Can the UK Rail Network Be Saved? Are Electric Trains the Solution?

The United Kingdom is the perfect candidate for excellent public transport. Its population density is enormous at 274 people per square kilometre. England alone has a population density of 430 people per square kilometre. However, public transport in the United Kingdom is pretty terrible, especially relative to places like Hong Kong. Can electric trains save the dissolving business?

The UK’s Public Transportation System

I’m not suggesting that the UK has a terrible transportation system relative to the rest of the globe, but for its economic position, it’s comparably worse than rivals. As with most places, more economic development is focused on areas with the most people. For example, London has an underground train system which covers most of the city.

An Idiot’s Guide to the London Underground – backpackerlee
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A map of London’s vast underground train network.

Furthermore, London has a plethora of other options when you want to get from A to B. For example, there’s an overground train, frequent buses and plenty of taxis. To combine all of that together, many transportation services in London are operated by TfL (Transport for London). This means that everything can be paid for with a contactless card or even an apple watch, no tickets needed.

The Problem with the Underground

However, one of the UK’s largest benefits is its main downfall when it comes to public transportation. Age. Everything is old. At first, the Metropolitan underground line was constructed between Paddington and Farringdon Street. Obviously, this was great for London at the time, allowing thousands of people to be shifted around quickly and efficiently.

Despite that, in the past few decades technology has advanced significantly, making the underground dated and old. Initially, tunnels were built to hold the trains that were around at the time, with no future-proofing. It was such a marvel of engineering at the time that a much larger tunnel may have seemed almost impossible and far more expensive.

Baker Street train station
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Due to that limitation, trains can’t get larger. The network is unable to expand and no extra parts can be attached to trains. For example, last year was extremely hot in the UK, causing the tunnels to get incredibly hot. Seemingly, this solution should be easy to solve. Simply installing air conditioning units to the trains would sort it out. Well, since the tunnel was built 150 years ago, there isn’t actually space for air conditioning.

This is becoming an increasingly serious problem due to the climate change creating more sweltering summers. Many countries with newer underground systems are adaptable to future conditions. Realising this was an issue, TfL tried to combat it by installing station cooling. At Greene Park, TfL uses a borehole which extracts water from the ground at 13 degrees. It is then extracted and passed through heat exchangers, removing heat from the station.

The Countryside

Unfortunately, the countryside suffers the same issues as the underground. Most of the rail networks were build a very long time ago, meaning they’re windy and rough. In an effort to solve the housing crisis, we packed as many houses onto the edges of towns as possible, sandwiching the rail lines in and preventing them from expanding.

East Midlands Trains 158864 - The Real Railway - Galleries ...
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Many lines aren’t capable of trains going down them at hundreds of miles due to their relatively sharp curves. A train going over the maximum speed would simply just tip over and derail, causing damage to life and property. Since there’s no capability for advancements in speed, the government seems to have just settled on the current situation; late and dirty diesel trains slowly chugging along rickety lines.

Most of the operators of the lines are local companies, for example, East Midlands Trains. These companies aren’t driven to improve the network or help the environment. Due to their lack of improvement, not many people use the trains, prompting fares to be increased. Even then, they still make very limited amounts of profit. Trains are expensive and delayed.

Are Electric Trains the Solution?

As much as electric trains would help the environment, they’re not the final solution. It would be a large cost to electrify the ancient countryside lines and local companies would have to buy all new trains. Some lines are already electric and are often operated by better train companies like Virgin trains.

Virgin Trains employee hits back at man who asked why they ...
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Instead, money would be better spent on better technologies which don’t use existing rail lines. Here are some of those options:

Underground Rail

In order to avoid the existing windy tracks, we must either go up or down. I made an article about flying cars and their problems here. Consequently, it seems as though we’d be better to go underground rather than taking to the skies.

Conventionally, underground rail consists of a tunnel which is dug by a boring machine. The rail can either surface to stations on the ground or stations can be positioned down a few flights of stairs underground.

Usually, tunnels are dug many metres under the ground, preventing vibration or noise complaints from nearby residents. Furthermore, if the tunnel was dug too shallow, it may disrupt the foundations of the buildings above, especially over time.

people standing and walking in train station
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When most people think of underground trains, they usually think of clunky boxes which travel slowly on rickety tracks through tunnels just a little wider than themselves.

Fortunately, this is just because of most underground train systems are positioned in cities. Despite the fact that the tunnels are very deep, they sometimes have to dig around buildings, creating bends.

In the countryside, tunnels could be dug in a straight line. Seemingly, this should mean that trains would be capable of travelling hundreds of kilometres per hour through them, right? Unfortunately not, there are a few problems with insanely high-speed trains in tunnels.

For example, HS1 (the channel tunnel connecting the UK to Europe) has a maximum line speed approaching the tunnel of 300km/h, but the limit in the tunnel is 160km/h. This is for several reasons including the higher pantograph height and air pressure issues in the tunnel.

Would underground rail work?

Yes, it would work, probably much better than existing systems. Is it the best method? Probably not. Aside from the speed limitations, there’s the giant cost of infrastructure. Digging hundreds of kilometres of tunnels which are capable of carrying high-speed trains is no easy task.

HS2, Britains second high-speed rail link which connects the Northern regions of England to London is already £22 billion over budget and no track has actually been laid yet. Yes, money may be saved due to lower demand for compensation, but the cost of tunnel boring is huge.

HS2 trains 'ready to happen' and will run by next decade ...
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HS2 Concept

Additionally, tunnel boring is an incredibly slow process. Elon Musk’s boring company is at the forefront of tunnel boring machine speed and they’re struggling to beat a snail. Such a system is just not practical for a rail line which is hundreds of kilometres in length.

Understandably, everything is harder to build underground, so what is the best solution?

Hyperloop

The Hyperloop concept was put forth by Elon Musk who wants to revolutionize the transport system of the present world. He initially called the hyperloop as the “Fifth Mode of Transport” and wanted to develop a transportation system immune to weather, the ability to store energy for 24-hour operations and attain an average speed twice that of a typical jet.

Musk believed that a new transportation system for the state of California would be a great idea, though he was largely disappointed by the proposed high-speed link from Los Angeles to San Francisco. When announced, it was both one of the most expensive trains per mile, whilst simultaneously being one of the slowest.

So Elon Musk’s Hyperloop Is Actually Getting Kinda Serious ...
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Hyperloop Concept

Simply put, Musk liked the idea of a new transportation system, but only if it was better than the existing road and air options. According to a study which he conducted, it needed to fit some criteria:

  • Safer.
  • Faster.
  • Lower cost.
  • More convenient.
  • Immune to weather.
  • Sustainably self-powering.
  • Resistant to Earthquakes.
  • Not disruptive to those along the route.

Evidently, trains really don’t fit into those categories; nor do cars or planes for that matter. Consequently, Musk devised the Hyperloop which would (in theory) fit all of those categories well.

Hyperloop would consist of a depressurised tube by which pods would travel through of speeds up to 700mph. That’s faster than a plane and as convenient as a train. According to Musk, the cost of it would be approximately $30 from Los Angeles to San Francisco, taking less than 30 minutes.

Conclusion – Can Electric Trains save the UK rail network?

Perhaps the solution to the UK rail problem is to scrap rail altogether. It’s slow, requires large amounts of space, and tends to be extremely expensive. Underground trains would solve the speed and space availability issue but also come with a multitude of other problems like cost and speed.

The Hyperloop concept seems like a compelling one, though some details remain unclear. Virgin is one of the leading Hyperloop innovators and wants to start constructing their Hyperloop One in 2019.

However, Hyperloop may not be particularly feasible. Since nobody has built a large scale track, it is unclear as to the cost, safety and reliability of this system. We don’t even know if speeds of 700mph are possible yet since Virgin’s fastest Hyperloop run has been around 200mph.

Continuing to use the existing rail network seems like an idea which would result in the UK getting even farther behind in the transportation game. Sure, electric trains would be a good thing for the country, but it certainly wouldn’t solve the UK’s rail transportation problem altogether.

Which form of transportation would you like to see most in the future?

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