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A Scottish-Chinese Dream: Maglev Made Easy (January 2006)

This article was first published on openDemocracy

The rivalry between Edinburgh and Glasgow is almost as old as Scotland itself, and has varied with the centuries. Glasgow, before and after the Act of Union in 1707 - Daniel Defoe’s “beautifullest little city” – was the more genteel, clustered round the shallow Clyde, its bridge, and the magnificent Cathedral of St Mungo, while Edinburgh’s slums festered along the spine of the Royal Mile. By 1842 Georgian Edinburgh’s New Town squares and quadrants symbolised the Scottish Enlightenment, while the gridiron of Glasgow meant money from the Atlantic trade and engineering in the west end, and the slumland of tiny flats and uproarious bars spewed out to the Gorbals and east to Bridgeton. That year they connected the two cities by rail

Apart from removing the stationary steam engine which once hauled trains out from Glasgow Queen Street station to the heights of Springburn, not an inch of the line has changed from that date, as the passenger can see from the grey, crumbling cuttings which lour over – and periodically tumble into – it. In 1850 it took over twelve hours to reach London from Glasgow (640 kilometres). That will shortly fall to around four. Even though there’s a train every fifteen minutes, it still takes nearly an hour to run the forty miles to Edinburgh. Buses set off every ten minutes, but at traffic peaks reach there two hours later.

Result? Not healthy competition, but a dis-synergy affecting over 1.3 million people which has handicapped Scotland. Glasgow holds several European records for social deprivation, Edinburgh is prosperous but congested, and between them there has grown up an unlovely exurbian sprawl of malls, industrial and housing estates, and forlorn former mining villages. In part this is the result of the country’s late but passionate affair with the car . Native capitalism, once “the workshop of the empire” now consists of flogging cars and pouring concrete for them. Just as the Glasgow east-end diet of chips, sweeties, sugary tea, booze’n’fags equals a coronary, there’s a fair chance that the sort of rise in oil prices that looks inevitable by 2020 will see central Scotland drop dead.

Maglev made easy

So there’s been increasing discussion – I can claim to have started it in the Scotsman in May 2004 but it has taken on its own momentum – of an Edinburgh-Glasgow bullet train, which would weld the two central business districts together.

Then, I argued for a new conventional railway from Midcalder to Uddingston, thirty-six kilometres, replacing the old “Caledonian” line. This would cost about €2 billion (£1.7 bn) at the price of the French TGV lines (€50-60 million per km, though the Spanish have got their high-speed lines down to €20 million per km) but wouldn’t need much new rolling stock as GNER’s east-coast expresses, which usually run quarter-full from Glasgow to Edinburgh via Carstairs en route to London (taking just over an hour for the trip) could handle a journey time of about twenty-five minutes. But at either end they would run into mounting congestion around the main stations.

The other possibility is more dramatic: a city centre to city centre “horizontal lift”, like the Stansted airport shuttle but moving at up to 500 kilometres per hour. This sounds like rocket science, but it works; Gordon Brown, and Scotland’s deputy first minister Nicol Stephen have travelled on it; a constellation of possibilities might see it become practical.

This is the German-developed Maglev or Transrapid, the first revenue-earning version of which has been operating successfully over 31.2 km between downtown Shanghai and Pudong airport for two-and-a-half years, at average speeds of 430 km per hour carrying over 4 million passengers without incident. will give you all the facts and films, and in English.

In May 2003 this opened for traffic, after four months’ trials. It had taken two years to construct (compare with Scotland’s Waverley line connecting Edinburgh and the Borders, closed in 1968, whose reopening has been discussed for six years, and not a single rail laid yet…) – although the SiemenThyssenKrupp consortium had been experimenting with various prototypes on a test track near Emden in northwestern Germany for over twenty years.

Is this technology advanced enough for Scotland to buy it, and can it descend in cost sufficiently to be a favourable option?

Ways and means

The advantage of the Maglev in operation is that it has purely computerised controls, no crew, and no high-speed moving parts. It operates through the repelling power of electromagnets and the attracting power of a linear electric motor. Thus the cost of the three-car 276-capacity trains on the Chinese line is little different from a conventional railcar, and because of its speed, few are actually needed.

The important thing is that Shanghai-Pudong has worked without major breakdowns for more than two years, although the route is in fact rather short for the ideal use of the technology. Edinburgh-Glasgow, by contrast, at 70 km would be just about right: a ten-fifteen minute journey along a completely new elevated track, next-to-no staff costs, rapid construction with little disruption of existing rail services, and the liberation of these for local traffic and freight. That’s before one thinks of the synergic effect on the cities in terms of high-value-added services and tourism, the advantage of a single Scottish airport, and the international éclat such a line would bring.

Where would it run? From a terminal above Edinburgh’s Haymarket station along the course of the existing railway to the one intermediate station at Edinburgh airport/Ratho and then following the M8 more or less cross-country to Rutherglen, and along the proposed course of the M74 to a terminal next to Glasgow Central station. An elevated track means that level crossing and drainage problems wouldn’t exist, and security would be minimalised. Shanghai-Pudong is single-track but Edinburgh-Glasgow would have to be double. This, however, would allow headways of about 8 minutes with only two three-car units. Intrusive? No more than the existing and proposed motorways, which it would either parallel or in the case of the urban M74 replace. The quality of land between the two cities is not high, so there should be few objections to the route.

What will it cost?

Shanghai-Pudong cost £745 million (or £18 per kilometre), but European comparisons would be more realistic. In 2001 the German government planned a 70km double-track line from Dűsseldorf to Dortmund at €3.3 billion (£2.75 billion). It wasn’t proceeded with, and indeed wasn’t a good idea, because it would have had to halt at four intermediate stations, losing much of the advantage of very high speed. But it gives some idea of costs. A second, shorter (37 km) line from central Munich to Riem airport, is still in contention. This involves Edinburgh’s partner-city, so a cut-price appraisal of benefits and problems might be possible.

There are four other factors. First, Germany is anxious to get markets for Transrapid, particularly in the United States where high-speed TGV-type trains run into the problem of getting past two-kilometre-long freights. Edinburgh-Glasgow would be great advertising, so Berlin will probably offer subsidy. The Chinese got €200 million (22% of the total cost) towards the Shanghai line. Second, as the project engineer at Emden admitted to Die Zeit, the prototype was built while computers were still at a mid-1980s level of development, so costs – particularly the supply of electricity for the linear motor along the length of the line and automatic diagnosis and correction of malfunctions – could be drastically reduced. Third, the Chinese wouldn’t be Chinese if they couldn’t produce the thing cheap. Fourth, the figurehead of Scottish finance, the Royal Bank, is very big in Europe and China, so it could do the finance (which would work out at about a third of its 2004 profits …)

Now for the decision. Glasgow’s city council and the Holyrood executive’s infatuation with the M74 – bitterly contested in the parliament and by the reporter to the public inquiry – will win Scotland few brownie points internationally. Yet the bullet train might actually be manageable within the funds allocated for eight kilometres of road plus conventional rail access to Edinburgh and Glasgow airports. By 2020 it could mean the difference between a smart, successful Scotland and a dim and defeated one.

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