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Scottish Parliament Speech: High-speed Rail (May 2010)

See this speech in context on They Work For You

In 1840, a stagecoach took 42 hours to make the Edinburgh to London journey, and a paddle steamer took about the same time. A hundred years before that, the journey took a fortnight. By 1848, that had been cut to 12 hours by steam train.

The actual building of the York to Edinburgh railway took three years, without dynamite, earth movers, structural steel, concrete or computers, but with the input of navvies. In the various schemes that are being advanced to us today, the quickest time to build the line seems to be about 16 years. One wonders what happened to progress in the interval.

That raises two questions. What are the delaying factors? Is the system itself right? The delays have historical causes; lawyers and landowners will take their time to make the sort of money that keeps them happy. Britons who do not manufacture very much value real estate and will sell it as profitably as they can. Can we economise by using existing transport routes? Well, the west coast upgrade came in at something like £9 billion to £10 billion above budget. When travelling on it, one wonders what that money was actually spent on. The complexity, of course, as we have found with the Edinburgh trams, arises from the stuff that is already there and the disruption that is involved in getting rid of it.

High-speed rail is the thinking man's motorway. Both entered the scene simultaneously around 1960 with the opening of the M1 and the start of Japan's Shinkansen programme: the first line from Tokyo was completed for the Olympics in 1964. Japanese industrial success followed it; it did not just give rise to it. The system is now Japan-wide and none of its trains runs late. In 2010, Britain has one short high-speed line, from London to the mouth of the channel tunnel, which enjoys a particular European record status, having cost the most to build of any line in Europe, at £23 million per mile.

The choice is stark. In fact, it is starker than anyone has made out here, because before the lawyers have finished there is a very good chance that oil will have run out or will be on the downward slope of the Hubbert curve. When getting the stuff out of new and difficult surroundings works, that postpones things up to a point; when it does not, as with the Deepwater Horizon, the global costs are penal. The cost could be $500 million today and perhaps £10 billion in toto. Political upheavals and inflationary pressures from the expansion of the new industrial economies of Brazil, Russia, India and China must also be factored in. Peak oil will make our decisions for us. Electric and hydrogen cars still face intractable developmental problems, and there are essential fuel-oil uses in air, sea and road freight transport. So, when we hit the $200 to $300 barrel, that will whack down on the automobile age like the guillotine.

We must think several moves ahead, and conventional steel-on-steel rail will not be enough. We can leapfrog it by using new technologies that are being developed - not only in transport - using computers and sophisticated software. That means that we must study and train our specialists in the countries that have already made the breakthrough. Where? It will most likely be China which, according to the Financial Times - which is the voice of God - plans to build more than 30,000km of track, most of it high speed, in the next five years. I goggled at that story and had to look again, but there it was. That is the same length of time that it has taken us not to build a 60km line from Edinburgh to Galashiels. It is good to see that Stewart Stevenson has now made a start on that, but a Chinese minister would probably have extended it to Spain by now.

For four years, a magnetic levitation system has been in operation between Shanghai and its airport. That is a technology that I commend to Parliament. The maglev has no moving parts, it has only an electrical induction motor, but it offers higher speeds than conventional high-velocity trains and lower maintenance and installation costs, as it uses its own track.

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