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.

 
 
 
 

Here are my five favourite London council estates

The Dunboyne Road estate. Image: Steve Cadman/Wikimedia Commons.

The author is a Labour member of the London Assembly. In the name of impartiality, CityMetric would like to extend the invitation to write similar columns to representatives of other political parties.

From successful post-war efforts to move families out of slums and into modern homes, to today’s efforts to construct a new generation of social housing, there’s much to be celebrated in London’s precious council housing stock.

This year we celebrate the centenary of the Addison Act, which established a national building programme with government funding for the first time. So here – in no particular order – are my top five London estates:

1. Dunboyne Road

In 1965, the newly established London Borough of Camden was bold and radical when it came to public housing. Their architect’s department boasted 98 staff, led by Sydney Cook. The Grade II listed Dunboyne Road (pictured above) was Britain’s first high-density, low-rise estate. Designed in the late 1960s and completed in 1977, it was the first major work by architect Neave Brown.

Its concrete construction and geometric layout are eye-catchingly modernist, but the 71 flats and maisonettes fit neatly into their surroundings; a reimagining of the classic London street for the 1960s. Each has a private terrace and own entrance onto the central pedestrian walkway and communal gardens, with stepped levels and dual-aspect windows creating light throughout.

Neave Brown himself lived on the estate in the final years of his life remarking, “Who am I to say, but it’s beautiful”.

2. Lilington Gardens

Located just off Vauxhall Bridge Road, the fourteen blocks at Lilington Gardens were built between 1964 and 1972. Between three and eight storeys each, it was again a rejection of the tower blocks which dominated the era, showing that mid-rise housing could provide both beauty and density.

Image: Ewan Munro/Wikimedia Commons.

At a time when Westminster could be proud of the quality of its housing, John Darbourne and Geoffrey Darke won a competition to design the new estate. The result was something special, eschewing modernist forms for something more rugged and layered. The layout allows for secluded green spaces, while the red brick cladding echoes the neighbouring Victorian church of St James the Less. Like all good estates, it included a pub – the Grade II*-listed Pimlico Tram (now The Cask). It was included not as an afterthought, but an integral part of the estate’s design.

3. Ossulston Estate

By the early 1950s, the London County Council’s architect’s department was the biggest in the world, building housing on a huge scale in addition to showp iece projects such as the Southbank Centre.

Though their suburban estates – Downham in Bromley, and Becontree in Barking and Dagenham – were pioneering examples of low-rise of modernity in metroland, these efforts did not always suit the needs of poor city dwellers who weren’t able to move further out. The Ossulton Estate, however, built between 1927 and 1931 on the site of a Somerstown slum and located between Euston and St Pancras stations, did exactly that.

Image: Stephen McKay/Wikimedia Commons.

Chief architect George Topham Forrest’s work was inspired by visits to ‘Red’ Vienna and Ossulston bears distinct similarities to Karl Marx-Hof, which was constructed at the same time. While the roofs and windows have traditional elements, the overall aesthetic is a modernist classic. Like many estates in post-war years, it suffered from neglect and a lack of investment, but following a £6m improvement programme by Camden Council in 2004, the Ossulston is now back to its brilliant best.

4. Alton Estate

Roehampton’s Alton Estate, completed in 1959, was designed by a team led by Rosemary Stjernstedt – the first woman to serve as a senior public sector architect in Britain.

The two parts of the estate – East and West – are the crown jewels of British post-war council housing. Alton West was Le Corbusier in Albion: six ultra-modernist blocks modelled on the Unité d’habitation in Marseille, set among the landscape inherited from the Georgian Mount Clare house. Alton East was a softer, Scandinavian-inspired design of the “new Brutalists” in the LCC.

Image: Stevekeiretsu/Wikimedia Commons.

Rising above the trees to the north east of Richmond Park, the Alton Estate stands testament to the visionary idealism of post-war council housebuilding. On its completion, visitors flocked from across the globe, with American critic G.E. Kidder Smith calling it “probably the finest low-cost housing development in the world”.

Sadly, Alton West however is now at risk from ‘regeneration’ proposals which would see 288 existing homes lost. While council estates should not be fetishised, with investment, improvement and expansion encouraged, any change must be done sensitively and with residents’ backing. I hope that Wandsworth Council and Redrow will follow the mayor’s Good Practice for Estate Regeneration and hold a ballot before plans go ahead, and that if they do, they build on Rosemary Stjernstedt’s legacy.

5. King’s Crescent

When it comes to regeneration Hackney Council have taken an altogether different approach to Wandsworth.

Located on Green Lanes opposite the magnificent Clissold Park, King’s Crescent’s route to a successful and well-supported regeneration project hasn’t always been an easy one. The early 1970s estate was blighted by poor construction, navigability issues and an ill-fated partial demolition in 2000 which turned much of the landscape into hoardings and rubble. But thanks to a step-change in resident engagement and a transformation programme funded by Hackney Council, by 2023 it will be host to 765 new and refurbished homes.

Image: David Holt/Wikimedia Commons.

In the era of government-imposed cuts to local authority budgets, councils have to be pragmatic about funding choices and the new King’s Crescent does include homes for private sale. This is understandably a source of some consternation, but it’s also the source of funding which has made the regeneration possible. Hackney has ensured that more than 50 per cent of the new homes are genuinely affordable, with 97 brand new council homes for social rent.

The new developments have greatly enhanced the area, using both new build and renovation to stitch the estate better into its Victorian surroundings. Existing homes have been retrofitted with balconies, while disused garage space has been repurposed for modern flats. Hackney have clearly thought carefully about character and open spaces, as well as ceiling heights, windows and internal storage.

It is an exceptional project – one of a growing number of new schemes now being spearheaded by ambitious councils across the capital. In 2018-19, the Mayor of London funded the start of 1,916 new council homes – the highest figure since 1984-85.


…what about the Barbican?

On the fiftieth anniversary of its opening, it would be remiss not the mention the Barbican. It’s a brutalist masterpiece and a fantastic feat of post-war planning and design. The location and design are clearly outstanding, but it’s the bright and modern interiors which are truly to die for.

So why is it not on the list? Although it was built by the City of London Corporation, not one of the flats was ever available at a social rent. The properties were built to let at market rents to workers in the City, who later found themselves in the fortunate position of being able to snap them up under the Right to Buy – still the fate of far too many of London’s vital social homes.

Tom Copley is a Labour member of the London Assembly.