Edinburgh to London 30 minutes by train – is China leading the way on public transport?

We’re used to some of our European neighbours, along with Japan, being ahead of the game on public transport, whilst car is undoubted king in the US and the UK struggles along as usual.

But there are signs China could leapfrog into the lead with some impressive plans.

Chinese scientists are working on a Maglev train the runs through airless tunnels (so no drag) at speeds of up to 1000 kph (over 600 mph) which could get you from Edinburgh to London in a little over half an hour, or Manchester to London in under twenty minutes.

For local transport the Chinese are looking at a bus that straddles the road, with other vehicles driving underneath it.  The bus is being pitched as an alternative to subway trains, with a fraction of the price tag and environmental impact.

The straddling bus is a… subway in the future. … It can reduce up to 25-30% traffic jams on main routes. Running at an average 40 km/h, it can take 1200 people at a time, which means 300 passengers per cart.

Another strength of straddling bus is its short construction life cycle: only 1 year to build 40 km. Whereas building 40-km subway will take 3 years at best

Both innovations are at the development stage. Neither may see the light of day and, even if they do, they may be totally inappropriate for our needs in the UK.

But it does raise the question, not for the first time, of where the equivalent UK innovations are coming from and what our Government should be doing to help get them from good ideas to commercial reality.

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  • One of the biggest problems with British transport policy is that we are so densely populated that makes retrofitting big transport projects expensive, time-consuming and frustrating. China doesn’t have these issues. It’s not just a case of lack of investment, will and forward-looking government (although admittedly both of those come into it). Still, we’re beginning to hit the point where our population density is growing to a point where these transport projects is becoming more economically feasible.and important, and crossrail and high-speed rail links should just be the tip of the iceberg.

    It’s also worth remembering the context. China is throwing huge amounts of money focused on inward investment to ensure continued growth – this means you’ll see a lot of expensive projects that would be traditionally be economically unfeasible. That said, I will believe it when I see it – China doesn’t have a great record for high-tech innovation, instead being the world’s discount workforce. It was recently announced that they publish more research papers than any other country, yet seemingly little of significance. This is very telling.

  • Andrew Suffield 11th Aug '10 - 9:06pm

    Straddling buses look impressive but are just a weak and expensive alternative to monorails or trams. When you imagine trying to negotiate a complex crossroads with these things, you realise why they can’t be used on normal road networks and hence aren’t bringing anything new to the table.

    Maglev trains sound very impressive and modern, but they really don’t give you very much. Contemporary wheeled train systems lose very little power to their drive system; the bulk of the energy is lost to air drag, which maglev doesn’t help with at all. They’re also very complex, which makes them expensive and unreliable.

    Putting train cars into low-air-pressure tunnels does help quite a lot (even for wheeled trains), but the expense and complexity of pressurised cars means it will probably never be a sensible passenger system. Good way to move freight long distances over land, though.

    But we don’t need to move that much freight from Edinburgh to London. I can’t see it becoming worthwhile in nations that don’t have much heavy industry.

  • Concorde was visionary. That didn’t make it sensible…

  • Mark Inskip 11th Aug '10 - 9:26pm

    @Andrew Suffield
    I was impressed by the maglev from Pudong into Shanghai and it seems to work pretty well (one issue back in 2006 I seem to remember).

  • Interesting, because higher speed public transport makes for a more equitably distributed population, which given the incredible density of the SEZ’s must be a huge concern in China. Do we need something like that in the UK? Why on earth not? I’d like to get to where I’m going far faster than I do now, and if freight could be moved such a high margin quicker by rail it might help remove a number of lorries from the road network.
    There is a lot more that could be done to promote innovation and new ideas in the UK, that’s for definite.

  • The problem isn’t getting a train to travel from Edinburgh to London quickly, it’s convincing all the people who live in between that their taxes are being well spent as they watch it hurtling past without stopping.

    Lets leave the eye-catching glory projects to countries where the authorities aren’t answerable to the proles.

  • iainm

    Spot on! Edinburgh – London in 30 minutes only if you don’t stop in Newcastle, or York, or Peterborough etc etc

    Virgin Trains are already wandering down that route, missing out station stops to save 3 or 4 minutes. So Runcorn – Euston reduced by 4 minutes. Runcorn – Peterborough extended by an hour!

  • Mike Falchikov 11th Aug '10 - 11:22pm

    High-speed trains – yes, certainly, but in a country the size of Britain at any rate, the maglev seems like an expensive toy. One of the pleasures of train travel is the degree of leisure it affords and the gradualness of the transition
    from A to B. The aim should be to increase train speeds to the point where flying no longer seems inevitable e.g.
    if one wants to go from Edinburgh to London, do a day’s work, and return at a reasonable time in the evening.
    Flying nowadays is for the most part an unpleasant, uncomfortable and stressful experience. Reliable high-speed
    trains score every time.

  • My vote is for steam powered maglev ….

  • Edinburgh to London in £30 would be a more worthy target than 30 mins.

  • What will we do with the time saved ??

  • Simon Titley 12th Aug '10 - 9:26am

    Why the obsession with innovation, Iain? Next thing we know, you’ll be advocating we all wear jet packs.

    The problem in Britain is not innovation but application. There are several tried-and-tested transport technologies – such as electrification of railways, high-speed trains, trams, trolleybuses, guided busways – that can be adapted to improve Britain’s public transport system.

    Maglev, on the other hand, is not compatible with our existing rail infrastrucure. It would either have to terminate on the edge of our cities (thus losing a key advantage of rail over air) or would require the demolition of great swathes through our cities to create tracks that reach central termini.

  • Now that you mention it, jet packs would be both progressive and radical.

  • Andrew Suffield 12th Aug '10 - 11:25am

    Edinburgh to London in £30 would be a more worthy target than 30 mins.

    And the problem with that is that propulsion systems and energy costs simply do not form the major expense in running railways.

    I was impressed by the maglev from Pudong into Shanghai and it seems to work pretty well

    Thing about maglev is that impressing people is all it really does.

    you’d need to be digging a tunnel under the Atlantic to get enough distance to make it viable

    That’s actually one of the earliest proposals, more or less. Digging a tunnel under the Atlantic is impractical, it’s too deep – instead you string a tube through the water at a depth of a few hundred meters. It would be expensive and fairly futile for passenger transport, but an excellent way to move freight, being much faster and cheaper than cargo ships or aircraft.

    Of course, there’s less point nowadays, just not much freight moving between the US and western Europe. Running it through the Pacific would be more sensible.

  • As a number of people have pointed out, this kind of thing really doesn’t seem feasible given the types of journey we make in the UK. We would be much better served investing in conventional high-speed rail (TGV-type) that can link our major cities at speeds (and hopefully prices) that can replace damaging short-haul air travel and re-engineering and reopening existing “slow” lines to provide more reliable and greener short-distance networks.

    The biggest shift, however, is a cultural one. Particularly in the South East of England we need to regenerate sub-regional towns and cities and provide adequate public transport in and around them. Not only will this cut the amount of car traffic as commuters use their local station to travel to London (and in other commuter zones, Manchester, Sheffield or Birmingham) but it will also provide alternatives to the “Live in Sussex, work in London” lifestyle that causes so much congestion. There is no good reason many of the office environments of central London cannot be in Reading, Guildford, Brighton or Maidstone. We should have a stated national policy of – yes, developing major regional centres – but also redirecting investment and infrastructure so that businesses and employment can sensibly locate in smaller towns and cities and their workforces can live and commute locally.

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