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
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
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.