The Victorian railway radically transformed Britain’s way of life, but for its pioneers, it took a leap of faith.
In a society whose only form of transport had, for centuries, come on four legs, putting faith in a vast machine which belched black smoke was a risk. Not only did each railway line have to be authorised with a separate Act of Parliament, but the cost was stratospheric: the 8,000 miles of railway given planning permission between 1845 and 1847 amounted to £200m, about the same as Great Britain’s GDP at the time.
Nonetheless, by the end of the century, most of the UK’s towns were connected to the rail network. Now, more than one and a half centuries later, the UK is faced with the prospect of ploughing another £52bn into the same technology with the government’s costly HS2 project.
There is no leap of faith here: we know exactly what the technology will do, decreasing the travel time between London and Birmingham by half an hour. Commuters, many of whom have become used to working during their journeys, are, for the large part, nonplussed.
It’s time to take a leaf out of the Victorians’ book and bring about another transport revolution. The railway allowed people to travel at speeds they could not previously have fathomed. Some 170 years later, let’s speed it up again with a technology like Elon Musk’s so-mad-it-just-might-work Hyperloop.
The frictionless travel pods can move at up to 500 miles per hour. Slovakia, Hungary and Abu Dhabi are already working on making the technology a reality. Imagine the possibilities for the UK: at a stroke, it could solve the housing crisis, allowing commuters to the capital to live anywhere in the country. At 500 miles per hour, even the Highlands would be but a short commute.
If Hyperloop is too much for a government which, admittedly, has most of its attentions focused on bringing about another revolution in the form of Brexit, perhaps a less technologically advanced, but nonetheless transformative, transport revolution is in order: the UK could do with tens of thousands more electric car charging points. Either way, HS2 is not the way to spend £52bn. It is a costly legacy of the previous two governments and should be consigned to history.