Stephen Rees's blog

Thoughts about the relationships between transport and the urban area it serves

Tories plan £20bn 180mph rail link instead of Heathrow third runway

with 9 comments


This is really a stunning turn of events. They are, of course, talking about the British Tories. And that party was almost completely wiped out by Tony Blair. Britain has had a Labour Government since 1997 – and now it looks increasingly likely that they will not survive the next election. Something unimaginable only a few years ago.

Mrs Thatcher never once travelled on a train while she was Prime Minister. She regarded the then nationalised British Rail as an anathema, but she could also read a balance sheet. BR was actually doing quite well, and the civil servants at the Department of Transport convinced her that there was nothing to be gained by privatisation but a lot to lose. Mainly lives. So it fell to John Major, her successor, to press ahead with what was probably one of the worst transport policy decisions in Britain in my lifetime.

I have never managed to persuade any of my conservative acquaintances that there is a direct relationship between conservatism and conservation. That protecting the environment has a very close affinity with a lot of Tory values. Sadly the influence of the right wing “neoconservatives” overwhelmed the old decent instincts of the party of Disraeli. At one time it was so hard to tell the difference between mainstream Conservatism and Labour voters – and party policies designed to take over the centre of the political spectrum that term “Butskellism” was coined – and combination of the names of two leaders of political thought on either side of the house – Hugh Gaitskell and R A Butler (always known as “Rab” from his initials). Both moderates to a fault.

It is inconceivable that Stephen Harper could propose an investment in high speed rail between Toronto Ottawa and Montreal as a way of reducing greenhouse gas emissions – even though that is what it would achieve. For one thing, Canada has been busy blocking even the most moderate international proposals to agree on new limits. We are nowhere near our, very modest and inadequate, Kyoto goals.

I cannot say I like David Cameron, but he has certainly shown himself to be a smooth operator. And Gordon Brown must have really been caught off guard. The UK government has simply waffled about important railway questions, including the need to electrify the rest of the system and to build new high speed lines. And the Heathrow fracas has been as embarrassing as the Kingsnorth coal fired power station. Labour now has a very hard time looking progressive let alone green.

It would be nice if VIA Rail was even on the radar in our federal election.

Written by Stephen Rees

September 28, 2008 at 7:19 pm

Posted in Railway

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9 Responses

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  1. I would expect Elizabeth May to raise the issue at the debates.


    September 28, 2008 at 8:00 pm

  2. They said this with a straight face?

    I well remember the mess that the givernment made of British Rail, and the continual insistence that ‘High speed lines are not needed’ I hope they really have caaught up, and aren’t just saying this to get reelected.

    Andy in Germany

    September 28, 2008 at 11:50 pm

  3. The problem with high speed rail in Britain is that being the first nation with a large railway network, left them with very challenging right-of-ways.

    The ‘6-foot’ (the legal distance between the up and down tracks) is a very real problem in the UK hand has hamstrung developments. Europe, where longer distances and heavier trains demanded larger and longer locomotives, which were heavier (stronger bridges) requiring wider rights-of ways and more gradual curvatures, that are today advantageous to high speed rail. Britain was left with an antique infrastructure, except for the old GWR broad-gauge routes, which saw 125 mph trains in the 70’s, then faster than anything else, except Japan’s ‘Bullet Trains’.

    The now largely abandoned Great Central (the last British mainline railway opened around 1900 and designed for continental loading gauges) route is being touted for high-speed rail, but there are many obstacles.

    In the UK, building new high-speed railways will be costly, more so than Europe, but to compete with the aeroplane, it must be done.

    Malcolm J.

    September 29, 2008 at 7:38 am

  4. There’s also the issue of things like level crossings and sharp curves, but we have those in Europe too. The current Stuttgart-Ulm stretch being a case in point, where ICE trains crawl up through the hills on a route made for steam trains.
    I’m told the the overhead wires on some electric routes in the UK (like the West Coast line from London to Scotland) is pretty flimsy and couldn’t deliver much more power to the trains than it does- and that was built under the Tories.
    I think the main difference is that here we are reconciled to the idea that we need to improve the rail network to get people to use it, and that this means building new instead of expecting a 19th century system to deal with today’s traffic needs.

    Andy in Germany

    September 29, 2008 at 8:49 am

  5. As it’s on topic: I’ve just read that the Paris-Basel trains are running at 90% loadings, and that they have 63% of the market between the two cities. Air travel is dropping between the cities, and Easyjet (Budget carrier) has given up on the route. Three more trains aill be put on the route over the next few years.

    Andy in Germany

    September 29, 2008 at 8:52 am

  6. I believe the daily AMTRAK service from Vancouver to Seattle is 90% full.

    Malcolm J.

    September 29, 2008 at 8:58 am

  7. Andy

    The flimsy catenary is on the East Coast Main Line not the West.

    BR tried to cope with track designed for steam trains by building the APT – a very early tilting train, that was allowed out in public before all the gremlins were sorted out. That put the HST – a much more conventional train – ahead but it only functions really well on relatively straight track. The French followed a similar philosophy with the TGV but like the Japanese built specially designed new routes for them. These had to be straighter, but allowed for much steeper grades as electric trains climb better than the old steamers. The WCML now has Italian designed pendolinos to get comparable speeds to the ECML (125mph) – but the once desired 140mph is still unattainable due to cost and signalling issues.

    Stephen Rees

    September 29, 2008 at 1:28 pm

  8. Sungsu – you are of course right – Elizabeth May did take the train herself and has called for electrification. And as Derek Moscato points out in today’s Province we do seem to be missing out on all the obvious opportunities

    Stephen Rees

    September 29, 2008 at 2:28 pm

  9. No one has ever built a heavier-than-air passenger aircraft that flies on anything but fossil fuel. Air travel will, until we discover some other method of lift, depend on Bernoulli’s principle, and that principle requires lots of energy to propel an aircraft in forward motion (with relatively low weight in storage compared to energy produced).

    While I doubt this went into their decision, it’s nice to know that they’ve finally acknowledged that faster train service has more of a future than another runway for fossil-fuel gulping airplanes.

    A country as huge as Canada linked by a high speed electric-powered rail from coast to coast could be a real global competitor, if only Harper and the rest could see this vision.


    September 30, 2008 at 12:34 pm

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