Can Britain can catch up in the high-speed rail race?

Does Britain have the will to overhaul its creaking rail network and gain ground on its neighbours?

Last Updated: 09 Oct 2013

France and Britain are not well known for seeing eye-to-eye, but here’s one thing at least on which the two nations agree. ‘High-speed rail is an idea whose time has come,’ transport secretary Lord Adonis enthused at the Labour Party Conference in Brighton this September. ‘The question is not whether but when and how Britain follows suit.’ Quite a change of mood for a country that until 2007 had no high-speed rail routes at all. Now we have just one – the 68-mile High Speed One (HS1) route from London to Kent, shared with cross-channel Eurostar services.

Across la Manche, this enthusiasm is shared, if rather better established – France is, after all, the European home of fast trains. ‘The time has never been more favourable for high speed,’ agrees Mireille Faugère, formidable boss of SNCF Voyages, which runs France’s flagship fleet of trains à grande vitesse – the iconic TGVs.

She adds politely: ‘I’m delighted about High Speed Two’ – the company set up this year to plan the UK’s next fast line, to the North. Trains on HS2 will travel first to Birmingham, then all the way to Scotland, provided it actually gets built and avoids the pitfalls of such grands projets in the UK: derailment by political vacillation or economic expediency.

Cheers, too, from continental high-speed suppliers. ‘The Department for Transport is starting from a real vision,’ gushes Bruno Sol-Rolland, vice president of mainline rolling stock for French firm Alstom, maker of the TGV.

Back in Blighty, Iain Coucher, chief executive of the UK track operation Network Rail, returns the compliment. ‘There are lots of lessons we can learn from the French about high-speed maintenance and operation,’ he says.

Truly an entente cordiale. And although the UK – the country that invented railways – may not make many trains any more, we may have contributed something of value to our cross-channel oppos after all – a viable operating scheme. Rail networks across Europe are converging on the structure that initially caused such trauma in the UK – separate operators for track and trains – even if, as in France or Germany, both remain under state control.

It may have been a troubled journey, but now all the trauma of privatisation and so forth is past. ‘Like everything in the UK, the system is very well worked out from a legal point of view,’ says Faugère – unlike in France, where she grumbles that she has no contract with RFF, France’s Network Rail. And since there is no French regulator comparable to the UK’s Office of Rail Regulation, she has no comeback over access charges or network delays either.

There’s no reason to doubt this cross-Channel meeting of minds. Yet the fine words can’t conceal the vast distance that separates the two sides – a thousand miles, to be precise, the difference between the total length of the high-speed lines that spider out all over France and the UK’s solitary 68-mile stretch.

Or consider France’s 400 TGV train sets, many of them second-generation double-deckers, compared with the UK’s rather less impressive and much slower 53 Pendolinos and 29 Hitachi Javelins, plying just two routes: the (upgraded but not truly high-speed) West Coast route and the Eurostar line from Kent, which is about to open for commuter traffic.

The comparisons won’t improve any time soon. Under the impulse of swelling cities, clogged-up roads and threats of global warming, Mrs Thatcher’s least favourite mode of transport is undergoing its biggest boom globally since the 19th-century investment bubble that started it all. An international comparison of high-speed lines planned or in place by 2025 shows China (5,678 miles) streaking ahead of 15 other nations, including Spain (4,415), France (4,135) and Japan (3,774), whose Shinkansen bullet train showed the rest of the world what was possible back in the 1960s.

All these countries, Adonis acknowledges, are ‘far beyond us in the relative scale of their high-speed networks’. China alone is spending $60bn on a futuristic network linking many of its major cities and creating hundreds of thousands of jobs. The UK is stuck forlornly behind Morocco (422 miles), Saudi Arabia (342) and plucky Belgium (215). Even the US may have high-speed lines by then. ‘High-speed rail is not some pie-in-the-sky vision. It is happening right now,’ President Obama observed recently, adding: ‘We can do this: this is America.’

But can we? There’s little doubt we could. True, as Adonis candidly admits, we built High Speed One only because we were ‘shamed into it by the French’. Even then, it does not connect any domestic centres, so at least half the benefit flashes straight through Kent without stopping. But the line was on time and to budget; and Alstom’s Sol-Rolland is in no doubt that the UK rail setup is far more professional and engineering-led now.

Moreover, as Faugère underlines, from 2010, Eurostar will be a ‘full, standalone international train-operating company’, owned 50% by SNCF, 45% by the UK Government and 5% by Belgian railways. From a technical, engineering or experience point of view, therefore, there’s no overriding reason why not.

The big question for the UK is a very different one: does it have the political will and nous to carry out such large infrastructure projects? Uncomfortably for the British, high-speed rail goes beyond narrow accountability of bums on seats. High-speed lines are so expensive that they have to be justified by a grand, long-term vision – altering national (or European) geography rather than accepting it, shrinking distance and extending cities into regions. Part, Adonis says, of a ‘transport policy revolution’.

But Adonis is of a member of a troubled government desperately seeking big ideas, and we have heard such grand talk before. The Brit-ish record – whether you’re talking transport policy or large-scale strategic projects – is not encouraging. ‘Our governing elite doesn’t understand technology or the importance of great infrastructure projects,’ laments military historian Corelli Barnett, author of the panoramic Pride and Fall trilogy. ‘They never put their backing behind it. There’s always some economic reason for putting it off.’

Barnett contrasts the bold French use of post-war Marshall Aid to fund rail electrification – ‘the original high-speed network’, under the driving vision of a brilliant engineer – with what happened in the UK: timid patching of an antiquated network led by a superannuated general and a safe Whitehall pair of hands.

At the 1951 Festival of Britain, Barnett acidly notes, ‘British Railways proudly showed off its major post-war technological innovation: the Britannia, first of a class of express steam locomotive. It was two years since the French railways had built their last steam engine.’ It is only now that the cumulative 50-year investment gap is beginning to be filled in.

The French did it again in the 1970s, with the ambitious planning and execution of the TGV network. It also built a cross-Paris route with a similar lack of fuss. London’s Crossrail has been an on-off saga, dating back to 1974 and still not due for completion until 2017.

Jointly developed by Alstom and SNCF, the TGV was a typical product of the Gaullist state, notes Sol-Rolland, designed to enhance French commercial and technological prowess and prestige, and to make high-speed travel cheap enough for all to afford. It has been spectacularly successful. That first Paris-Lyons route of 1981 has since been extended to Nice and Marseilles, while other high-speed tracks radiate out from Paris towards Bordeaux and the west as well as to London and Strasbourg. Last year, the Sarkozy government gave the green light to add a further 1,250 miles by 2020. As speeds creep up (250mph is in prospect), more French cities come within three hours of Paris and each other – the magic threshold at which trains fill up and flights empty, fuelling a virtuous circle.

Moving steadily up the agenda, says Faugère, is the concept of a Europe-wide network – although formidable technological and political complications line the route. On the back of its French experience, Alstom has helped itself to 70% of the world market for high-speed trains, and last year launched its next-generation AGV (automotrice à grande vitesse, or ‘high-speed self-propelled carriage’). Lighter, faster, more capacious, the AGV was designed and developed from Alstom’s own resources – a remarkable feat in railway terms.

Against this backdrop of Gallic confidence and panache, it’s hard not to see our railways as another case of British ‘Wimbledonisation’. We obligingly lay out immaculate courts and meticulously codify rules, only for others to beat us at our own game.

Dominance in the transport technology that the UK invented has been ceded to others: France, Germany and Japan, soon to be joined by China. The UK has been relegated to the role of pen-pusher-in-chief, specialist in the rather less stirring field of regulation and contract management.

The UK’s workers are, anyway, unlikely to benefit from any high-speed boom that emerges. There’s only one manufacturer left, Bombardier, employing just 4,500. Although the West Coast line’s Pendolinos were built by Alstom’s former Metro-Cammell works in Birmingham, that was the unit’s last hurrah. It closed in 2005, one of the last remnants of the once thriving Franco-British joint venture, GEC Alstom.

Of course, jobs that melted away in the railways’ lost decades may have been recreated elsewhere – in lawyers’, accountants’ and regulators’ offices. ‘Allowing markets to rule has channelled re--sources into areas where we can compete, such as services,’ notes Sir Geoffrey Owen, a former editor of the Financial Times, now a fellow at LSE.

Once lost, technical expertise is hard to recreate. Despite recent ministerial promises of a more active industrial policy on high-end engineering jobs – words not heard in the UK for decades – Owen says ‘it’s very difficult to see how we would get back into [advanced rail manufacture]’.
Judging by the standards of the rest of Europe – 3,600 miles built, 2,000 under construction and a further 5,300 planned – even the UK’s more ambitious high-speed plans look pretty tame, motivated more by political expediency than by any real commitment. Is HS2 too little too late, the UK’s sudden rush of enthusiasm for the virtues of high-speed investment even slightly ridiculous?

Adonis is unapologetic. He concedes that having pioneered the initial railway revolution, the UK’s aloofness from the second is an aberration. But ‘the need for sustainable additional transport capacity between Britain’s principal conurbations; the potential to substitute lower-carbon and more convenient trains for planes and cars; the potential for getting more freight off roads and onto rail; the social and economic benefits of high-capacity, high-speed links between the north and the south in England, and between England and Scotland’ – all mean that potential remains for new lines to have as profound an effect as the first time round.

At Network Rail, Coucher notes that the ultimate decision was always going to be political. As for timing, ‘You can argue about that,’ he concedes. But Spain and France are five times bigger than the UK, which made it easier to find space for routes, and the benefits of connecting far-flung cities more immediate, than in the crowded UK.

From 1945 to 1990, he points out, railways in the UK were in decline. It wasn’t till privatisation that passenger numbers started perking up again (although the relationship isn’t causal – as the TGV example shows, it’s surely imaginative investment that is the key to rising demand, whatever the provenance of the funding). There was no way expensive high-speed lines would get built in the UK when there was existing spare capacity.

But circumstances have changed. Looming saturation on the West Coast line makes expansion vital. To capacity ‘push’, add convenience ‘pull’, as traffic jams tail back and congestion charges hit pockets, while a growing concentration of jobs in the city centre is combining with rising house prices to produce longer commutes to work.

All this means that pressures to commit to at least one new high-speed line will mount inexorably. Rail enthusiast Adonis is working hard to make it happen. But there is a financial crisis on and a general election ahead, and we must never underestimate the British talent for compromise. The next generation of UK high-speed trains may hit the buffers before leaving the shed.

‘I’ll believe HS2 when it’s constructed,’ sighs a sceptical Barnett. But even if the cynics are even--tually confounded, one unwelcome rail travel cliché remains apt. British passengers are advised to wrap up warm and take plenty of reading matter, because it’s going to be a long wait.


Why do the British find it so hard to commit to long-term mega-projects that the French take in their stride? Take a look at the remarkable history of Alstom, world leader in high-speed trains – la gloire of French engineering.

Although now as French as Brigitte Bardot, by inheritance Alstom is half British. For a crucial decade in its life, it was GEC Alsthom, a 50-50 joint venture between GEC and its French equivalent.

Formed in 1989 from two national companies each too small to go it alone, GEC Alsthom was ‘one of a new breed of Eurocompanies’, MT declared in 1993, that by combining the best of British and French had the potential to be an international powerhouse.
The optimism turned out to be justified. But the twisting road from there to here speaks volumes about the very different approaches to capitalism adopted in France and Britain.

UK-side, by 1998, GEC was hell-bent on shaking off its heavy-engineering past to pursue dotcom-sized stock market returns as a pure-play telecoms outfit. The joint venture was accordingly floated on the Paris stock exchange and became Alstom (dropping the ‘h’).

Having lived by the market, GEC – renamed Marconi – died by it. The firm failed to notice that severing its links with the real world was removing its life support: when it crashed and burned in the Noughties tech slump, there was no-one left who wanted to save it.

By contrast, when French-owned Alstom found itself in difficulties in 2003, the French government took the long-term view and bailed it out. As a central cog in French transport and industrial policy, it wasn’t allowed to go bust. In the UK, only our large banks have been deemed worthy of such ‘too big to fail’ status.

National tendencies thus reinforce themselves. A de facto industrial policy encourages French companies to invest for the long term – hence the TGV. Success breeds success, effectively isolating the infrastructure from politics.

The UK, even with a share of the company that pioneered European high-speed rail, was unable to do the same. Starved of investment by short-termism, the railways became a dismal customer for train builders. Thus weakened, these firms were unattractive to investors uncomfortably aware that big projects in the UK were a political and financial gamble. Even when it wills the end, too often the British political class chickens out of willing the means.
There are rare exceptions to this institutional fragility. LSE’s Owen points out that the UK’s successful pharmaceuticals cluster is the result of a de facto partnership with the state that gives firms long-term incentives to develop innovative products.

It’s not a lesson that has been taken to heart. Getting HS2 built will be as much about overcoming British aversion to long-term investment and management thinking as mastering the various technical issues involved.

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