use the line to offer overtaking opportunities for service trains otherwise stopping on a pattern fairly similar to the existing trains and consequently to allow for the interweaving of all that extra freight.

It is therefore sad to note that according to the Guardian:

Chinese state-owned railway constructors and operators are also being tapped up to help deliver HS2, if the high-speed project gets the go-ahead. The chief executive of HS2, Mark Thurston, flew to Beijing recently to discuss China’s offer to provide “a wholesale package to build” the £55.7bn network.

This what we do not want. China is not a tiny island offshore of Europe – it is an enormous country where speed can ‘shrink’ distance. Britain doesn’t need their separated, fast, premium services.

Not, at least till climate warming requires us to dig up unequivocably, all the motorways.


  1. Jeremy GH -

    The issue of connecting HS1 and HS2 – or of any through services beyond the Eurostar London-Paris/Brussels/Lille network (at either end) – is that of security, customs and immigration (even before Brexit): as the authorities’ starting point is that by default people should not be allowed to, and hence need to be thoroughly checked before they, make the journey, they make unreasonable demands to permit this.
    Hence no Eurostar from Amsterdam – it’s a case of change for checking in Brussels .

    1. Peter May -

      I’m aware of that but the idea that people cannot be checked in in Brum rather than London is nuts and the Home Office or whoever seems fine with having no customs officers at ports and airports! Climate warming demands we have other possibilities than air for international travel. It’s up to our government to facilitate it!

  2. Andrew (Andy) Crow -

    “Science and Technology Select Committee thinks that public transport cannot compete with the car”

    Maybe the committee should reframe its thinking and consider how we get better cooperation between different modes of travel (?)

    What we are lacking is an overall transport system that is integrated. Many railway stations have inadequate and expensive parking provision for example, and bus and train timetables don’t co-ordinate.

    Individual players in a competitive market system are unlikely to solve this ongoing problem; which leaves road transport as king of the road.

    The Beeching era reform which led to massive road building programmes was all well and good, but would have perhaps been better conceived as an addition to the railway network rather then a replacement. I think policy makers at the time massively underestimated future demand for travel. At a time when most households didn’t even have one car, the notion of the three car household was out of range of expectation.

    We need better futurologists. And they need to be good enough at their predictions to realise that current policy shapes future outcomes. This is not like predicting the weather….. it’s more like predicting future climate, but that takes into entirely different territory !!

  3. brian faux -

    Regenerative braking could probably cut brake pad use by 90% -theoretically an electric car should not need friction style brakes at all – except for parking. But it may be a long time before such a radical step would be accepted by the public,industry and government.

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