Britain is the global laggard in developing its high-speed rail (HSR) network. Currently the United Kingdom has a total HSR track length of 113 km compared with 3,100 km in Spain, 2,388 km in Japan, 2,037 km in France, 1105 km in Germany and 926 km in Italy.
The true leviathan in developing a comprehensive, modern HSR network is China. Since the Chinese Ministry of Railways began planning the country’s network in the early 1990’s, China has built over 11,000 km in high-speed rail track dwarfing all other nations. China has also sought to establish a world-class HSR manufacturing base bearing testament to the importance of high-speed rail logistics and industries in the development agenda of the Chinese leadership where HSR is considered a means of:
1. Providing fast, reliable and comfortable transport for large numbers of travellers in a densely populated country over long distances.
2. Improving long-term economic productivity and competitiveness by increasing the transport capacity of railways and linking labour markets.
3. Facilitating cross-city economic integration and promoting the growth and market potential of second-tier cities.
4. Moving passengers to HSR to free up older railways to increase freight capacity.
5. Environmental sustainability: greenhouse gas emissions per passenger kilometre are between 30-70 gCO2 for HSR versus 150 gCO2 for automobiles and 170 gCO2 for airplanes. Further CO2 savings may accrue if the grid electricity is generated by nuclear power.
All of these issues are relevant to the economic and infrastructure problems currently facing the UK. It is estimated that HSR is more economical than air travel for journeys of between 250–900 km which would cover the distance between all of the UK’s main population centres. The Chinese government believes that HSR will virtually eliminate road and air traffic between the megacities of Nanjing and Wuhan, and Chongqing and Chengdu.
A major advantage of improving the rapidity of transport in the UK is the redress of regional imbalances in economic well-being. A significant factor in these inequalities is the geographic distribution of the UK population. The South East benefits enormously from its proximity to the centre of the European Megalopolis, a highly populous region which begins around Milan and passes through the Rhineland into the Low Countries. Its continuation in the UK runs in a corridor from London through to the Manchester-Liverpool conurbation.
The European Megalopolis is characterized by higher employment rates, higher GDP per capita and other favourable indicators of economic activity such as invention patents per capita. The latter is particularly important for the future economic well-being and competitiveness of the UK in the world economy. High population densities and good connectivity facilitates the exchange of goods, services and ideas supported by good infrastructure and the accessibility of financial centres such as London and Frankfurt. These advantages are attractive to multinationals wishing to establish a European presence.
The UK however is the weak link in the region defined as possessing “good infrastructure.” The 259 km train journey between Manchester Piccadilly and London Euston takes approximately 2 hours 7 minutes compared with 2 hours and 20 minutes from London to Paris (346 km). The 4 hours 20 minutes for the 553 km journey between London and Glasgow also compares unfavourably with the 2hour 38 minute journey between Madrid and Barcelona covering 621 km.
Analysis of HSR development in other nations is sufficient to dismiss most British excuses for not establishing a high speed network. One of the most cited is the country’s high population density. This has not proved an insurmountable obstacle to the 117 km Beijing-Tianjin line (official municipal populations of 16.4 million and 14.1 million respectively) opened in 2008.
The high population density between the cities required that 85% of the line be laid on viaducts to minimize land acquisition costs. Most of the remainder of China’s HSR network connects cities in the East China Plain which accounts for the vast majority of the country’s 1.4 billion population. Similarly, very high population densities did not prohibit Japanese HSR development.
Between 2009 and 2011, the total length of operational HSR track worldwide has grown from 10,700 km to nearly 17,000 km. Another 8,000 km is currently under construction and 17,700 km more is planned. Some of this growth is occurring in the UK’s European competitors but most track is being laid in emerging nations; Turkey plans to construct 2,424 kilometres of HSR with Chinese assistance, Portugal and the United States both hope to reach track lengths of more than 1,000 km.
Chinese train-makers and civil engineering companies are now building, participating in or contemplating bidding for HSR projects in South America, the US, Saudi Arabia and Russia. In October 2013, State Council premier Li Keqiang signed a railway cooperation memorandum of understanding with Thailand. This was followed by an exhibition of Chinese railway manufactures in Romania in November 2013 attended by 16 leaders from Eastern Europe.
China has also signed $3.1 billion worth of HSR deals with Nigeria. Most growth will occur in Asia; the Asia Development Bank estimates that $8 trillion dollars will be spent on infrastructure in the region up to 2020. To facilitate Chinese domination of this market, China published an initiative to found an Asian infrastructure investment bank which will provide funds and support for ASEAN countries
The UK however in all areas of infrastructure investment and improvement appears to be succumbing to its most chronic disease: procrastination. By failing to adequately and efficiently connect its various regions, it will be at a considerable disadvantage in providing the conditions necessary for the easy and rapid exchange of ideas, goods and services vital to invent and compete in the emerging multipolar global economy.
Western domination of world industrial production is over and it may soon relinquish its lead in innovation, the UK must move fast to avoid being left further behind.
Dr Clark Barrett investigates issues pertaining to national competitiveness in IP generation and security in addition to biomaterials and physics research