Why HS2 is the only thing we can do

Published November 17, 2013

On the 3rd of July 1938, ‘4468’ one of LNER’s Class A4 locomotives designed by Sir Nigel Gresley, broke the world speed record for locomotives at 125.88 mph (202.58 kmph). She is of course known as Mallard.

No steam locomotive has beaten this record, and Mallard sits proudly in a museum in York with a badge of honour on her tender 75 years later.

What’s embarrassing is that although many countries over the years have broken the record for other railway locomotives, first diesel, then electric, Britain still haven’t managed it. Our day to day trains haven’t improved either, apart from the high speed line Eurostar runs on, our entire railway network is limited to 125 mph.


Sir Richard Branson has tried to push through the 125 mph limit with the Class 390, known as the Pendolino. It has a top speed of 140 mph, but above 125 mph it’s not always possible to see a red signal – blink and you’ll miss it. We do have safety systems in place to make sure you break if you run through a red, but specifically the West Coast Main Line modernisation programme ran over budget and there wasn’t anything left to upgrade the signalling equipment to something that could let the driver know in their cab what signal was coming up, or that they just past.

Running at 140 mph over 125 mph isn’t much. If the distance between London and Birmingham is 125 miles, a train travelling at 125 mph would naturally take an hour, travelling at 140 mph would take 53 minutes. This excludes slowing down for stations, going around corners and not running at full speed all the way. Realistically the 7 minutes isn’t that glamours so it’s easy to see why it wasn’t pushed for. The actual journey time of London Euston to Birmingham New Street is 1 hour and 23 minutes.

However, imagine being able to run at 200 mph. Using the same example as above, the train would take just 38 minutes. France’s TGV achieves an average speed (not including sitting at stations) of 173.6 mph (279.4 kmph) between Champagne-Ardenne and Lorraine, which wasn’t broken until this year with the Chinese CRH, which can reach a slightly higher 220 mph.

British Rail

At this point in a discussion of the railways, normally somebody would make a comparison between what France was doing in the 1970s and what Britain was doing. Baroness Thatcher bla bla British Rail bla bla.

Let’s move on. We are where we are, and we need to build on it.

It is difficult, although not impossible, to jump through stages of progression. It would be wonderful to build an underground vacuum-tunnel magnetic levitation train, allowing theoretical speeds of 5,000 mph (8,000 kmph). That’s about 6 times the speed of sound. Beijing to New York could take two hours. But could we really make that jump when most of our trains are dispatched with a man blowing a whistle.

The rise of China

It may seem like China appeared out of nowhere, but it’s been a long time coming. The rise of China has been slowly building since the end of the Soviet Union, and their railway network has often been held up as an example of the future of trains, including magnetic levitation.

It may seem that they’ve managed it all by themselves, but until 2010 almost their entire infrastructure was German, mostly by Siemens. The signalling, computers, trains and power all comes from Germany, much also used by Deutsche Bahn too. The first Chinese made train is the CRH380A, and is made with help from Hitachi (Japan) and Bombardier (Canada).

Before that in about 1998 the Chinese used a Swedish tilting-train, similar to our Pendolino. Going further back to around the time of our InterCity 125 is when you see the something more like one might imagine in China, the DF4, which is still being used today much like some of our 125s.

Short-term solution

The InterCity 125 was a short-term solution for British Rail to compete with the private motorcar and the new motorway network. The Advanced Passenger Train was set to replace it one day, which pioneered a tilting system used on the Pendolino 35 years later. This train could have been extraordinary. Like the TGV research, they even considered powering the trains with gas turbines.

However, political and technological reasons meant that train ultimately failed. The learnings from the project were put into the InterCity 225, which has a top speed of 140 mph, but again limited to 125 mph because of the track and signals. Like the 125, it’s still being used today on the East Coast main line.

Signals & electricity

Meanwhile in France and Germany, they realised what we should have done. Trying to build a diesel train to run on tracks that some of which were almost 100 years old, was never going to work. In order to build a new high-speed railway network, you needed new tracks and new signals.

This is a TGV signal. It’s a “Transmission Voie-Machine”, which translates as ‘track-to-train transmission’. It’s just a sign; it’s just an indication that there’s a signal nearby. The actual signal appears in the driver’s cab and stays with the driver throughout that part of the route. It doesn’t matter how fast you go past the signal, you’ll see it inside your cab.

The other major change the Germans and French made was to jump to electricity, rather than relying in diesel. Even now we’re still upgrading our lines to electricity, such as the Great Western main line from London to Swansea. As part of this upgrade however, they’ll also be including ERTMS which allows for in-cab signalling as used on the TGV routes and the Eurostar high-speed line in Kent.

There are many other upgrades and opportunities the Germans and French took advantage of while building new track. All corners are banked so that the trains don’t have to slow down around them. There are no level crossings on any TGV or ICE lines, so fewer hazards too.

We’re getting there

Once the electrification is complete, the Great Western railway will receive the new Hitachi Super Express used in Kent on the Eurostar line. The train has a top speed of 140 mph, and finally, after almost 40 years, a train will be able to go 140 mph on a British mainline.

Meanwhile, in China, the Shanghai Transrapid whisks people from the airport to the city at 268 mph (431 kmph).

Back to high-speed 2. It’s a brand new line, on a brand new route, with brand new trains and new terminals. So why not leapfrog past technology used in Europe in the 1970s. Why not jump to magnetic levitation?


The problem is money. And the reason for the cost is the nature of Britain and the Western world.

A few months ago I went to Morocco and spent a day trekking up a mountain in the Atlas with my other half. The road we were walking on was still being built and not long after setting off we can across the workforce. There were no yellow jackets, barriers or warnings. There was however, an enormous JCB. It was swinging backwards and forwards digging out a trench. We needed to pass it somehow, and the speed of its swing scared us both – there is little doubt that if it had it us, we would be dead.

We paused and waited. The operator saw us, stopped digging and waved. We quickly made our way past and waved to him once we were on the other side.

On the Monday morning after getting back to London, I was walking out of London Bridge station on my way to work. There’s a lot of building work at the moment because of the Shard and upgrades to the railway station. Just as I was approaching a junction, a man in a hard hat and yellow jacket put his hand out and stopped a few of us walking past. He then pulled a large metal gate across the pavement and stood on the road. On the other side of the junction another man did the same thing. There were no trucks reversing or anything particularly hazardous going on, so two people tutted at the man and walked around him as he politely tried to stop them.

A man with an empty wheelbarrow appeared on one side of the road and walked across the road, in-between the two barriers. Once he was in the building site, the two men opened the barriers and we could continue to walk past again.

Imagine what could have happened. The man with the wheelbarrow might not have seen me, or I might of rushed infront of him. He could have run over my foot, and unknown to him I was recovering from an injury and he might have broken a few of my toes. If I were a Daily Mail reader, I would then sue the building company for not adequately preventing accidents.

And thus because of the amount of money it costs to do something simple, we can only afford to do things that other people have already done.

So how about we just get rid of some of that red tape, right? Get things back to how they were before, in the good old days?

You cannot get rid of red tape. It would require educating every person in Britain not to sue somebody when they think they have an opportunity too. I can only imagine this is why the United States has so few public infrastructure projects, seeing as people are prepared to sue McDonald’s for making them fat.

There is nothing we can do about it, we have got ourselves into this position and there’s no way to back out. Maybe you could pass a law on not being able to sue people for common sense, but I’m not sure how you’d define that.

So, that’s the reason why our projects are expensive: wheelbarrows.

“Bad value”

As a result of HS2 being so expensive, everybody is calling it bad value. We could do something better with the money. Yes, we could do something else with the money – we could poor it into another public project or watch it get burned up in the NHS.

People keep talking about how the costs just don’t make sense. £42.6 billion for the railway, £9.2 billion for the trains. The idea is that that would generate £15 billion-a-year back to the economy.

Some people think this is bullshit. Other people swear by it, but for me it actually doesn’t matter.

We need HS2 in order for us to make us on a level field with the rest of Europe and the world. This is us catching up. We have no railway manufacturing left. The equipment we’ll be buying is French, Canadian or German. We don’t have the environment for us to dream up national magnetic levitation. We have tried in the past at Birmingham airport, but ultimately it didn’t work and they ended up using a rope instead.

The only solution

The other reason why HS2 is the only solution is because it’s the only solution. The only alternative is not building a new railway, but that’s not a solution either.

No matter which way you look at it, HS2 has to happen. It’s just the position we’ve been in due to the way we’ve treated Britain’s railways for the last 25 years. Yes, I would love to build a vacuum train, but that won’t happen so we might as well play catch up, then we can start dreaming big.