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.

Photo: André Spicer
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“It’s scary to do it again”: the five-year-old fined £150 for running a lemonade stand

Enforcement officers penalised a child selling home-made lemonade in the street. Her father tells the full story. 

It was a lively Saturday afternoon in east London’s Mile End. Groups of people streamed through residential streets on their way to a music festival in the local park; booming bass could be heard from the surrounding houses.

One five-year-old girl who lived in the area had an idea. She had been to her school’s summer fête recently and looked longingly at the stalls. She loved the idea of setting up her own stall, and today was a good day for it.

“She eventually came round to the idea of selling lemonade,” her father André Spicer tells me. So he and his daughter went to their local shop to buy some lemons. They mixed a few jugs of lemonade, the girl made a fetching A4 sign with some lemons drawn on it – 50p for a small cup, £1 for a large – and they carried a table from home to the end of their road. 

“People suddenly started coming up and buying stuff, pretty quickly, and they were very happy,” Spicer recalls. “People looked overjoyed at this cute little girl on the side of the road – community feel and all that sort of stuff.”

But the heart-warming scene was soon interrupted. After about half an hour of what Spicer describes as “brisk” trade – his daughter’s recipe secret was some mint and a little bit of cucumber, for a “bit of a British touch” – four enforcement officers came striding up to the stand.

Three were in uniform, and one was in plain clothes. One uniformed officer turned the camera on his vest on, and began reciting a legal script at the weeping five-year-old.

“You’re trading without a licence, pursuant to x, y, z act and blah dah dah dah, really going through a script,” Spicer tells me, saying they showed no compassion for his daughter. “This is my job, I’m doing it and that’s it, basically.”

The girl burst into tears the moment they arrived.

“Officials have some degree of intimidation. I’m a grown adult, so I wasn’t super intimidated, but I was a bit shocked,” says Spicer. “But my daughter was intimidated. She started crying straight away.”

As they continued to recite their legalese, her father picked her up to try to comfort her – but that didn’t stop the officers giving her stall a £150 fine and handing them a penalty notice. “TRADING WITHOUT LICENCE,” it screamed.


Picture: André Spicer

“She was crying and repeating, ‘I’ve done a bad thing’,” says Spicer. “As we walked home, I had to try and convince her that it wasn’t her, it wasn’t her fault. It wasn’t her who had done something bad.”

She cried all the way home, and it wasn’t until she watched her favourite film, Brave, that she calmed down. It was then that Spicer suggested next time they would “do it all correctly”, get a permit, and set up another stand.

“No, I don’t want to, it’s a bit scary to do it again,” she replied. Her father hopes that “she’ll be able to get over it”, and that her enterprising spirit will return.

The Council has since apologised and cancelled the fine, and called on its officials to “show common sense and to use their powers sensibly”.

But Spicer felt “there’s a bigger principle here”, and wrote a piece for the Telegraph arguing that children in modern Britain are too restricted.

He would “absolutely” encourage his daughter to set up another stall, and “I’d encourage other people to go and do it as well. It’s a great way to spend a bit of time with the kids in the holidays, and they might learn something.”

A fitting reminder of the great life lesson: when life gives you a fixed penalty notice, make lemonade.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.