Slow Train Coming

Writing in the Weekend FT, Matthew Engel highlights the benefits of modern railway systems and notes that the UK and US both have their unique limitations.

The British invented the railways and spread them across the world. I grew up in the rail town of Crewe, which was always considered something of a joke, as depicted in the 19th Century music hall song Oh! Mr. Porter

Oh! Mr Porter, what shall I do?
I want to go to Birmingham
And they’re taking me on to Crewe,
Send me back to London, as quickly as you can,
Oh! Mr Porter, what a silly girl I am.

Many in Britain have had the experience of changing trains on Crewe Station. A select few call the town of 60,000 their home. It’s been in decline since the locomotive works closed and Rolls-Royce motors moved (although luxury Bentley’s are still manufactured there).

High Speed Network planned

However, plans are afoot to change the whole basis of a Victorian rail network trying to compete with French TGV’s and Japanese and Chinese bullet trains.

Engel notes it is facing an uphill struggle:

HS2, the planned multibillion pound, 170mph high-speed line from London to the north that is the government’s pet project, is almost universally derided. The concept is indeed flawed — it offers too few useful connections with existing lines — but on all current projections it is essential, not for its extra speed but for the extra capacity to deal with record numbers of passengers.

The local Crewe newspaper recently announced that a £5bn HS2 “super hub” station will be built in Crewe. It’s slated to open in 2027 and will help deliver more than 120,000 new jobs and see over 100,000 new homes built across the region. Anyone wanting to enjoy the bucolic Cheshire countryside would be advised to do so while it remains.

Crewe HS2 Station

Good Morning, America, How Are You?

The rail network in the US is quite different. As generations of hobos and Matthew Engel have noted:

..the 140,000 miles of railroad are synonymous with freight trains, which still play a major part in the US economy. Indeed, outside the Amtrak-owned Boswash corridor, the freight companies own the tracks: if there is a question of priority, it’s the passengers who are likely to get shunted into a siding. (This is almost exactly the opposite to the UK, where freight traffic has always been marginal and is now in decline yet again, because of the closure of coal-fired power stations, the withdrawal of biomass subsidies, and the collapse of the domestic steel industry.)

Plans to launch high-speed trains between LA and San Francisco and cities a similar distance apart in Texas and the North East, are, like Britain’s HS2 plans, being measured in decades, not years.

All of this is in stark contrast to the rail network in China where over 10,000 miles of track serves over 2.5 million riders.The 800+ mile journey from Beijing to Shanghai takes just 5 hours.

Engel concludes:

A successful public transport system is a national benefit. William Gladstone understood this in Victorian times; Japan, China and most of western Europe accept it explicitly. For much of the world, the past 40 years have indeed been the second age of the train. British politicians get the point implicitly but execute policy furtively and cack-handedly; only American Republicans are visceral and obstructive deniers.

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