How High Speed Rail Could Rescue Our Economy

Posted on December 29, 2011 by Professor Benfield There have been 0 comments

This article links the potential for Britain's new HS2 transport infrastructure to spawn new technologies along with architectural and building concepts. In turn these could require our ideas about spatial, environmental and social planning to be revisited.

Noise on the Line

Anyone who has spent a night within a few miles of a French TGV line may have at least some passing sympathy for the plethora of HS2 NIMBY objectors. The noise can be truly disturbing, but then perhaps no more so than that of the motorways that they themselves no doubt regularly use.

Likewise, while arguments over wider environmental impacts, cost benefits, taxation, et al, have been harnessed in support of their self-interests, such opposition has, in the main, been negative. The cacophony has amounted to a truly deafening ‘noise on the line’.

As a result, few if any proposals appear to have been countenanced, or even brought forward, to address the core objections via positive innovation.

Short Term Focus

One reason maybe that Governments, as well as NIMBY’s, are focussed on the short term - today and tomorrow.

It was the same in the early ‘70’s when, along with other ‘Green’ campaigners, I urged support for alternative technologies, like wind generators and solar power.

But no one was listening. After all, we had cheap North Sea Oil and Gas to rely on. Instead the UK left others to develop these technologies into industries, producing solutions that they now sell back to us.

Circumstances Alter Cases

However, perhaps our present challenging economic circumstances, the urgent need to ‘recreate’ British Industry, and revisit construction as an economic generator, may be in fortuitous conjunction.

Putting on one side questions of ‘Transport’, Freight and Mobility, and whether they are actually a ‘good’ or not, if one assumes for the moment that they are a ‘good’, the issue is whether or not we are pursuing the right technology.

In this respect, arguably rail – and air - as we know them are things of the past

Turning Argument to Advantage

With the HS2 route now (all but) approved, the NIMBY’s could do themselves and UK PLC a favour by becoming pro-active in good old “If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em”, tradition.

In general the clamour forcing Government to defend its policy position against this clamour has obfuscated the greater challenge and opportunity afforded, not by the HS2 proposal, but by the concept itself.

Spending Wisely

If Government is intent on spending £17 Billion (over £600 per family)on HS2’s first stage from London to Birmingham, and a full project cost of around £30 billion (over £1,000 per family), then this ought to be more than enough to spawn one, or more industries.

The debt interest alone will be £700m each year on the initial £17B project. (see Tax Payers Alliance)

The lack of radical thinking and the failure to recognise that ignoring the encouragement and support needed for alternative ideas in the past, has cost the UK dearly today. Conversely, the presence of mind to enable innovative development to be channelled through - and supported by - current capital spending, could see the rebirth of Britain’s latent industrial talent.

What is ‘High Speed Rail”?

Internationally High Speed Rail is defined as having a top speed of at least 155mph (250km/hr.). The UK’s four main railways only offer up to 125mph (201 Km/hr.), with only 70 miles of high-speed line. This includes the 2003 Channel Tunnel Rail Link, re-branded "High Speed 1" in 2006, which operates at circa 225 km/h (140 mph).

Attempts by East Coast Main Line (ECML) and West Coast Main Line (WCML) to increase speeds to 140 mph (225 km/h) have failed, partly because trains that travel above 125 mph (201 km/h) are considered to require in-cab signalling for safety reasons.

It is proposed (hoped?) that HS2 will operate at around 186 mph.(300 Km/hr.) in line with Eurostar,

Replacing Outdated Technology with even Older Ideas

However, the major obstacle to increasing speed is that these systems rely upon out dated technology – wheels! They simply cannot withstand the forces to which super high speed subjects them.

The frustrating thing is that alternatives already exist – and, in part at least, have done so for around 200 years. The only reason they were not implemented then was the lack of the materials technology that we possess today.

I’m referring of course to the tried, tested and proven ‘atmospheric’ railway, or pneumatic tube transport. First proposed in 1812 by George Medhurst, the idea was subsequently taken up by several others, including one of the UK’s most famous and celebrated engineers, Isambard Kingdom Brunel.

For much of the intervening 200 years it has nevertheless been in practical use as a system to deliver pneumatic post, or mail, as in telegrams, department stores, banks and hospitals.

Britain (was) at the Forefront

More recently we were also pioneers in the development of ‘Maglev’ technology, with the air/rail link at Birmingham International demonstrating how magnetic levitation could be successfully applied as long ago as 1984. However, the initial patent had been granted for the concept over a hundred years ago in 1907

In the late 1960’s the Japanese began development of Maglev transport and since the turn of the millennium, both Japanese and Chinese have been investing heavily in building appropriate infrastructures for this.

Regrettably, while others have grasped the opportunities, once again Britain has let its early initiatives slip from its grasp.

Perhaps not altogether unrelated is the fact that we seem to have few scientists and technologists in Government, or even Parliament , able to grasp the importance of the challenges now faced, or the opportunities they offer.

We also seem to have shied away from the pioneering concept that great inventions and great risks are deserving of great rewards. Staking one’s fortune on the hope that one’s ‘ship would come in’, is alien to generations now dependent on the social security net.

If We Really Want High Speed

… then we have to escape from the wheel.

Feasibility studies conducted by Lockheed, MIT and the US Department of Commerce in the 1960’s calculated that a hybrid Atmospheric / ‘Gravitational Pendulum Assist’ train system could travel at 388 mph.

In 2010 China’s Southwest Jiaotong University began research to develop a ‘vactrain’ to reach speeds of 1,000 km/h (620 mph). They say the technology can be put into operation by 2020.

Having passed through various morphologies, a proposal for a future international high speed (rail) transport network couples the building of maglev lines through evacuated (air-less) or partly evacuated tubes or tunnels.

Advocates suggest that this could operate at extremely high speeds of between 4,000 and 5,000 mph (6,400 to 8,000 K/hr.). That is between 5 and 6 times the speed of sound at sea level. (see Discovery Channel's Extreme Engineering program "Transatlantic Tunnel" – a short series of 2 minute videos considering the issues.)

Vactrain Feasibility

While currently ‘Vactrains’ would currently be prohibitively expensive, major advances in tunnelling and other technology, could make this viable.

Other alternatives may also be considered, like elevated concrete tubes with partial vacuums, or maybe submerged floating ‘submarine’ tunnels, as currently being investigated in Scandinavia.

In theory, such tunnels could pass under oceans and permit very rapid intercontinental travel.

Using gravity to assist acceleration, these “Vactrains” could reduce the time between London and New York to less than an hour, effectively supplanting air travel.

Furthermore the evacuated tubes used would avoid the ‘sonic boom’ found with supersonic aircraft, enabling them to operate faster than Mach 1 (at sea level) without noise.

Recent UK Proposals Abandoned - Yet Again!

More prosaically, a maglev line recently proposed between London and Glasgow, with several route options through the Midlands, Northwest and Northeast of England and thought to have been under favourable consideration by the government, was abandoned.

It seems that the technology was rejected for future planning by the Government’s White Paper Delivering a Sustainable Railway published on 24 July 2007.

Another high speed link was reported to be under consideration for a route between Glasgow and Edinburgh, but there is no settled technology for it.

Indeed, it appears that the complementary Atmospheric tube technology did not form part of either consideration, yet again relinquishing the possibility of developing possibly several innovative technologies, as well as solutions to the objections presented.

Back to the Future

The efforts of Brunel and his compatriots, or even competitors, failed not because of the concept, but through lack of available technology. As Hudson explains, had it not been for the rats that took a liking to the leather seals used by Brunel, we could all be travelling this way today.

Having demonstrated conclusively that a pneumatic railway was indeed much more efficient than a locomotive driven railway, in which heavy steam engines have to travel along as well as the freight, his original idea was that his Great Western Railway should be pneumatic.

With the route for HS2 determined it should be possible for British engineering ingenuity to construct a vacuum tube + maglev hybrid to rival Americans, Australians, Chinese, Japanese, et al in applying our own latent, if rediscovered, technology. After all, as proprietors of the initial idea, we are certainly entitled to do so.

Quiet, Environmentally Friendly, Affordable Transport

An adapted ‘Vactrain’ system for the UK would not need to travel at 4,000 or even 5,000 mph. Nor would we need to embrace the 1 hours trans-Atlantic daily commute.

China’s 620 mph version – ready by 2020 – would give London to Birmingham times of around 12 minutes, with London to Edinburgh / Glasgow of maybe 50 minutes.

All much less than the current Brighton /London 1 hour commuting provision, or Perivale to Bank tube time.

Such a new ‘tube’ system would also be quiet. And whether tunnelled, or cut-and-filled, could be made discrete and, where necessary, non-disruptive of the environment, farm production, and NIMBY sensibilities.

Moreover, the energy costs of transportation would likely be less than the current costs of locomotive haulage, due both to the avoidance of air resistance and potentially reduced (electrical or diesel) power transmission losses.

As Hudson suggests, if applied to freight, the overall cost could be reduced by contributions from large factories and warehouses (both increasingly automated with smaller numbers of personnel) integrated with the system.

Toward an Alternative Economy

Additionally, as Hudson speculates, freight containers could be rolled on and off vessels at the ports, and imports delivered at regional warehouses within an hour or two, even in large countries. Echoes of the export opportunities secured by our rail moguls 150 years ago are brought to mind.

In his model, this could lead to the cost of land-freight being reduced to levels scarcely more than those of sea transport today. As he envisages, countries without coastlines would not be as dis-benefited as they are now.

As for commuters, the time spent every day could be reduced to a fraction of that by car, or existing railways.

With no great chain of new consumer product economic growth stimuli ahead of us, as existed throughout the last 300 years of industrialisation, Hudson opines that future (conventional) economic development is likely to come from new production side efficiencies, rather than new consumer baubles.

Implications for Planning & Property Development

If the UK Government is serious about conflating the 3 legs of sustainability – economic, environmental, community - into a single policy objective, then it could do worse than to reconsider the alternative technologies for HS2.

Likewise, if the NIMBY and other objectors to the proposal were to change their perception and embrace the positive opportunities as part of their campaigning, they could perform a useful service for the whole of society. In so doing they would, of course, also advance, rather than limit, their own narrow, often privileged, self-interests and become exemplars for other NIMBY causes.

Should they do so then we should also envisage complete change in our planning and development frameworks. Potentially such a new transport network would require us to (re)consider the role of national and regional ‘capitals’. The whole country could be embraced within a single, disaggregated ‘city’.

Dreams and Nightmares

Linked with current and on-going Broadband improvements, the role of motorways and other highways might become regionalised, even localised, ‘service’ roads.

Development pressures on the South East and other ‘hot’ development areas could fall away, encouraging – even demanding - that greater housing, commercial and industrial development be far removed from current urban areas.

In turn this could enable and encourage planning and architectural concepts and building technologies. For example ‘Autonomous’ development could become the norm, rather than the dream. Utilising alternative energy, water, and waste innovations, such development/s could allow independent living, free from dependence on utility and urban services.

O Brave New World

Attributed to the Greek Philosopher Heraclitus) of Ephesus (c.535 BC - 475 BC) if the concept that the only universal constant is ‘change’ itself, then change and adapt we must.

Revisiting HS2 openly, readily, and with a spirit of positive anticipation, could lead the UK out of the economic abyss and into a “Brave new World”.

Perhaps Kipling, rather than Shakespeare, (the Tempest, Act V, Scene I) or Huxley best encapsulates the potential upon which threshold we (could) now stand:-

“And that after this is accomplished,
and the brave new world begins
When all men are paid for existing
and no man must pay for his sins.”

Maybe we should pray for a Government willing to face the possible sins of commission, rather than omission.


This post was posted in Articles and was tagged with HS2, High Speed Rail, Economic Recivery, Innovation, Technology, Spatial Planning, Environmental Planning, Vactrain, Architecture, Building, Brunel, Engineering, Tunnelling, Futurology, Social Economy, NIMBY, Transport, Freight, Mobility, Atmospheric Railway, Pneumatic Tube Transport, Maglev, Magnetic Levitation, Inventions, Energy Efficient Transport, Future Economic Development, Broadband, Disagregated City, Brave New World, Philosophy, Shalespear, Kipling, Hucley

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