I've wondered about writing a blog for some time now, and not been sure where to start. I guess the right answer is "the beginning" in most cases, but if I did that we'd be back in the stone age!
There are several topics I'd like to discuss in blog form: some politics, especially relating to railway provision, some aspects of computing, and maybe some issues around religion. Having decided to break the two main rules of social etiquette ("never talk about politics or religion") I'll start without further ado with some thoughts about the current proposals for a high speed rail network.
I have been interested in rail travel for many years now, and am pleased that the railways are now receiving recognition as the important infrastructure that they are. Whether the commercial structure of the UK system is as it should be is an issue for another time, but in summary I don't believe it is optimal, in not enabling sufficient autonomy from the operating companies to innovate in train and freight delivery.
The Govt has become very enamoured with the high speed rail idea of late, no doubt encouraged by similar systems on the continent. In a simplistic sense, it would be nice to have high speed links, but there is always a cost, and not just a monetary one. The issues I believe are important on the railways at present are, in order:
- Overcrowding. Regularly running trains that are significantly overcrowded (e.g. more than 10 people/coach standing) should not happen. That it does is at least partly due to a lack of rolling stock that is in turn due to the rather strange way the industry is run.
- Line capacity. In the BR days, much was done to simplify the railways, including removing signalling and crossovers, and cutting back the number of tracks (e.g. making single-line paths). This has created a system that is now struggling to cope with the traffic, although it might not "seem" overloaded on casual observation.
- Routes. We now have many "smaller" towns that are as large as "large" towns in past years and yet don't have a railway station. Many used to have, but it was closed. We also have a very London-centric network; many routes end up being only possible via London. For example, the cheapest ticket from Cambridge to Birmingham (more or less due West) is via London (50 miles South), and although another route exists it is via Leicester and is not quick!
- Freight. While I put this lower on the list, it is only because there is so much to do! Freight must be a part of the 21st Century railway: an ever-increasing number of lorries is not sustainable. However, to make this happen requires many changes, not least increased capacity, much better freight interchange facilities, and a greater willingness on the part of the railway operators and including Network Rail, to take responsibility for freight delivery on time.
- High-speed trains. Well it had to be somewhere. Yes, in an ideal world I'd like them, but the others are way more important. I'm sure someone can come up with numbers that say the economy "needs" it, but then you know you can prove anything with statistics... And then there's the whole issue with compulsory purchase and compensation too.
The Govt is in my opinion failing the country by inverting the priorities in this way, probably to "leave a mark" or some such. Yes, a high speed rail link from London to Birmingham and Leeds would be used by some, and probably appreciated, and I do appreciate the existing tunnel link, but we do already have reasonably fast rail lines linking these places. Indeed, the London-Birmingham route has only just finished having its "high speed" upgrade. The cost - at least £6bn that we don't have - seems so out of all proportion to the benefit - a half hour or so faster travel for some (tens of?) thousands of people - that I cannot believe this proposal doesn't have some ulterior motive.