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Wednesday 6 January 2010

Broadsheet Watch – 6

Although I have more time for the Guardian than any other current or former broadsheet paper, that does not mean that I concur with everything that graces its pages. Today has brought an excellent example of this, with a superbly muddle headed denunciation of the railways by Simon Jenkins, who has form in this area.

The main thrust of Jenkins’ article is high speed rail, and the move to map out and then build a new link between London and Scotland. He would rather the cost of such a link be spent instead on the existing network, which would be fine up to a point, and that point is all about capacity. The C-word was the driving force behind the first high speed lines in both France and Spain: the idea that these were vanity projects misses the point.

The existing line between Paris, Dijon and Lyon was, by the 1970s, at capacity: the demand for paths by both passenger and freight trains meant that the former could not be accelerated, not without less of the latter. Thus a new line. Similarly, the main line south from Madrid through Aranjuez was at saturation point: commuter and regional passenger services had to share the same pair of tracks as freight and long distance passenger trains. The new line from Madrid to Sevilla eased the pressure, but the demand is relentless, and more capacity – to remove more or less all long distance passenger trains from the older route – will be needed soon. This will result in new high speed lines to Valencia and Alacant.

Some capacity improvement has been made on the West Coast Main Line (WCML) along its route through the Trent Valley, but ultimately a new line will bring much more of the C-word. This also lies behind the Crossrail project, which Jenkins opposes, saying that the existing Central Line tube is “slightly congested”. Hell’s teeth. He clearly doesn’t have to suffer it in the rush hour. And it’s not just about the City: the health of the West End as a destination is also at stake. As before, there is no capacity in the existing tube service: the Central Line already runs the longest trains on the system, and uses Automatic Train Operation (ATO) through the central area: there is no more improvement possible.

The Jenkins assertion is that high speed rail is for the benefit of the rich, which suggests that he has never sat on a TGV leaving Paris for Lyon, or ridden the AVE out of Madrid Atocha: these trains, as so many others, are used by a broad cross section of their countries’ populations, as are all the other services that can now be fitted in on existing lines, following the overall increase in capacity.

I commend further study of the industry to Simon Jenkins: as with so much that impacts on everyday folk, it does not involve rocket science.

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