The Friends of the
National Railway Museum

South of England Group
Vice Presidents: Richard Hardy; Sir William McAlpine Bt, FRSE, FCIT, FRSA

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Talk Synopsis

5 January 2006

International Experience with High Speed Trains
Professor R. A. Smith, FREng., SD
Head of Mechanical Engineering, Imperial College
8 March 2004

Professor Smith opened his talk by pointing out that his interest in rails was not just an academic one since his first experience of railways was joining a platelayer relative in his work. This provided a link to his studies on metal fatigue and his input to the Hatfield rail crash.

He took us back to the 1960's. Both in UK and Japan railways were no longer fashionable and the Japanese economy was performing poorly. Whereas UK cut back its railways, Japan had taken the daring step of initiating the Tokaido line. In 5 years they had built a totally new line, and equipped it with new trains running at average speeds which had been unheard of in Europe, whilst BR was withdrawing the last of its steam locomotives. It was a bold manoeuvre which was one of the stimulae to the recovery of the Japanese economy. An important factor had the being building a railway capable of future expansion, not one steeped in tradition. The logic behind that was justified because travel by rail duly had increased enormously. The first services in 1963 had been at 30 minute intervals: now 1600 seat trains left at 4 minute intervals. Performance was impressive with no accidents and average lateness being 0.4 minute. Part of this was the result of the enthusiasm of the work force. When someone was passed as a driver they would be presented with a watch and after that the watch would be ceremoniously placed on the control panel whenever the driver took the controls, and regularly consulted to maintain timekeeping to these very close margins. Part of the pride of the workforce came from working as a team. Job rostering was flexible and the staff were rotated around the various tasks.

As an example of the way established practice had been challenged there was no restaurant car, but a wide range of snacks were available from a trolley. Professor Smith illustrated the culture of the service by his own experience. His request for a typical British meal was treated seriously and after some investigation he was advised, politely, that unfortunately the train could not provide his request. Compare that with the brusque "Ain't got any of that." response which one is likely to get on UK railways in response to unusual requests.

Turning to technicalities. An important feature of the Shinkansen trains was the high power to weight ratio, with all axles powered. The trains were controlled automatically, though the driver was kept busy monitoring the performance of the train and checking timekeeping. The combination of lightweight construction and low unsprung mass contributed to low energy requirements and low track damage. A speed of 300-350kph was possible before track damage became a limiting factor. With these speeds it was possible for rail to be competitive with air travel for journey times up to 4-5hrs.

Professor Smith continued by looking at high speed rail developments in other countries. A series of maps showed how the extent of high speed rail travel had increased in Europe, except in UK. The only major accident had been the fatigue failure of wheels in Germany. Similarly, developments were moving ahead in the far east, with many lines either under construction or planned in China and Taiwan. In contrast, the emphasis on UK was on road transport, with air travel forecast to overtake rail by 2030, but this did not consider the problems associated with getting to the airport. In any comparison with air travel the total environmental impact had to be considered. Rather than taking the bold step which the Japanese took in 1964, UK was attempting to preserve its Victorian rail network. The work to update the West Coast Main Line had merely served to discourage rail travel because of the closures and delays. UK rail capacity was inadequate for the future. What was need was a new high-speed rail network, which would remove the long distance trains from the existing tracks, freeing them up for improved freight and local passenger services. As the Japanese experience showed, improvements in transport pays for itself in increased custom.

Looking further ahead, Professor Smith did not see the Maglev trains running at even higher speed having application for a rail network, although they could be of great value for dedicated point to point links. Such a system was being built in Shanghai, running at 430kph.

The issues raised by the professor inevitably resulted in a lively discussion period with many of the audience decrying the short-sighted attitude of politicians and financiers which was inhibiting railway developments in the UK. Examples were given of how managements were preferring road transport because it saved them having to make investment and enabled them to leave routing decisions to the individual driver.

Phil Brown

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