To look at the evolution of railways, in particular train speed, we first need to look back some 2600 years when wagonways started to appear, such as the Diolkos Wagonway (600 BC) near Athens.
These were mere grooves in the stone pavements and the wagons were pulled by either men or animals (walking speed).
In the 16th century, wooden rails started to appear in mines to transport ore in tubs, and switches and crossings started to appear to take the tubs from one line to another, still at walking speed.
In the 18th century, wooden rails were replaced by plates and plateways were created, which were later replaced by metal rails – railways. Around 1803, Richard Trevithick improved the technology of James Watt (circa 1775) to create a steam locomotive. Its speed was about 5mph. In 1829, George Stevenson won the Rainhill Trials using Rocket – speed then 30mph.
By 1850, railways started to become widespread across Britain and we began exporting railway technology across the world. At this point railways started to take a special place in our hearts, which largely remains to this day. While developments in steam engines continued – the fastest official steam engine was the Mallard at 126 mph – they eventually became obsolete as technology continued to advance.
Developments in diesel appeared from 1934 with a later speed record of around 159 mph. However, it is the advent of electric trains when speed started to increase dramatically, from 128 mph in 1903 to 198 mph in 1979 (the Japanese Shinkansen) and on to a world land speed record of 357.2 mph by an SNCF TGV in 2007.
We have come a long way and have still much further to go. In the future, we will refer to ultra-high speed as the natural progression of high-speed.
So, is HS2 all about speed? No, of course not, but getting to where we want to go quickly, safely and in comfort is what we have come to expect from our transportation infrastructure. It usually takes around 30 to 40 years for a test speed to become an operational speed. Powering trains electrically gives the real opportunity to travel at high-speed between major cities with zero carbon emissions. I see HS2 as the next stage in the construction of our high-speed network and interconnectivity. China, Spain, Japan, Germany and France have all gone this way.
We are in austere times, but the cost of new transportation infrastructure can be paid for over many years and it is designed to last – the Stockton-to-Darlington line was built in 1825 and is still in use today. HS2 needs to truly connect the north to the south as well as connecting to other major transportation hubs. It is therefore pleasing to see that discussions are taking place between the Scottish and Westminster governments and HS2 about extending the line to Scotland, as well as Scotland’s plan for high-speed rail.
So HS2 is about all of these things, but most importantly it is about capacity. I recently travelled by train from Edinburgh to Manchester and had to stand most of the way. Despite all of the modifications, the West Coast Main Line is very close to being at capacity and we face the real possibility that you will simply not be able to get a seat on a train at certain times. The rate of increase in passenger numbers will mean that our lines would continuously need major upgrades to keep pace with demand. Do we really want to see engineering work closing large sections of our lines every weekend for years to come?
We need to free capacity and shift more road freight to rail, but we don’t have rail capacity. We need a new line, it’s as simple as that. The new line is also a perfect opportunity to showcase once again Scottish and British expertise, knowledge and technology, provide employment for thousands of people and it can also act as an engine for growth.
• Professor Peter Woodward is director of the Institute for Infrastructure and Environment at Heriot-Watt University