An investigation into the important matter of Chris Grayling’s secret adoration of the maglev

This picture will never get old. Image: Getty.

Does Chris Grayling have a secret adoration for maglevs? The futuristic train technology, where magnets are used in place of wheels to make the carriage levitate, has a rocky history in this country. But as talk stirs of plans to build a maglev line from Manchester to Leeds (no, really), it’s worth taking a look at what the now-transport secretary had to say in a speech back in March 2007.

“No one who has travelled on the only commercially operated Maglev route in Shanghai could fail to have been impressed,” Grayling said, presumably with the sort of gusto reminiscent of a 19th century rail engineer. “It could well be a vision for the future. Not only is it fast – It also appears to offer much more versatility than conventional rail.”

That misty-eyed speech, made while Grayling was shadow transport secretary under David Cameron, used to be available on the Conservative Party website. In November 2013, the party started deleting speeches made during its time in opposition, so today it’s only accessible from the MySociety archive.

It’s true, the Shanghai maglev is impressive. Passengers are whisked from the airport to the city centre in just eight minutes, covering 19 miles at a speed of around 270 miles per hour. Costing 1.2 billion yuan, it was meant to serve as a testing bed for a longer line that would the city to Beijing. Unfortunately, the Chinese government opted for traditional rail, as a maglev would not work with the country’s existing network.


Much like Shanghai, Grayling wanted to start small with a regional route to demonstrate the system’s viability. In the speech, he specified Leeds to Manchester and Glasgow to Edinburgh as two ideal routes. He promised the party would conduct a feasibility study into the technology. Also much like Shanghai, it didn’t quite work out that way.

Unfortunately, while Grayling was giving his speech, one private company was trying to put the cart before the horse (or rather, the train before the magnet). UK Ultraspeed, which submitted evidence to the 2006 Eddington Review of Britain’s transport network, wanted £29bn to fling trains across the country. The plan envisioned two southern terminuses, at London Stratford and Heathrow, with the lines meeting at a station by the M25. It then ran up to Birmingham and Manchester (where an offshoot ran to Liverpool), then continued up to Leeds, Newcastle and Edinburgh, before terminating in Glasgow. The whole trip from London to Glasgow would take just 2 hours and 40 minutes.

If the Eddington Review was sink or swim time for maglev, it swiftly sank, in dramatic fashion. In June 2007, a government-commissioned team of researchers reported that the train could actually make carbon emissions worse; it would do little to reduce journey times between nearby cities, as the plan placed the stations far from city centresl; and the system would not work with existing rail lines. In July, the government confirmed they would not be going ahead with the plan, not least because it was likely to cost double what UK Ultraspeed claimed, with the bill coming in at around £60bn.

That same month, Grayling was reshuffled out of the transport brief. What seemed like a forward-thinking idea just four months prior suddenly looked costly and ridiculous.

But UK Ultraspeed didn’t give up. It produced a press pack in July 2008, which hilariously included a quote from Grayling’s speech. The firm managed to leave out the part where Grayling specifically said it would be better to test the technology on a shorter route instead of jumping in at the deep end.

In the decade after the speech, neither Grayling nor his party said anything much about maglev. Hansard documents the odd cry from backbench MPs demanding why we aren’t pouring money into floating trains, but the former shadow transport secretary stayed oddly quiet. Curiously, Tory MP Cheryl Gillan made reference to a “super maglev” in 2015, but it was never mentioned again.

Fortunately, this tale has a happy ending. When Theresa May became leader last July, she put Grayling back on transport. There’s a lovely photo on Twitter of Grayling in Japan just two months later, about to get on a maglev, living out the dream snatched away all those summers ago.

But Grayling’s vision may find a new lease of life in Sean Anstee, who’s vying to claim the Greater Manchester mayorality for the Conservatives next month. Anstee previously told CityMetric that if elected, he would study the viability of a maglev system for the city.

A line in the candidate’s manifesto makes the sort of promises that would have made Grayling proud: “I will commission a study into how new transport methods such as Hyperloop technology can be used to make a transport system envied by the world.”

Perhaps the UK will get an incompatible train system with questionable benefits after all.

Want more of this stuff? Follow CityMetric on Twitter or Facebook

 
 
 
 

How can we stop city breaks killing our cities?

This couple may look happy, but they’re destroying Barcelona. Image: Getty.

Can’t wait to pack your bags and head off on holiday again? It used to be that people would look forward to a long break in summer – but now tourists have got used to regular short breaks through the year. We love to jet off to the world’s glittering cities, even if only for a day or two. The trouble is, binge travelling may be killing the places we visit.

You may even have seen some “tourists go home” graffiti on your last trip, and it’s not hard to see why. Barcelona is a good example of how a city can groan under the weight of its popularity. It now has the busiest cruise port, and the second fastest growing airport in Europe. Walking through the Barcelona streets at peak season (which now never seems to end) flings you into a relentless stream of tourists. They fill the city’s hot spots in search of “authentic” tapas and sangria, and a bit of culture under the sun. The mayor has echoed residents’ concerns over the impact of tourism; a strategic plan has been put in place.

It is true though, that cities tend to start managing the impact of tourism only when it is already too late. It creeps up on them. Unlike visitors to purpose-built beach destinations and national parks, city-break tourists use the same infrastructure as the locals: existing systems start slowly to stretch at the seams. Business travellers, stag parties and museum visitors will all use existing leisure facilities.

‘Meet the friendly locals’, they said. Image: Sterling Ely/Flickrcreative commons.

Barcelona may only be the 59th largest city in the world, but it is the 12th most popular with international visitors. Compared to London or Paris, it is small, and tourism has spiked sharply since the 1992 Olympics rather than grown steadily as in other European favourites like Rome.

Growth is relentless. The UN World Tourism Organisation (UNWTO) even speaks about tourism as a right for all citizens, and citizens are increasingly exercising that right: from 1bn international travellers today, we will grow to 1.8bn by 2030, according to UNWTO forecasts.

Faced with this gathering storm, just who is tourism supposed to benefit? Travellers, cities, residents or the tourism industry?

Market forces

Managing the impact of tourism starts by changing the way destinations market themselves: once the tourists arrive, it’s too late. Tourism authorities need to understand that they are accountable to the city, not to the tourism industry. When the city of Barcelona commissioned the University of Surrey to look into how it might best promote sustainable development, we found a series of techniques which have been incorporated, at least in part, into the city’s 2020 Tourism Strategy.

In the simplest terms, the trick is to cajole tourists into city breaks which are far less of a burden on the urban infrastructure. In other words, normalising the consumption of sustainable tourism products and services. In Copenhagen, 70 per cent of the hotels are certified as sustainable and the municipal authority demands sustainability from its suppliers.

Higher than the sun. A primal scream from the world’s cities? Image: Josep Tomàs/Flickr/creative commons.

Destinations must also be accountable for the transport impact of their visitors. The marketing department might prefer a Japanese tourist to Barcelona because on average they will spend €40 more than a French tourist – according to unpublished data from the Barcelona Tourist Board – but the carbon footprint we collectively pay for is not taken into account.

Crucially, for the kind of city breaks we might enjoy in Barcelona, most of the carbon footprint from your holiday is from your transport. Short breaks therefore pollute more per night, and so destinations ought to be fighting tooth and nail to get you to stay longer. It seems like a win for tourists too: a few extra days in the Spanish sun, a more relaxing break, and all accompanied by the warm glow of self-satisfaction and a gold star for sustainability.


Destinations can also target customers that behave the most like locals. Japanese first-time visitors to Barcelona will crowd the Sagrada Familia cathedral, while most French tourists are repeat visitors that will spread out to lesser-known parts of the city. Reducing seasonality by emphasising activities that can be done in winter or at less crowded times, and geographically spreading tourism by improving less popular areas and communicating their particular charms can also help reduce pressure on hot spots, much like Amsterdam is doing.

Turnover is vanity, and profit margins are sanity. No city should smugly crow about the sheer volume of visitors through its gates. If tourism is here to stay, then the least cities can do is to sell products that will have the greatest benefit for society. Whether it’s Barcelona, Berlin, Bologna or Bognor, there should be a focus on locally and ethically produced products and services which residents are proud to sell. Tourist boards should work with small businesses that offer creative and original things to do and places to stay, adding breadth to the city’s offering.

The ConversationWhether Barcelona will introduce these ideas will depend on the bravery of politicians and buy-in from the powerful businesses which are happily making short-term profits at the expense of residents and the planet. It is possible to do things differently, and for everyone to benefit more. It may be that the tipping point lies in the age-old mechanics of supply and demand: bear that in mind next time you’re booking a quick city break that looks like it’s only adding to the problem.

Xavier Font is professor of marketing at the University of Surrey.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.