Rail 548: Maglev won’t be a money magnet

Shadow Chancellor George Osborne has put the idea of Maglev trains back on the political agenda. CHRISTIAN WOLMAR says it’s time for a reality check.

BEWARE of politicians shooting from the hip. It was great of young George Osborne, the Conservative Shadow Chancellor, to mention Maglevs while he was in Japan. He said Britain should look at the technology and the scheme could be funded by the private sector. It made for renewed coverage of this hardy perennial on a slow news day.

Moreover, there was much fun to be had when the newspaper diaries were tipped off by the Labour spin doctors that the poor fellow had mentioned the need for a ‘transport system fit for the 21st century’ when, a year ago his boss, David Cameron, said that any of his colleagues using that expression would be shot.

Poor George, however, should not only have mugged up on what his boss had said but he should also do his homework on the realities of what projects can be funded by the private sector. There has been no suggestion, for example, that Crossrail can be funded privately. Even in these days of obsession with government not being involved in such schemes, no one has seriously suggested there is any alternative to the project receiving a serious dollop of public money.

So the same goes for Maglev. The idea sounds wonderful. It is, effectively, a floating train that hovers a centimeter or two above the guideway on a magnetic field. It is propelled by the guideway itself rather than an onboard engine by changing magnetic fields, although some of the newer experimental systems are fitting more of the equipment on to the train rather than on the track. As the train is propelled into each small section, the magnetism switches so that it is pulled on again and so on.

However, a reality check is needed. Even a back-of-the-envelope calculation shows the impossibility of such a project ever paying for itself. At the most optimistic it would cost £20bn, at today’s prices, and the capitalists would require, for such a risky and innovative project, a return of at least 10%. So, without even considering operating costs, that’s £2bn – almost half the total revenues of the whole railway network today which were just under £4.5bn last year. Now, say the average single fare was £40, a relatively high assumption, then you would need 50m passengers annually for a service that would only connect a very limited number of towns, 21⁄2 times the number currently carried by Virgin West Coast.

In reality, the estimated costs would probably be far more, with the Treasury even suggesting £60bn, which therefore would require a ridership of three times that level. We have, of course, been here before with the Tories. The Channel Tunnel was built supposedly without any public sector support. However, in Terry Gourvish’s new book, The Official History of Britain and the Channel Tunnel, he reveals that the UK government supported the project to the tune of £3bn before its construction and at least £4bn thereafter – not bad for a scheme that is estimated, conservatively, to have cost £10bn, including financing charges.

Therefore, any attempt to suggest the project could be entirely produced by the private sector is just hogwash. China, seemingly the world’s new role model for economic development, recently sold bonds worth £3bn to raise money for extending and modernising the railways and it intends to raise far more in that way. Closer to home, Network Rail is also financing itself in that way and ultimately that will be the way a Maglev or high-speed rail line will be paid for.

So whatever young Osborne says, the construction of a Maglev network would have to be funded largely from the public sector. That changes the politics of the situation because public money is far more likely to be invested in a tried and tested technology such as a conventional railway. But let’s assume that the Eddington report (compiled by the former BA chief who is looking into the long-term infrastructure needs of the UK and is due to be published this autumn) says there needs to be a balanced assessment of the two technologies.

Even with such a following wind, the case for Maglev against a conventional high-speed line looks pretty thin. Sure there are advantages. Because there is no friction between the track and the vehicles, there is very little maintenance and this has apparently been borne out with the experience from the longest Maglev in the world – the 30km-long track from Shanghai airport to the outskirts of the city. The trains are very quiet, they run smoothly and, of course, they are extremely fast – it’s not for nothing that the promoter, Ultraspeed, has called its website www.500kmh.com.

The promoters of the idea say it would be cheaper than conventional rail and that it is even more environmentally-friendly, using less carbon per passenger. However, the figures they produce are, necessarily, educated guesswork since, although the technology has been around for half a century, there are very few operational railways. The Shanghai track is virtually the only major scheme in the world. Birmingham airport had one until a couple of years ago, but it was all of 600 metres long and travelled at 10kph. Sadly, it was closed due to lack of spare parts and replaced by a bus. There is a suburban line in Japan and a major test track, but a couple of German projects have been shelved or postponed. All this means that the risk of embarking on a scheme to build a project around England is greatly increased in relation to using the established technology of the railways.

There are other disadvantages, and the most crucial is the lack of interchangeability with the rest of the rail network. The French TGV services use parts of the conventional rail network,, particularly in getting in and out of Paris, but also in connecting towns where it would not be economical to build a separate new line. With Maglev, there would be both the problem of getting in and out of London. Even in Victorian times, this was a major issue. In my history of the London Underground, The Subterranean Railway, there is a quote from John Moxon, chairman of the London & Croydon Railway, who said: “Every railway we apprehend in its first mile cost more than in any other part of the line”. That problem is magnified tenfold given the greater size and higher land cost in the capital, but the issue is rather muddied over by Ultraspeed which does not show a central London terminal on its map but instead suggests Heathrow, the Thames Gateway and the M25 north of London as the southernmost points on the network.

This is not a matter of being London-centric. There would have to be a terminal within easy reach of the City or the West End as otherwise existing train services would remain more attractive (and presumably cheaper). It would be no good stepping out to Heathrow to take a Maglev to save 45 minutes on the journey to Birmingham. There is more, too, to interchangeability than simply the London terminals. The Maglev would only have a very limited number of destinations and would be no good for, say, journeys from London to Wakefield, Wigan or Preston since the connection would probably obviate much of the time saving.

There is, in fact, only 1,200km of LGV track (though there will be another 300km next year when TGV Est opens) but 5,000 km covered by the network, so therefore they run three-quarters of the distance on conventional lines. One suggestion is to fit steel wheels to Maglev trains to run on to conventional track but that sounds pretty far-fetched.

While a debate over Maglev is welcome, there is a big risk that the politicians will use the holy grail of an entirely new form of technology to postpone any decisions on the need to improve the public transport system between North and South. The Victorians were very good at coming up with ideas for new technologies, such as vacuum-powered atmospheric trains (Brunel’s ill-fated South Devon railway), but they fell by the wayside as impractical or too expensive.

In a way, Maglev needs the same analysis – a quick and dirty study to assess its merits by genuinely independent analysts which, in my judgement, would come up with a resounding NO. Instead, we get the frustration of a debate whose speed is in inverse proportion to that of the trains.

The publication of Eddington’s report has been repeatedly postponed and there seems little stomach in the Department for Transport for pushing the scheme forward. Osborne has done us a favour, although apparently much to the embarrassment of the shadow transport spokesman, Chris Grayling, in putting the issue on the agenda but, in truth, it would be better if the Tories thought through the implications of what they were saying and stuck to a coherent policy that would seriously challenge Labour’s complacency.

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