Here’s why high speed trains don’t always save that much time

A train zooms through China. Image: Getty.

It’s not often you hear anyone say people had it easier in the old days, but there is one group for whom  perhaps things have got a bit harder: transport pioneers.

In 1731, the first stagecoach from London to Birmingham took two and a half days. A decade later, simple improvements to the poor quality roads meant that journey time had been reduced by 12 hours.

Today, a train from London to Birmingham takes about 1hr20. In a decade, if the construction of High Speed 2 goes to plan, the most expensive and technologically advanced railway project in British history will have reduced that by… 30 minutes. You can’t help feeling a bit short-changed.

Italy last week rejected a plan to increase the speed of its high-speed Milan to Rome line from 300kmph (185 mph) to 350kmph (220 mph). This would have been a fairly big speed increase – but the trains would only reach Rome 10 minutes earlier, and the transport ministry decided it simply wasn’t worth the cost of the extra power needed and the damage to the tracks caused by faster trains.

This all comes down to a cruel twist of mathematics: a small improvement to a slow mode of transport saves far more time than a much bigger improvement to fast one. If you double your speed then, ignoring complications like acceleration and corners, you halve the journey length. But each doubling requires a bigger increase in speed, while each halving results in less time being shaved off.

Here’s a quick example. Let’s say you want to go 640 miles – that’s roughly the straight-line distance from Paris to Vienna, or from London to Edinburgh and back. How long will that take you?


On foot, your average walking speed without roads would probably be about 2-3 mph. Let’s assume 2 mph for now. Walking those 640 miles would take you 320 hours, or about 13 days (not taking into account time to sleep or rest).

With a fit horse, your walking speed could be a sustained 4 mph. That tiny 2mph increase doubled your speed, and halved your travel time, cutting the journey by an incredible 160 hours – almost a week.

With a few more horses, good roads and some regular coaching inns, a stagecoach could do 8 mph. That lets you cut another 80 hours off the journey.

Once railway technology arrives, we can double the speed again to 16 mph – roughly the limit on early lines like Stockton-Darlington or Manchester-Liverpool. At this speed, your journey takes 40 hours. The savings aren’t as great as they were before, but cutting nearly 2 days off the journey isn’t bad.

Double the speed to 32 mph, the journey now takes 20 hours. Double again to 64 mph, it takes 10. At 128 mph – just about the highest speed possible on the British train network outside High Speed 1 – those 640 miles can be covered in just 5 hours.

But now things start getting difficult.

To double the speed again means increasing by another 128 mph, to 256 mph. No regular train runs at this speed anywhere in the world, but there is one contender: the Shanghai maglev. This can reach speeds of 270 mph but at a huge cost. The line is incredibly expensive, and makes a loss every year. If you travelled those 640 miles at 256 mph, the journey would take around 2.5 hours. For all that effort, you’ve saved 150 minutes. It might still be worth it – but it’s a lot of investment for a small gain.

Finally, we can double it one more time to 512 mph. This is roughly the cruising speed of an Airbus A320. Flying all the way, those 640 miles are covered in 75 minutes. The time savings are getting very limited now.

Speed (in miles per hour) and time taken (in hours) to cover 640 miles. The introduction of the horse was probably more important than maglev. Sorry.

Take into account the time needed to accelerate up to top speed and stop at stations along the way, and all this explains why the benefits of exciting high-speed rail projects can be underwhelming. Most intercity transport in the western world is already quite fast: eking out a few more miles per hour makes little difference to journey times except on the longest journeys.

This doesn’t mean there’s never a case for high-speed rail – its convenience can attract air passengers, and the (relative) glamour of express trains can attract passengers who wouldn’t otherwise use railways. But saving time is not necessarily a major advantage.

There is an exception: very long journeys. Over thousands of miles those small time savings can still add up. France and Germany have highly successful intercity high speed lines, because their routes stretch right across the country and beyond into neighbouring countries. If the government ever extends High Speed 2 into Scotland, or manages to integrate cities like Manchester into the Eurostar network, rail passengers might get to enjoy some really good time savings.

For an extreme example, see China, where the 1,400 mile long Beijing-Guangzhou high-speed line more than halved journey times between the two cities. Given that the slower train took over 21 hours, shaving 13 hours off meant it was well worth it (even if many people prefer to fly). Just don’t expect anything quite so dramatic on our little island.

 
 
 
 

It’s time to rethink how the British railway network works

Nothing doing: commuters await a long-delayed train. Image: Getty.

The recent meltdowns on Northern and Thameslink not only left many passengers besides themselves with frustration about not being able to get to work on time, if at all. It also led to a firestorm of criticism and condemnation from politicians and media alike.

With the immediate shock of that first Monday morning of the meltdown passed, there’s a now a bigger debate about whether the way that rail services are provided for cities needs some far reaching reform. But before coming to that, the first thing to say – and as we set out in our Rail Cities UK report, launched today – is that the fundamentals for urban rail remain very strong.

Here’s why. All cities want to become denser, more dynamic places which attract the best people to the growth sectors of the economy (including the ‘flat white economy’ of media, communications and information). In order to achieve this, as well as to improve air quality, cities are also reducing space for motorised traffic in favour of space for people.

It’s very difficult to see how this can be achieved without expanding rail networks and their capacity. What’s more, if housing need is to be met without creating more sprawl and traffic congestion, then again its rail that will be key – because it opens up former rail-connected brownfield industrial sites, it extends commuting range, plus housing can be built above or around new or existing rail stations and interchanges.

In some ways there’s nothing new here. From Metroland to Docklands, successful cities have always grown with their rail networks. And to be fair, there is significant investment going into urban rail at present. Northern will get a lot better (the pacers are doomed) and both Merseyside and Tyne & Wear are getting a whole new fleet of trains for their urban rail networks.

However, much (but not all) of this investment is incremental, or replacing rolling stock on its last legs. It stops short of the wider vision for the rail cities that we need.


What would that look like in practice? There comes a point when the biggest cities need more cross-city routes, because running trains in and out of edge-of-centre termini can’t cope with the numbers. That explains the push for Crossrail 2 in London, but also the need for more cross-city capacity in cities like Birmingham (on the Snow Hill route) as well as in Manchester (on the Oxford Road to Manchester Piccadilly corridor, as well as a potential new underground route).

Tram-train technology can also help – allowing the lucky commuter that benefits to get on board at their local station and get off right outside their city centre office on main street in the city centre, rather than piling out at a Victorian railway terminal on the edge of that city centre.

Tram-trains aren’t the only tech fix available. Battery packs can extend the range of existing electric trains deeper into the “look ma, no wires” hinterlands, as well as allow trams to glide through city centres without the expensive clutter of overhead wires.

More mundane but equally useful work to increase capacity through signalling, station, track and junction work offers the opportunity to move to turn-up-and-go frequency networks with greater capacity and more reliability – networks that start to emulate the best of what comparable German rail cities already enjoy. Interlocking networks of long distance, regional express, regional, S-bahn, U-bahn, trams and buses, all under common ticketing.

But in talking about Germany and common ticketing I am now getting back to where I started around the debate on whether some fundamental change is needed on how urban rail networks are provided. Obviously there is a bigger national discussion going on about whether the current structure is just too layered, with too many costly interfaces and too fractured a chain of command. And in addition another, on whether the railway should be publicly or privately owned and operated.

But it’s been heartening to see the growing recognition that – regardless of how these debates are resolved – more devolution for urban and regional services should be part of any solution. That’s not only because fully devolved services have been out-performing comparators both operationally and in passenger satisfaction; it’s because local control rather than remote control from Whitehall will mean that the dots can be joined between rail and housing, between rail and the wider re-fashioning of city centres, and between rail and local communities (for example through repurposing stations as wider hubs for local community use, enterprises and housing). It will also allow for rail and the rest of local urban public transport networks to be part of one system, rather than be just on nodding terms as is all too often the case at present.

The crisis on Northern and Thameslink has been a miserable experience for rail users, affected cities and the rail industry. If any good has come out of it, it is that it shows how important rail is to cities, and opens up a space for some bigger thinking about what kind of rail cities we will need for the future – and how best we can make that happen.

Jonathan Bray is the Director of the Urban Transport Group which represents the transport authorities for the largest city regions. You can read the group’s full report here.