We spent a lot of time on trains while we were away, so coming back to news about the lack of progress investing in UK railways was a bit depressing. Lots of people have said this before but the model for all countries should be Japan (despite the horrible news today). The peak being the Shinkansen which we used to travel between Tokyo and Osaka. I’d never been on a Nozomi Superexpress before, which is the fastest of the lot. It’s not just the speed (max 320 km/hr), it’s the pride and level of service – the trains are always clean, the staff know their stuff and want to help and the stations are full of great food.
A good railway system will be one of the most important pieces of infrastructure for mid-sized competitive countries in the 21st century. You just can’s shift enough people or goods by air or road as efficiently as you can by rail over hundreds of kilometres. At peak times the Shinkansen runs up to thirteen trains per hour with sixteen cars (a train has a 1,323-seat capacity) in each direction between Tokyo and Osaka (just over 500km). Even with six Airbus A320 planes an hour you can only shift just over a thousand people so trains can carry an order of magnitude more people for this kind of distance in a great deal more comfort. Apparently the Japanese experience is that if the Shinkansen connects two cities in less than three hours, most passengers choose the Shinkansen, but if it takes more than four hours by Shinkansen, the majority choose air.
I know railways are difficult to build – I read Christian Wolmar’s excellent book ‘To the Edge of the World‘ about the building of the Trans Siberian while we were on it – but with the interest rates that government is able to borrow at at the moment so low, it seems like the perfect time to spend on infrastructure. It’s also going to be an expanding market in developing countries so building an industry able to sell it abroad would be a good idea too.