We don’t drive at 200mph, so why do we need HS2?

Cool looking trains, but they’d still be cool running at 125mph on current lines

The reason why Shinkansen trains are accepted in Japan is because they were built at a time when everyone bought into the fast life idea. Practically no one questioned it. The economic benefits, GDP and all of that. Those things that a rapidly increasing contingent of us now know to be unnecessary, and are actually killing us.

It was at a time when we didn’t have connectivity like we do now. How would you justify high speed rail now when you could take a limited express or a sleeper service and work on the way with wi-fi or 5G? The answer is, you don’t talk about it, or you make up some bullshit about it taking strain off the existing network. Well, I’m no railway engineer, but I imagine that building more standard lines in our current railway system would also do that for an infinitely lower cost. Both environmentally and financially.

Who says “it would help the economy if I could drive my car to Manchester at 200mph”. Not even Jeremy Clarkson would say something so ridiculous. Well, I don’t think he has anyway. And who would want to take a coach at 200mph? I definitely don’t. There are enough coach crashes around the world as it is, and I can’t imagine it would be a fun ride, if such an insane bus actually existed outside the realm of video games.

So, we don’t need HS2 because the speed benefit makes no sense if it’s not applied elsewhere (not that it makes much difference to journey times anyway); and because of the connectivity and remote working we now enjoy. But what about the environmental impact? We know that the UK is one of the most nature depleted countries in the world, and we also know that the route of HS2 just happens to trample on 32 ancient woodlands directly, and another 29 indirectly. And considering the fragility of these precious ecosystems, it’s unlikely that those 29 will survive at all.

We can’t lose this. Photo credit: waronwildlife.co.uk

If HS2 was necessary, which it isn’t; the obvious question would be why didn’t they build alongside existing motorways where there is often a lot of space and certainly great grid connections? Is it because nature is effectively worthless under this economic system and therefore an easy target? Is it because the rich business travellers who would be frequenting this service would like a nicer view out of the windows than a motorway? Is it because our leaders don’t care about nature at all and sadistically would enjoy trampling on it? My guess it’s a bit of all three.

And then there’s the climate implications of all of this. We know that in order to give ourselves a chance of survival in the face of the climate catastrophe, we have to slash consumption by as much as possible, and we have to live slower and smaller lives. We will travel less, and when we do, we will go slower and on the ground unless absolutely essential (visiting family overseas for example, not for business travel). We’re already seeing a resurgence of sleeper trains across Europe, and we need to see it here too. We do have a couple of services domestically, but we need to see more; and we desperately need sleepers that use the channel tunnel and serve the major European cities.

But obviously the climate implications of HS2 don’t end there. There is the immense amount of emissions generated during the building of the railway in the first place; but time is also a huge aspect. Because we only have a handful of years at the most to slash our emissions to as close to zero as possible; we can no longer take on decade long mega projects like this (or Hinckley Point C for example). There will be the odd exception, such as a massive upgrade to our existing railway infrastructure that can’t be completed in just a few years. But generally speaking, we have to think as short term as possible. This sounds counterintuitive since we’ve always been taught growing up to think about our long term future. Unless you’re in business in which case short term profit over long term stability has been the name of the game. But as long as the Earth’s climate is in the disastrous state it is, we have to think day by day with a single-minded focus on how to slash our consumption, and therefore our emissions as much as possible. Very little else matters. The byproduct of which will be providing a better, cleaner, fairer world to everyone, and allowing ourselves a chance at a future. In addition, we will be protecting and restoring our natural areas and our precious wildlife. It’s easy to do. It simply requires doing nothing.

Just like with Covid, we solve the world’s biggest crises by just slowing down and stopping. Lounging around and being lazy can stop runaway climate change? If you’re anything like me, that’ll sound pretty appealing.

Will Loop and Hyperloop kill Metros and High Speed Rail?

I started writing the draft for this post last year as a follow-up to this post. At the time, I was quite heavily focused on technological solutions to transport and the climate crisis. Things have changed a lot since then. But before I go into how and why, check out the draft first paragraph I wrote before.

Hyperloop looks to be a serious threat to high speed rail. As a rail fan, this is a somewhat bittersweet realisation. But not only is Hyperloop a threat to rail, the Boring Company Loop system and the Tesla RoboTaxi Network that would operate within it is also a threat to metro systems and commuter rail.

I intended to write about how hyperloop and the boring company loop systems were going to give metro and high speed rail systems a hard time. I don’t want to write these systems off entirely, but now that we’re a year later and the climate crisis is looking like an imminent threat to the functioning of society, these types of solutions can’t be the priority. We have to drastically change the way we live now to be somewhat like full lockdown in terms of living more locally, with empty roads and more cycling. The time just isn’t there to be able to wait for self driving RoboTaxis to come along.

Perhaps the loop system could be great in the future when full autonomy is realised, but so far the Las Vegas Loop has been roundly criticised. Currently it’s being driven manually and quite slowly, so it’s not really doing anything a bus lane couldn’t do much better and more cheaply. And if we just banned private cars as I keep saying, then you’d get rid of the traffic which was the main driving force behind the loop concept to begin with.

With that said, maybe the Boring Company should instead focus on their plans for creating special small tunnels for running utility pipes and cables through. That really does seem like a great idea.

As far as Hyperloop is concerned, I saw a YouTube video that made me think a lot about it. It was on the channel “Adam Something” which I strongly recommend. I’m happy that I was able to still be open minded despite having most of my savings bet on Tesla (that might change soon, we’ll see). The video on Hyperloop compared it to High Speed Rail and maglev trains. Adam pointed out that Hyperloop cost estimates per mile are far lower than maglev, despite Hyperloop being effectively maglev technology plus a vacuum tube. The cost is therefore very likely to be significantly higher, and because of the way the vacuum tube works, you would assume that the maintenance will be a nightmare as well. Especially for really long routes.

From my perspective, if we’re to live more simple and low consumption lives, the most obvious thing to do for long distance transport would be to run more sleeper trains. We need to stop living the fast life and start enjoying the journey, not just the destination.

But for right now, the absolute priority must be to reduce emissions as fast as possible to zero. That doesn’t mean 2030 and it definitely doesn’t mean 2050. It means right now. During the first lockdown, we were told that global emissions dropped by about 13% during that time before climbing back up. If we were to do that on a permanent basis and improve from there, we might actually have a chance.

How I would Nationalise Britain’s Railways

Imagine it with a B instead.

Great British Railways. I don’t know about you, but to me it comes across as an arrogant, old fashioned branding exercise to attract Tory voting baby boomers who are desperate to be told that Britain is still the best. We need a modern, simple naming system like that of Japan Railways (JR). BR South, BR North, BR London, BR Scotland (if they stay with us) etc. We would have a unified logo but with different colours for each region and matching train liveries.

Simple JR branding on the side of this Yamanote Line train

Unlike the Japanese system, we need to fully nationalise it. Privatisation works in Japan because trains are the default way of getting around, and it’s a priority for government to keep it running smoothly and the technology up to date. They will spend big to prop up the private operators. In the U.K., cars are the primary mode of transport and because of that, rail has been underinvested in. The infrastructure is out of date and the prices are high because the government has left it to rot. And private companies are probably not going to invest in improving the service if they don’t see it as an effective transport monopoly as most of the lines are in Japan.

Grant Shapps compared Great British Railways to the London bus and Overground systems. That’s not what we need. We need full public ownership of all of our transport networks. It’s the only way we’re going to be able to make rapid changes in sustainability, pricing and general appeal in order to end car ownership in the face of the climate crisis. It’s not enough to just build bike infrastructure or incentivise e-scooters (not that we’re doing either or those). We need to do everything possible now to cut emissions and make us a healthier and happier society. Public ownership and investment is the only way.

Trains are Especially Vulnerable to Climate Change. Bicycles are not.

As we’ve seen from the tragic accident in Scotland last week, the U.K. rail network is facing an existential risk from the climate disaster. That might sound hyperbolic. But when you consider the likely future of self driving cars, a dramatic reduction in vehicles on the road as a result; the rise of electric bikes and the inevitable mass rollout of associated infrastructure, it doesn’t look promising for the rail industry.

As I’ve recently written, the rail network is already going to be threatened by the other forms of transport I’ve mentioned due to the fact that the network hasn’t been invested in for so long. It’s not like in Japan where they wouldn’t walk away from such a great system. Loyal daily passengers will only remain loyal for so long if they’re dissatisfied with the service they’re receiving.

But it’s when you couple that with the threat of climate change that things really unravel. I’ve been following the weekly update videos Network Rail put out on their YouTube channel for a while now. There’s an obvious trend in that they’re constantly having to fix damage caused by extreme weather. It’s mainly landslips but also work on reinforcing sea walls to protect against sea spray. Landslips in particular must be costing NR huge amounts of money, and it’s money that is not being spent on upgrading the ageing infrastructure. Watching TV shows about railways just shows how much disruption is already being caused from rain, storms, heat etc. It’s only going to get worse, and as we’ve seen this week, it can be deadly.

Road transport I believe to be at less risk from the climate disaster, but I would say the main benefits will be as we switch to autonomous driving. Because we have so many privately owned cars, the cars are parked all over the country, so whenever extreme weather hits, the cars can’t be moved and they get written off and float down the road.

However, once we stop owning cars and we replace them with self driving fleets, the number of cars in the country will drop potentially 90%. This will not only eliminate traffic, but it will also allow vehicles to avoid flooded roads or be moved to a safe location before the weather hits if it’s scheduled to hit a wide area. Because our road network is completely connected, if one road is flooded, they can go another direction. Trains can’t do that, and that’s a giant problem that the rail industry will struggle to get around.

Since the benefits for road traffic mainly take effect once we go autonomous, and that technology doesn’t exist yet; at the moment the only way to minimise the risk of flood or storm damage is to get rid of your car and buy a bike. Even a big, heavy cargo bike can be taken upstairs with your couch and the rest of your belongings. You’re not going to leave it to be flood damaged if you can avoid it. With a car, there’s very little you can do, especially if the weather is unexpected or worse than forecast.

It’s true for the infrastructure as well. It would be far cheaper to build elevated bike routes and bridges in high risk areas than it would be for other modes. We need to do everything we can to improve infrastructure and reduce risk. Invest in the rail network, move away from car ownership, and make us a bike society.