April 19, 2017    5 minute read

The Trouble with Britain’s Railways: Is the Far East Where the Solution Lies?

On the Right Track?    April 19, 2017    5 minute read

The Trouble with Britain’s Railways: Is the Far East Where the Solution Lies?

The United Kingdom has many reasons to be proud of its industrial heritage, especially when it comes to railways. But it has been considerably more difficult for the British to evoke such pride in recent history, given how far the UK has lagged behind the forefront of infrastructure innovation. Having tried half-heartedly to play catch-up for many years, is the UK now beginning to get back on the right tracks? Can it still catch Japan and China, or is its approach to railways in need of a more serious overhaul?

The Common Complaints?

Strikes. Signalling failures. Delays. Cancellations. The wide range of problems besieging the network is all too familiar. But from where do they stem?

Insufficient ongoing, large-scale investment, coupled with a ‘why fix it if it ain’t broke?’ mentality is to blame. Engineering work is disruptive, and consumers tend to react more negatively to disruption than they do positively to arriving on time. This is not unreasonable, given that a punctual, reliable service is the expectation. But it does provide an excuse for necessary, but not immediately critical rail-improvement work to be postponed, and breeds the lethargy that has led to today’s situation.

It was reported last year by the Office of Road and Rail (ORR) that the average age of a train in operation was 21 – the oldest since records began in 2000. Yet the ORR also acknowledges that older trains could be both less comfortable and more unreliable. The East Coast Main Line (ECML), among other sections of track, is frequently announced to be at capacity. Yet its outdated signalling system, based on single measurements of trains passing into and out of different sections of track, could still be in place for over a decade, according to NewElectronics.

With the problems facing the UK now clear, is it now time for it to study China and Japan’s approaches to infrastructure and rail investment?

Does the East Know Best?

Whilst recent reports suggesting that China’s obsession with phenomenal economic growth targets is waning, it is still set to see an increase in GDP of around 6.5% this year. Numerous rounds of infrastructure investment have undoubtedly helped China meet such ambitious targets, but there has been great waste along the way.

Yet its history of unnecessary constructions (such as the fad for building glass bridges), and poorly executed projects (one third of the major roads built between 1984 and 2008 are over capacity, whilst 40% are under-used) often obscures the ambitious, and perhaps better-thought-out, plans for their railway network.

Around $503bn has been set aside for spending by 2020 with the aim of growing the network by 24% across the country, improving connections between major cities and developing towns alike. High-speed sections of the track will total over 30,000km, representing a 58% increase on 2015. China’s obsession with spending-fuelled growth aimed at rapid development, coupled with its desire to be at the forefront of global innovation, has so far led, and will continue to lead, to an advanced railway system.

The Japanese Way

Japan’s route to leading the way in rail stems back to 1868, when the Tokugawa Shogunate relinquished control over the country. This saw the end of Japan’s isolationist foreign policy and sparked a desire for rapid modernisation – which necessitated projects such as railways. A century of development and technological advance saw Japan launch the world’s first bullet train service in 1964 – the famous Shinkansen.

Since the privatisation of Japan National Rail in 1987, which created seven separate companies that together form the JR Group, there has been fierce competition to run the various services. This has helped to produce such an efficient and well-run nation-wide network. For example, delays to the Shinkansen services are best measured in seconds – which, by British standards, makes them more or less 100% on time.

The Japanese approach is perhaps best characterised as ‘the desire for continual improvement’. Such yearning for advance has produced stunning technological innovation: a bullet train that can make it over curved sections of track is no mean feat. Add to this the fact that the trains are connected to the country’s earthquake early-warning system, and can be brought from full speed to rest in the space of 300m, and the scale of progress becomes astounding.

Of course, it doesn’t stop there. By 2027, the first MagLev (magnetic levitation) Shinkansen should be running between Tokyo and Nagoya, cutting the present journey time of 100mins down to 40mins.

Britain Needs the Best of Both

The UK’s rail network is in huge need of overhaul, and combining the Chinese and Japanese strategies could be the way forward. The UK should emulate the Chinese, and spend the huge amounts of money necessary. But it should do so in a sensible and targeted fashion, by adopting a Japanese approach and embracing, or inventing, new technologies – all the while upgrading its network.

Moving in the Right Direction?

There is certainly a lot of money set aside for the UK’s infrastructure spending in the near future – more than £25bn by 2021 for its railways – which is promising. It begins to feel like a real step in the right direction when the scope of this spending is accounted for: a split between high-ticket items such as HS2, consultations for HS3 (which would connect Manchester to Leeds) and Crossrail 2, ongoing projects such as the electrification of the South Western Main Line, and upgrades to stations across the country.

But most pleasing of all is the embracing of new technologies along the way. For example, a signalling system for live tracking is in its pilot stages and should be rolled out over the next 10-15 years. It is believed that this alone could enhance capacity by 30%.

Perhaps the UK is beginning to emulate the East in its ambition, investment, and attitude to new technologies. Britain’s railways will be all the better for it.

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