A need for speed?

Monday, 27th April 2009 at 8:00 UTC 10 comments

Yes, for those who have the pleasure of my company in real life on a regular basis, you probably knew this post was coming. It doesn’t just contain the stuff you’ve heard me waffling about though. Instead, it contains my own personal gripes on rail in Britain and Europe.

The Tories are obsessing over high speed ground level travel, AGAIN! This time, at least, they’ve conceded it will be a conventional railway at least. Its not that I’m against Maglevs per say, just stupid waste of money they represent. The TGV/ICE/Eurostar concept is proven; why reinvent the wheel? But then, why reinvent the train full stop?

As I write this, I’m  riding a 125mph train in Britain. This is actually quite fast enough for the purpose, and has already gotten me well over 100miles north of Kings Cross within an hour. What is impressive about this line isn’t the construction or the trains running on it, but simply the quiet resolve that it has taken to get it to run the way it does.

There are no sections with a limit over 125mph, yet it is phenomenally fast. All over the line, the speed limit has been gradually raised bit by bit, but the ceiling has always been in place. And to be honest, I’d rather they solved the remaining problems with continuous 125mph running than that they got excited with new maximum speeds. And that means Doncaster to Wakefield and Leeds needs sorting, badly, or electrifying round from near Selby into the northern end of Leeds station, technically much faster already.

But these aren’t the only routes which people use. What about getting more of the Newcastle to Manchester line to 100mph? There are some atrociously slow parts to that line, and capacity could be much improved. And new trains need more carriages, not more trains to run each hour. Even 3 trains an hour at the same traffic level on the same route is bonkers unless its a cross-city local (S-Bahn as the Germans would call it).

You see, fastest speed is a really poor indicator of performance on a railway. The issue at hand is the average speed that a service can manage, whilst still comfortably making all the stops it needs to provide a service to its users. Attached to this is the problem of people having to change trains. As this invariably means being at the same station for more than the 2-5 minutes trains will ‘dwell’ in one, it cuts the average speed attained no end, so relevant routes are also important.

The important thing, it would seem, is to set a target speed for the route as a whole, and then work everything up to it, so that trains can coast continuously on the same level for an hour or so at a time.

Out into Europe, where the distances are longer, and this becomes acute. Yes, the SNCF have managed 537kph, but what does this really mean? No service train does this speed. The only reason a Eurostar’s 168mph (300kph) is so amazing is because that’s what they actually achieve as they exit London. But that was a hugely expensive line, for a huge distance. Attaining such speeds isn’t really worthwhile until the total journey is over 3 hours at 125mph, something which doesn’t apply to London to Leeds/York, not to London to Manchester and definitely not London to Bristol or Birmingham.

Lastly, as easily annoyed by the EU as I can be, what often baffles me most is what they omit to interfere with. What is the EU policy on interfering in rail travel? More over, why does it appear non-existent? And it shouldn’t just be about High Speed. Just because the convention is to build better lines between your own cities than between yours and your neighbours doesn’t excuse a policy of High Speed only border crossings. Freight, if nothing else, requires mid-speed line development.

But take for instance the problem of getting from Berlin to Prague (train runs at 125mph to Dresden, then  crawls into Prague. Or the Eurostar/Thalys going from Lille to Brussels and on to Amsterdam or Cologne, both of which are really important routes, but which have both been affected because individuals governments can’t see the point.

An EU declaration designed to reduce the number of signalling systems and to establish 25kv overhead power as the basis for high speed running would be good, just to make sure trains can go from country A to country B easily. And then ticketing systems: I should be able to buy tickets between every single capital city in the EU by internet from the UK (not necessarily in English). Being told by Rail Europe that not all trains into Romania can be booked from this side of Vienna is simply not good enough (and I realise its not their fault). Standardisation of booking systems might be something the EU could achieve I would think..

And whilst we’re on that note, a bit of diplomatic work around the direct sleeper cars to Moscow wouldn’t go a miss: that a carriage runs direct from Amsterdam, Cologne, Berlin and Warsaw to Moscow that can only be booked by Russians or people with Russian contacts should not be seen as acceptable.

Talking of sleepers, its rather worrying to note that the time taken to reach Istanbul from London by train is no shorter now than it was in the days of the Orient Express! How is this possible, given all the investment up to Vienna? More importantly, can no money be found to help speed up the route beyond Vienna? If Turkey is to join the EU, I think a 125mph rail link from Vienna to Istanbul will be in order, and sleepers should use it at that speed, no slower. (This is the maximum speed of the City Night Line trains DB runs, which are excellent, but sometimes hang around a little too long during the night).

I now wonder whether the issue of the high speed sleeper is not a necessary question. An ICE with beds might be able to shave several hours of some City Night Line runs – Amsterdam to Prague is about 16hours, which at full line speeds would probably drop to about 12hours, still definitely a long night’s sleep. That trains are getting faster does not mean sleepers are redundant, it simply means that longer distances can be managed whilst sleeping “over the rails”.

I have neglected to even deal with the problem of border crossings and Eurostar being a closed system (and the need for a London to Cologne and Frankfurt direct train) but here are some key pointers for good railway development: long continuous runs at a decent, but not overly exciting speed is better. And the need to provide through tickets and trains on really expansive 125mph routes is far more important than simply connecting the 2 biggest cities at 200mph. There is much to be done on Europe’s railways; very little involves being “state of the art”.


Entry filed under: Environment, Europe, Sustainability, Technology, Trains, Travel.

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10 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Alice  |  Monday, 27th April 2009 at 9:31 UTC

    You can quite easily book most journeys east of Vienna through Deutsche Bahn by phone, that isn’t a problem. There are even numerous agencies who will do it for you (charging lots of money). There are also travel agencies in the various countries who will arrange reservations for you locally so arranging travel by train across Europe isn’t difficult, it just takes more time, money and energy than flying.

    If you are serious about getting across Europe fast then you have to use air travel. Trains can be improved to be more comfortable but planes can get you to Eastern Europe 10 times cheaper and 10 times faster. I saw a Stansted to Switzerland flight this week for 29 pence including taxes, granted it wasn’t somewhere I wanted to go but who could resist a flight for 29p?

    Turkey’s entry to the EU will not depend on high speed rail links. Turkey doesn’t have much of a rail network, and where there are rail links the timetables are considered government secrets and so beyond Istanbul you are limited to coaches (which are generally of much higher standard than the uk). Turkey’s entry to the EU depends much more upon the stopping of corruption, votes in the recent elections were being bought for up to 300 Turkish Lira and outcomes were overthrown after international monitors had left (resulting riots led to deaths).

  • 2. Neil T.  |  Monday, 27th April 2009 at 10:55 UTC

    Some good points. It’s interesting to note that the high speed domestic services on High Speed 1, due to start later this year, will have a maximum speed of 140mph rather than the line speed of 186mph (not 168 as you originally wrote) – this is simply because the trains stop so often that they can’t actually reach maximum line speed.

    Also look at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/European_Rail_Traffic_Management_System – a pan-European project to standardise signalling. Britain is one of the countries trialling it.

  • 3. Graham Martin  |  Monday, 27th April 2009 at 12:38 UTC

    Neil: First off, sorry on the wrong speed, my fault! Does that mean the “Javelin” trains are limited to 140, or that they won’t be travelling faster than that? I must save up for a trip on it! And ERTMS is good and should be pushed as far as it can go.

    Alice: Wasn’t saying it should be a condition of entry, more something that Turkey does in the earlier stages to become more fully a part of the Union. Your other observations are entirely correct. My point should have been that 125mph is fast enough for the purpose and that this would ensure inclusion without the need for low cost flights. And dammit, bring back the Orient Express! A through train from Paris to Istanbul should be a doddle in this day and age!

  • 4. Alice  |  Monday, 27th April 2009 at 16:42 UTC

    And there would be a through train from Paris to Istanbul if people actually wanted it (in fact there is a London to Istanbul train which runs once a year), but tourists want to get to the south coast quickly and cheaply and business people want to get to Ankara quickly and cheaply. Turks can’t easily get into Europe because it requires visas which are nearly impossible to get, and so why would the Turkish government pay for high speed rail links?

    In fact, why would they pay for railways at all when they won’t (or can’t) pay to build a quality telecommunications infrastructure or fix water and power supplies or assist their farmers like we do?

    • 5. Graham Martin  |  Monday, 27th April 2009 at 22:17 UTC

      You still haven’t explained how opening up Turkey would be a bad thing? Also, I wasn’t necessarily saying the line should be high-speed on the other side of the border, merely that overnight high speed from Vienna is long over due.

  • 6. Helen  |  Monday, 27th April 2009 at 19:25 UTC

    Reinvent the wheel? But Maglevs don’t have wheels… Or perhaps that’s what you meant 🙂 particularly apt idiom anyway.

    I love Maglevs, incidentally, at least the concept. Don’t think they’d work in Britain but I can imagine that in a big country (like say the USA) they could save a lot of energy that would be used in air travel.

    • 7. Graham Martin  |  Monday, 27th April 2009 at 22:13 UTC

      Yes, but not significantly more than the proven technology known as high speed rail would. And I’m glad to hear that Obama agrees with me on this one. Sorry.

      • 8. Helen  |  Sunday, 10th May 2009 at 14:06 UTC

        Oh well, if Obama agrees, then who am I to question it.

  • 9. Froth  |  Tuesday, 28th April 2009 at 0:14 UTC

    Even leaving aside the problem of platform length, why doesn’t it make sense to run multiple trains? Especially if you can be sure they’ll all be full or nearly so? Multiple trains make connections much surer and simpler, and therefore journeys faster.

    • 10. Graham Martin  |  Tuesday, 28th April 2009 at 8:35 UTC

      Ah, yes, didn’t explain that one well enough. Essentially the problem is “service density” or the number of trains using a piece of track each hour. If you run too many trains over a single piece of track, then delays start to impact one train to another. Then those delays get passed out when trains reach other stations and mess up other trains’ “timetable pathways”.

      Running twice an hour is rarely a problem, but in Britain the tendency seems to be to see 4 trains an hour as the target, when this results in significant problems for timetabling, and smaller and smaller margins for error.

      Better coordination could be made by having a central timetabling body look at the UK’s timetables, so trains connect, rather than just relying on a train every 15 minutes as a means of ensuring connections. The phrase “they manage it in Europe” springs to mind!


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