Why put the brakes on high-speed rail?

As Britain's railways once again become a hot political issue, Chris Bowlby considers how our attitudes to transport have shaped the country's development


A new transport vision has become politically popular recently – or rather, a new vision of an old kind of transport. High-speed rail is being championed by the government, proposing new links between London and Scotland in an attempt to replace short-haul flights with rail travel. The Tories promise their own new rail network as part of their opposition to a third Heathrow runway. Liberal Democrats and the Scottish National Party also look to modernised rail as part of a more environmentally friendly policy.


But when transport minister Lord Adonis pointed out earlier this year that “we haven’t built a major railway since the Victorians”, he indicated the weight of history that haunts rail modernisation plans. In the century following their transformation of Victorian life, railways in Britain have laboured against public and political confusion about their role. Are they dynamic modernisers or outmoded relics, profit-making private enterprises or social services?

That confusion matters today, as past decisions about transport infrastructure have shaped development for decades afterwards. Colin Divall, professor of railway studies at the University of York, notes how “decisions made long ago tend to lock today’s societies into particular ways of moving”.

So could we have speeded up our railways earlier, rivalling the Japanese bullet trains or French TGVs? There have been previous British visions of high-speed rail. Between the wars famous steam locomotives such as Mallard reached record speeds. But Colin Divall points out that those famous runs were more one-off examples of good PR rather than the consistent improvement of whole lines or networks.

After 1945 railway modernisation was much talked about and a very large sum – £1.2 billion – proposed. But influential voices in government baulked at such spending. Lord Cherwell, chief scientific adviser to Prime Minister Winston Churchill, called the railways an “obsolete form of transport”. Helicopters were among the forms of transport he expected to replace them. And much of the money that was spent on the railways went on repairing ailing rolling stock and failed attempts to compete with road freight rather than investing in new technology such as widespread electrification.

Some progress was made in the 1960s. The Beeching era was not only about closing branch lines. Faster electrified connections increased, and ‘inter-city’ trains were pioneered in an effective marketing move which other countries copied.

However, it was motorways that really caught the political imagination (as we explore in our feature on the building of the M1 in the November issue). Cars were seen as the vehicles of social progress, and government was never likely to pay the capital cost of new rail networks while it was building motorways too. And today, with public spending under such pressure and railway companies struggling to make much of a profit, cost will again be an obstacle.

So railway history prompts some scepticism about politicians’ promises of increased speed. Better punctuality and reliability on existing lines may be more realistic targets in the shorter term. But there is no doubting the historical impetus towards faster travel – and faster rail links.

New railway lines have always had to generate passengers to justify their construction. Great Victorian companies like Midland Railway have been compared by economic historian Tim Leunig with Ryanair, using aggressive marketing and cheap tickets to persuade more people to travel.

The success of such tactics had a wider impact than merely selling tickets: they increased mobility, which in turn enhanced Victorian beliefs in broader progress. As the historian TB Macaulay put it, “every improvement of the means of locomotion benefits mankind morally and intellectually as well as materially”. That perspective remains attractive, as politicians claim new transport links will boost the country’s wellbeing.

But there is now a question lurking down the line, which may derail – or at least delay – this powerful psychological inheritance. As congestion worsens, energy becomes scarcer, and climate change anxieties grow, will mobility’s appeal decline? Will more people be prepared to stay at home? Or will we, like our recent ancestors, continue to be driven by the belief that movement and speed is of the essence?

Chris Bowlby is a presenter on BBC radio, specialising in history

This feature was first published in the November 2009 issue of BBC History Magazine


This series is produced with History & Policy. You can find out more about them and read their papers at www.historyandpolicy.org.