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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Find the EU renegotiation demands dull? Me too – but they are important

It's an old trick: smother anything in enough jargon and you can avoid being held accountable for it.

I don’t know about you, but I found the details of Britain’s European Union renegotiation demands quite hard to read. Literally. My eye kept gliding past them, in an endless quest for something more interesting in the paragraph ahead. It was as if the word “subsidiarity” had been smeared in grease. I haven’t felt tedium quite like this since I read The Lord of the Rings and found I slid straight past anything written in italics, reasoning that it was probably another interminable Elvish poem. (“The wind was in his flowing hair/The foam about him shone;/Afar they saw him strong and fair/Go riding like a swan.”)

Anyone who writes about politics encounters this; I call it Subclause Syndrome. Smother anything in enough jargon, whirr enough footnotes into the air, and you have a very effective shield for protecting yourself from accountability – better even than gutting the Freedom of Information laws, although the government seems quite keen on that, too. No wonder so much of our political conversation ends up being about personality: if we can’t hope to master all the technicalities, the next best thing is to trust the person to whom we have delegated that job.

Anyway, after 15 cups of coffee, three ice-bucket challenges and a bottle of poppers I borrowed from a Tory MP, I finally made it through. I didn’t feel much more enlightened, though, because there were notable omissions – no mention, thankfully, of rolling back employment protections – and elsewhere there was a touching faith in the power of adding “language” to official documents.

One thing did stand out, however. For months, we have been told that it is a terrible problem that migrants from Europe are sending child benefit to their families back home. In future, the amount that can be claimed will start at zero and it will reach full whack only after four years of working in Britain. Even better, to reduce the alleged “pull factor” of our generous in-work benefits regime, the child benefit rate will be paid on a ratio calculated according to average wages in the home country.

What a waste of time. At the moment, only £30m in child benefit is sent out of the country each year: quite a large sum if you’re doing a whip round for a retirement gift for a colleague, but basically a rounding error in the Department for Work and Pensions budget.

Only 20,000 workers, and 34,000 children, are involved. And yet, apparently, this makes it worth introducing 28 different rates of child benefit to be administered by the DWP. We are given to understand that Iain Duncan Smith thinks this is barmy – and this is a man optimistic enough about his department’s computer systems to predict in 2013 that 4.46 million people would be claiming Universal Credit by now*.

David Cameron’s renegotiation package was comprised exclusively of what Doctor Who fans call handwavium – a magic substance with no obvious physical attributes, which nonetheless helpfully advances the plot. In this case, the renegotiation covers up the fact that the Prime Minister always wanted to argue to stay in Europe, but needed a handy fig leaf to do so.

Brace yourself for a sentence you might not read again in the New Statesman, but this makes me feel sorry for Chris Grayling. He and other Outers in the cabinet have to wait at least two weeks for Cameron to get the demands signed off; all the while, Cameron can subtly make the case for staying in Europe, while they are bound to keep quiet because of collective responsibility.

When that stricture lifts, the high-ranking Eurosceptics will at last be free to make the case they have been sitting on for years. I have three strong beliefs about what will happen next. First, that everyone confidently predicting a paralysing civil war in the Tory ranks is doing so more in hope than expectation. Some on the left feel that if Labour is going to be divided over Trident, it is only fair that the Tories be split down the middle, too. They forget that power, and patronage, are strong solvents: there has already been much muttering about low-level blackmail from the high command, with MPs warned about the dire influence of disloyalty on their career prospects.

Second, the Europe campaign will feature large doses of both sides solemnly advising the other that they need to make “a positive case”. This will be roundly ignored. The Remain team will run a fear campaign based on job losses, access to the single market and “losing our seat at the table”; Leave will run a fear campaign based on the steady advance of whatever collective noun for migrants sounds just the right side of racist. (Current favourite: “hordes”.)

Third, the number of Britons making a decision based on a complete understanding of the renegotiation, and the future terms of our membership, will be vanishingly small. It is simply impossible to read about subsidiarity for more than an hour without lapsing into a coma.

Yet, funnily enough, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Just as the absurd complexity of policy frees us to talk instead about character, so the onset of Subclause Syndrome in the EU debate will allow us to ask ourselves a more profound, defining question: what kind of country do we want Britain to be? Polling suggests that very few of us see ourselves as “European” rather than Scottish, or British, but are we a country that feels open and looks outwards, or one that thinks this is the best it’s going to get, and we need to protect what we have? That’s more vital than any subclause. l

* For those of you keeping score at home, Universal Credit is now allegedly going to be implemented by 2021. Incidentally, George Osborne has recently discovered that it’s a great source of handwavium; tax credit cuts have been postponed because UC will render such huge savings that they aren’t needed.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle