High Speed 2 could have been a maglev, but isn't, and that's OK

High Speed 2 hasn't even been built yet and it looks old-fashioned compared to Japan's maglev trains - but, like Concorde, their futuristic appearance is deceptive.

Right now, there’s a group of ex-politicians from the US being shown around Japan's under-construction Tokyo to Osaka maglev line, the first stretch of which (between Tokyo and Nagoya) is due to open in 2027. When ready, its trains will be able to reach speeds as fast as 500km/h, far speedier than the 360km/h trains the UK will be getting with High Speed 2.

That might seem like a bum deal for us - if we’re spending up to £50bn on a new cross-country rail line, our instincts might make us think that only the most advanced technology available will be value for money. It’s an understandable thought, but it’s misguided.

First, here’s Motherboard’s Michael Byrne on what that group of ex-politicians is thinking of when they look at Japan:

The proposal, simply called the Northeast Maglev (TNEM), is based on a new technology (old new technology, more accurately - it’s been in development for nearly 40 years) currently being tested on a short section of line outside Tokyo called Superconducting Maglev. Japan hopes to eventually drop some $100 billion on a 320 mile line between Tokyo and Osaka. The technology holds the current rail speed record of 361 miles per hour and offers a cruising speed of just over 300 miles per hour. The TNEM group hopes to convince President Obama and regional leaders to go in on a segment of maglev between Baltimore and Washington D.C., requiring some 30 miles of underground tunneling and theoretically cutting transit times between the cities from just under an hour to 15 minutes.

While America may be known as the land of the car, the northeast corridor between New York City and Washington DC has a public transport network that Europeans would recognise (even if they may also laugh at its inadequate, antiquated infrastructure that is in need of significant investment). Trains run at capacity as they’re cheaper than flying and faster than taking the bus, and - like HS2 - new lines are necessary to increase capacity.

Why not build maglevs if they’re the best trains you can buy, though?

The first reason is one familiar to London Underground, which has multiple tunnels built to different widths and which each require unique types of trains to be custom-built every time they're replaced. That’s much more expensive than buying ordinary trains which comply to standard gauge, and the same would apply with maglev - as a new method of transport that’s still in an experimental stage, we might make a mistake and end up choosing a gauge that doesn’t become the international standard.

Or, worse, we might get locked into having to buy our trains from the one company that has the patent on using that kind of maglev standard. We also wouldn’t be able to integrate the trains with the existing High Speed 1 line that goes through the Channel Tunnel, onto the rest of the European rail network. HS2 is going to be used for freight as well as passengers, so that connection is arguably vital for trade with the continent.

Secondly, the thing with very fast modes of transport is they take a lot of time to get up to speed. This is the reasoning behind Elon Musk’s impractical vacuum-tube Hyperloop, which would - if it works, it’s only theoretical right now - fire passengers at 962km/h between Los Angeles and San Francisco, reducing the time for the 570km route between the two cities to 35 minutes. Over longer distances it would be cheaper and more practical to use fast planes, and it can’t be used over a shorter route because it needs the full length of the tube to get up to speed. This applies just as much to maglev.

HS2 will be designed to handle speeds up to 400km/h, but there are few places a maglev train would be able to get faster than that before having to slow down again in time for the next station. Considering the physical size of the UK and the planned gaps between stations, going any faster than 400km/h isn't really any use.

One thing that does go in maglev’s favour is that the 286km line between Tokyo and Osaka is expected to cost roughly £55bn, which is cheaper than the estimates of more than £50bn for the 192km first phase of HS2. Also, while maglev trains do require more energy to run than conventional trains (and, as mentioned, repairs and new parts are more expensive than off-the-shelf alternatives), track maintenance costs tend to be lower than for normal trains as there isn’t any wear or tear.

In Japan, the government is facing criticism for investing in an ambitious new rail line despite forecasts that the country’s population with shrink significantly over the next few decades. That’s not going to be a problem for the UK, which could end up the most populous EU nation by the middle of the century - and for the key aim of increasing capacity, old-fashioned trains on wheels suit us just fine. Taking a punt on a new technology isn't worth the risk.

A Japanese maglev train undergoing a test run. (Photo: Getty)

Ian Steadman is a staff science and technology writer at the New Statesman. He is on Twitter as @iansteadman.

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Q&A: What are tax credits and how do they work?

All you need to know about the government's plan to cut tax credits.

What are tax credits?

Tax credits are payments made regularly by the state into bank accounts to support families with children, or those who are in low-paid jobs. There are two types of tax credit: the working tax credit and the child tax credit.

What are they for?

To redistribute income to those less able to get by, or to provide for their children, on what they earn.

Are they similar to tax relief?

No. They don’t have much to do with tax. They’re more of a welfare thing. You don’t need to be a taxpayer to receive tax credits. It’s just that, unlike other benefits, they are based on the tax year and paid via the tax office.

Who is eligible?

Anyone aged over 16 (for child tax credits) and over 25 (for working tax credits) who normally lives in the UK can apply for them, depending on their income, the hours they work, whether they have a disability, and whether they pay for childcare.

What are their circumstances?

The more you earn, the less you are likely to receive. Single claimants must work at least 16 hours a week. Let’s take a full-time worker: if you work at least 30 hours a week, you are generally eligible for working tax credits if you earn less than £13,253 a year (if you’re single and don’t have children), or less than £18,023 (jointly as part of a couple without children but working at least 30 hours a week).

And for families?

A family with children and an income below about £32,200 can claim child tax credit. It used to be that the more children you have, the more you are eligible to receive – but George Osborne in his most recent Budget has limited child tax credit to two children.

How much money do you receive?

Again, this depends on your circumstances. The basic payment for a single claimant, or a joint claim by a couple, of working tax credits is £1,940 for the tax year. You can then receive extra, depending on your circumstances. For example, single parents can receive up to an additional £2,010, on top of the basic £1,940 payment; people who work more than 30 hours a week can receive up to an extra £810; and disabled workers up to £2,970. The average award of tax credit is £6,340 per year. Child tax credit claimants get £545 per year as a flat payment, plus £2,780 per child.

How many people claim tax credits?

About 4.5m people – the vast majority of these people (around 4m) have children.

How much does it cost the taxpayer?

The estimation is that they will cost the government £30bn in April 2015/16. That’s around 14 per cent of the £220bn welfare budget, which the Tories have pledged to cut by £12bn.

Who introduced this system?

New Labour. Gordon Brown, when he was Chancellor, developed tax credits in his first term. The system as we know it was established in April 2003.

Why did they do this?

To lift working people out of poverty, and to remove the disincentives to work believed to have been inculcated by welfare. The tax credit system made it more attractive for people depending on benefits to work, and gave those in low-paid jobs a helping hand.

Did it work?

Yes. Tax credits’ biggest achievement was lifting a record number of children out of poverty since the war. The proportion of children living below the poverty line fell from 35 per cent in 1998/9 to 19 per cent in 2012/13.

So what’s the problem?

Well, it’s a bit of a weird system in that it lets companies pay wages that are too low to live on without the state supplementing them. Many also criticise tax credits for allowing the minimum wage – also brought in by New Labour – to stagnate (ie. not keep up with the rate of inflation). David Cameron has called the system of taxing low earners and then handing them some money back via tax credits a “ridiculous merry-go-round”.

Then it’s a good thing to scrap them?

It would be fine if all those low earners and families struggling to get by would be given support in place of tax credits – a living wage, for example.

And that’s why the Tories are introducing a living wage...

That’s what they call it. But it’s not. The Chancellor announced in his most recent Budget a new minimum wage of £7.20 an hour for over-25s, rising to £9 by 2020. He called this the “national living wage” – it’s not, because the current living wage (which is calculated by the Living Wage Foundation, and currently non-compulsory) is already £9.15 in London and £7.85 in the rest of the country.

Will people be better off?

No. Quite the reverse. The IFS has said this slightly higher national minimum wage will not compensate working families who will be subjected to tax credit cuts; it is arithmetically impossible. The IFS director, Paul Johnson, commented: “Unequivocally, tax credit recipients in work will be made worse off by the measures in the Budget on average.” It has been calculated that 3.2m low-paid workers will have their pay packets cut by an average of £1,350 a year.

Could the government change its policy to avoid this?

The Prime Minister and his frontbenchers have been pretty stubborn about pushing on with the plan. In spite of criticism from all angles – the IFS, campaigners, Labour, The Sun – Cameron has ruled out a review of the policy in the Autumn Statement, which is on 25 November. But there is an alternative. The chair of parliament’s Work & Pensions Select Committee and Labour MP Frank Field has proposed what he calls a “cost neutral” tweak to the tax credit cuts.

How would this alternative work?

Currently, if your income is less than £6,420, you will receive the maximum amount of tax credits. That threshold is called the gross income threshold. Field wants to introduce a second gross income threshold of £13,100 (what you earn if you work 35 hours a week on minimum wage). Those earning a salary between those two thresholds would have their tax credits reduced at a slower rate on whatever they earn above £6,420 up to £13,100. The percentage of what you earn above the basic threshold that is deducted from your tax credits is called the taper rate, and it is currently at 41 per cent. In contrast to this plan, the Tories want to halve the income threshold to £3,850 a year and increase the taper rate to 48 per cent once you hit that threshold, which basically means you lose more tax credits, faster, the more you earn.

When will the tax credit cuts come in?

They will be imposed from April next year, barring a u-turn.

Anoosh Chakelian is deputy web editor at the New Statesman.