Title: Are Britain's Railways falling behind
Text: Point of view
Are Britain's railways falling behind?
A few years ago, it seemed as if the decline of railways was inevitable. Railways all over the world were losing money (most still are), and in Britain plans for modernisation were linked to a large scale closure of branch lines. Now, however, a number of countries have rediscovered the advantages of rail transport, particularly for urban and intercity transport in populous areas; and it is a revival which involves railways in the widest sense, from conventional systems to hovertrains. But Britain, the pioneer of railways, is not among them. Instead, we appear to be losing ground on all forms of rail transport.
Perhaps the most fundamental objection to Britain's form of railway modernisation is that the speed of the new services is much too slow. The London, Manchester and Liverpool electrification scheme, which will be completed this year, illustrates this exactly. Out of 280 miles of main line, only 180 miles will be suitable for 100 mph operation, and the best trains will average only 7~74 mph. In contrast, the French have been operating trains on the 310 mile line between Paris and Lyons at higher speeds for a number of years now, and even their slower schedules call for averages in the region of 70-75 mph. Similarly, the German Federal Railways is now introducing speeds of 125 mph on sections of the Hamburg Hanover line - the forerunner of a network of inter-city routes with passenger trains running at over 100 mph.
During the International Transport Exhibition at Munich last summer, the public were able to experience what 125 mph German style - would be like. A special service was operated between Munich and Augsburg which gave a ride superior in quietness, smoothness and general comfort to what BR can normally offer at 80-90 mph. One can only put the German advantages down to better techniques and design. And these are now being used by the Germans to investigate 'super speeds' of 188-218 mph, which would involve basically new lines between large industrial centres. As for the Japanese, schedules on the new Tokyo Osaka Tokaido line call for speeds of 155 mph for trains which will soon average 125 mph. Yet in a recent interview, the chairman and general manager of the London Midland Region said that speeds of 150 mph are a long way off.
The second objection to Britain's railway modernisation is that it does not appear to take sufficient account of technical advance. It would be interesting to know, for example, how much consideration was given to higher speeds and new techniques in the design of the Victoria line for London's underground. One thing is certain: it won't be using the French system, recently adopted for the Montreal Metro, of running trains with pneumatic tyres on concrete
runways with lateral guide wheels. The advantages claimed for this system include near silent operation, smoother acceleration and deceleration, lower maintenance costs and the ability to climb steep gradients. Just what can be done to improve urban transport is shown by the San Francisco Bay Area Rapid Transport System now under design, which envisages maximum speeds of 70 mph and averages of 50 mph-including stops every two miles.
Another, and much more radical innovation is the hovertrain. Studies of this form of transportation, in which speeds of up to 300 mph are considered feasible, are being carried out in France and America, and a French small scale prototype, carrying six passengers at 125 mph, has just been completed. Christopher Cockerell, the inventor of the hovercraft from which the hovertrain principle is derived says that interest in the latter is at high pitch in America; British interest is reported as "near to nothing." Having been the birthplace of railways, is Britain now going to ignore the exciting renaissance in this form of transport ? Where will we stand, compared to other countries, when the one hundred and fiftieth anniversary of the first public railway is celebrated in nine years' time ?