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With capacity comes opportunity

Investment in the nation’s rail network is an investment in economic growth.

The UK’s rail network fulfils a vital role in connecting our towns, cities, communities and regions. But rail provides much more than a means of getting from A to B. Improvements that boost capacity or open up new routes provide a powerful stimulus for growth, regeneration and employment. Investing in rail is one of the most effective ways to boost the UK economy.

Investment is needed now because the current network is approaching full capacity. Today, rail supports 40 per cent more passenger journeys and 60 per cent more freight than it did a decade ago. At peak times on the busiest parts of the network, there is simply no space for more trains. Yet over the next 30 years, Network Rail expects freight demand to rise by 140 per cent and passenger demand to more than double.

Government and industry are working together to meet this capacity challenge across the rail network.

Practical improvements to ease congestion include running more frequent services and employing longer trains. However, even these apparently simple measures are not straightforward, as improvements to stations and platforms are typically needed to cater for additional carriages and increased passenger volumes.

One example of this is a project designed to increase capacity at Bank Underground station in the City of London. One of the capital’s most complex infrastructure schemes, the work will improve connection times between Tube lines and dramatically improve the passenger experience. A new Northern Line southbound tunnel will liberate more platform space, while improved interchange tunnels and an additional station entrance will reduce crowding at peak times. Tunnelling will take place under iconic landmarks such as the Bank of England and Mansion House, and importantly the work has been carefully planned to ensure that this crucial transport hub will remain open throughout construction.

That said, there is a limit to what can be done with existing infrastructure, and new lines will play an important part in supporting increased rail traffic.

HS2, one of the UK’s most transformational new rail projects, is set to have a profound impact on the economy. It will provide a high-speed link bridging the north-south divide and, importantly, liberate passenger and freight capacity by taking longer journeys off existing lines.

There is also growing investment in the country’s regional and rural lines. The reopening of disused railway lines is an efficient way of meeting demand by reclaiming former infrastructure.

A prime example of how new railway investment can revitalise communities is offered by the Borders Railway project. Delivered by Network Rail in partnership with Transport Scotland, the project involves reopening the Waverley Line that was closed by Beeching in 1969.

The new line is more than a restoration of the original route – it includes 30 miles of new track and seven new stations, making it the longest new domestic railway to be constructed in Britain for more than 100 years. As well as a driver for local regeneration, the new line has already proved to be a catalyst for the wider Scottish economy, driving inward investment, business development and housing opportunities. New communities are developing along the route, and with them numerous opportunities for employment, business, tourism and leisure.

The Waverley Line example demonstrates both the harm caused by a lack of infrastructure and the benefits of network improvements, underlining the strong connection between investment in rail and economic growth.

Clearly, rail is not the answer to every transport question. The greatest stimulus to the economy will come from a joinedup approach, where improvements to rail, road and aviation are tackled in concert.

Coordinated development at a national scale will not be easy, but the potential rewards could be huge.

Ian Hay is the UK director of rail at URS Investment in the nation’s rail network is an investment in economic growth

 

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A swimming pool and a bleeding toe put my medical competency in doubt

Doctors are used to contending with Google. Sometimes the search engine wins. 

The brutal heatwave affecting southern Europe this summer has become known among locals as “Lucifer”. Having just returned from Italy, I fully understand the nickname. An early excursion caused the beginnings of sunstroke, so we abandoned plans to explore the cultural heritage of the Amalfi region and strayed no further than five metres from the hotel pool for the rest of the week.

The children were delighted, particularly my 12-year-old stepdaughter, Gracie, who proceeded to spend hours at a time playing in the water. Towelling herself after one long session, she noticed something odd.

“What’s happened there?” she asked, holding her foot aloft in front of my face.

I inspected the proffered appendage: on the underside of her big toe was an oblong area of glistening red flesh that looked like a chunk of raw steak.

“Did you injure it?”

She shook her head. “It doesn’t hurt at all.”

I shrugged and said she must have grazed it. She wasn’t convinced, pointing out that she would remember if she had done that. She has great faith in plasters, though, and once it was dressed she forgot all about it. I dismissed it, too, assuming it was one of those things.

By the end of the next day, the pulp on the underside of all of her toes looked the same. As the doctor in the family, I felt under some pressure to come up with an explanation. I made up something about burns from the hot paving slabs around the pool. Gracie didn’t say as much, but her look suggested a dawning scepticism over my claims to hold a medical degree.

The next day, Gracie and her new-found holiday playmate, Eve, abruptly terminated a marathon piggy-in-the-middle session in the pool with Eve’s dad. “Our feet are bleeding,” they announced, somewhat incredulously. Sure enough, bright-red blood was flowing, apparently painlessly, from the bottoms of their big toes.

Doctors are used to contending with Google. Often, what patients discover on the internet causes them undue alarm, and our role is to provide context and reassurance. But not infrequently, people come across information that outstrips our knowledge. On my return from our room with fresh supplies of plasters, my wife looked up from her sun lounger with an air of quiet amusement.

“It’s called ‘pool toe’,” she said, handing me her iPhone. The page she had tracked down described the girls’ situation exactly: friction burns, most commonly seen in children, caused by repetitive hopping about on the abrasive floors of swimming pools. Doctors practising in hot countries must see it all the time. I doubt it presents often to British GPs.

I remained puzzled about the lack of pain. The injuries looked bad, but neither Gracie nor Eve was particularly bothered. Here the internet drew a blank, but I suspect it has to do with the “pruning” of our skin that we’re all familiar with after a soak in the bath. This only occurs over the pulps of our fingers and toes. It was once thought to be caused by water diffusing into skin cells, making them swell, but the truth is far more fascinating.

The wrinkling is an active process, triggered by immersion, in which the blood supply to the pulp regions is switched off, causing the skin there to shrink and pucker. This creates the biological equivalent of tyre treads on our fingers and toes and markedly improves our grip – of great evolutionary advantage when grasping slippery fish in a river, or if trying to maintain balance on slick wet rocks.

The flip side of this is much greater friction, leading to abrasion of the skin through repeated micro-trauma. And the lack of blood flow causes nerves to shut down, depriving us of the pain that would otherwise alert us to the ongoing tissue damage. An adaptation that helped our ancestors hunt in rivers proves considerably less use on a modern summer holiday.

I may not have seen much of the local heritage, but the trip to Italy taught me something new all the same. 

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear