High speed rail in the uk

32 billion for high speed rail and 17 years to build it. They are actually taking the mick aren’t they?

Let’s compare and contrast.

Spain has high speed rail of course. Probably the best high speed rail system in the World actually. It started because of the Expo in Seville in 1992. The government of the time built a railway on a different gauge to the rest of Spain that finished in Madrid over 500km away from the nearest international border with that same gauge just so Madrileños could get to Seville for the expo.

Oh how we laughed.

I remember cutting out an article from the front page of the Guardian with a description of what a huge white elephant it was written by John Hooper, (the guy who wrote the definitive guide to the Spanish “The Spaniards” and later the update “The New Spaniards”).

Yes we laughed. And then there was a gap of a few years until Spain decided we actually wanted some more high speed railways as it would be able to connect the original line up to the French border. Now the obvious thing is to connect Madrid up with Barcelona of course. Then from Barcelona to the French border. And so on and so forth.

AVE Barcelona-Madrid

Image via Wikipedia

The tentacles of the high speed rail system now go all over Spain. It arrived in Valencia last year and everybody who uses it loves it. Just an hour and forty minutes to Madrid and as it is city centre to city centre it has actually put the airlines out of business because it is quicker.

But (you knew there was a but coming didn’t you?)

Not one line in Spain makes a profit.


In fact the costs of maintenance of the lines are huge. Apparently it costs 20000 euros per year just for the upkeep of each kilometre of line. There are so many kilometres now, more than in China and Japan combined, that you could almost solve Spain’s huge unemployment problem, 23% and rising, by employing people to look after a kilometre of line each for the same price.

I won’t go through the figures but can you imagine any scenario where that 32 billion pound is going to be paid back?


How much will people be charged to travel on this train that will only connect up London and Birmingham and then Manchester and Leeds.

Look on the bright side though people will get from Birmingham to London in half the time they currently do. This means that some people will be able to commute to London every day and enjoy the benefits of living in Birmingham. Whoops I think I am stretching a point too much. I cannot imagine one person taking up that option. Living in Birmingham (Shivers)!

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  1. Yes, Málaga to Madrid in 2 and a half hours or Málaga to Barcelona in 5 hours something rather than the huge 18 hours bus journey. There is of course a tiny problem and that Spain was abused in the same way as Dr Beeching ripped up lines in the UK. So getting from A to B often involves going through M (Madrid) which almost doubles the distance on, say, Alicante to Málaga. Good job the AVE is so fast! 

    • Commuting from Seville to Madrid is possible despite the cost. However if you commute from Birmingham to London it means you live in Birmingham… I am sure there are worse places in the World though… Timbuktu, Kryszygstan, Siberia… 🙂

      • Granted there are some shitty places in Birmingham, just like there are in Valencia.

        The point about the rail link to Birmingham is that it is the UK’s second city. It also has an international airport, in fact Birmingham airport will now be just 10 minutes longer commute to central London than Stansted, 30 minutes more than Heathrow,   15 minutes longer than Gatwick and about 20 minutes longer than Luton.So, as you can see, it’s not all about living in Birmingham and working in London. We get another runway for London without building an airport. And is this really the case? Oh yes, Ryanair and Easyjet will love the short transfer times. It was only a couple of years ago that you could buy a Ryanair ticket for London, advertised in Norway as Prestwick (London) with the attendant 12 hour bus ride!

        • I get the point David but that money 32 billion will probably at least triple judging by past experience and that is a ridiculous waste of money Birmingham Liverpool Manchester whichever town is it still a massive waste of money

    • We don’t have a high speed rail-link in Turkey, and I for one don’t mind. If you want to go fast take a plane. But to my mind there is something wonderful about setting out on a mini-bus that takes you to one of the main coach stations in the Country.

      There you’re settled in to wonderful reclining padded seats, and with a choice of ten films to watch, and several music channels you settle down as the steward washes your hands with fresh cologne and brings you a cake and a glass of Nescafe or tea.

      As the light fades, strictly against the rules, I open my hip-flask and take a crafty nip of the amber liquid, (not Fosters), that amber liquid from Scotland.

      It’s true some people snore on such trips, but that adds to the colour. On one of the last rail trips I took in the U.K. two passengers nearly had a fight, which was saturating colour a bit too far!

      If you’re lucky it will be necessary to cross the Bosphorus by ferry. It takes around half an hour, and you may leave your bus and stroll around with lorry drivers.

      Then there are the motorway services areas. They sell hot soup and pink fluffy toys.

      Ah the farts, the crying babies, the aromatic body odours: the bus. It’s the only way to travel 😉

  2. OK, so lets get some facts in here. The UK has a popualtion of 62million in an area of 243k-km2, a population density of 255/km2 – even including the unpopulated highlands. Spain has a population of 40million (a third less) in an area of 504k-km2 (twice the UK), a population density of 92/km2. So in half the area we have 2.5times the population density. If we just went for England, then the population of 51million in 103k-km2has a density of 395/km2, making it the 30th most densly populated country in the world

    This makes our main trunk networks hard worked, and hence over used. This high usage in a high density country means that we don’t have as much space to expand, and any development of any type will affect someone’s propert. Whether we choose transport or new homes; roads, railway or air travel.

    So simply, we have to make a choice, and in such a densly populated a country most often a compromise. Plus what ever we develop, because we have to choose routes which minimise personal disruption and compensate those adversely affected, it comes at a high cost.

    If we have to choose something, assuming we are past peak oil, then let it be rail. Modern high speed electric trains – once the environmental damage of the construction is taken into account – come in way below the carbon emissions of congested and hence slow-speed roads and commuter air.

    Are there other choices? Sure, we could shut the borders or build more houses in the southeast. Technically, the Southeast is growing at twice the rate that the Northeast is declining in population – the only other area of population growth in the UK is the West Country, but then that’s because of an aging retiring population. So how do we bring economic equality to the rest of the UK, and dampen the fuel which is the dangerous southeast property market? A UK national fibre broadband network to door could help, but we would still want to travel and meet – probably even more so.

    I may question the route, I might not like the environmental damage caused, and at £16Bn and not operational to Birmingham until 2024 seems far too far away. But I’d prefer spending our children’s money on something that can be used by their children, rather than something which just gets me between traffic jams quicker!

    • The investment in high speed broadband to every home in the UK would be considerably cheaper, allow for home working and mean there isn’t the necessity for this line if developed correctly. 

      • The only thing high speed broadband would do is to allow a more even spread of work potential across the UK. But it still wouldn’t address an increasing population, a high density population, or the need to meet up. The rail development also allows greater spread of house and price options – something which as an estate agent I thought you could probably understand!

  3. Good article Graham, and I cant help but think the better way for the UK government to spend money on railways would be to reopen the train lines that the stupid dr beeching closed down in the 60’s. In fact spain would prob be better off doing the same maybe?

  4. What I don’t understand is this. There is already a railway line from London to Birmingham, so why does it cost £16 Billions and take 15 years to reduce the journey time by around 30 – 40 minutes ?
    Could they not enhance the existing line or add faster trains at a much cheaper cost ?

  5. Living in Brirmingham….or maybe a nice village cottage 4 mins drive to M42 network straight into Centre in 30mins most cross country within easy distance of hugely properous satelite Towns – Tamworth, Lichfield, Redditch, Burton etc etc but the rail system is rubbish. The canals are better! Birmingham has some fantastic worl dbeating architectural and re-urbanisation projects and has had to reinvent itself from the manufacturing core of the Nation to a hub of multi-national engineering and product development firms with far advance Asian presence and co-operation. Many excellent Premiership and top flight football and cricket teams, the current centre for athletics; fantastically colourful and cosmopolitan and the original and perfect Balti………yow orrlllrighttt!

  6. The same price would be enough for 1000Mbps real fibre optic broadband (not the pretend stuff that BT and Virgin are marketing) to everyone in the UK. Everyone would benefit from such an investment, not just a relative few that want to to from Birmingham to London, or vice versa.