High speed, slow delivery

Image of Tyler Brûlé

Boooop! Boooop! In a little over two decades there’s a good chance you’ll be reading this newspaper on one of the UK’s new high-speed rail lines that will snake north to south. Of course, you won’t be reading it on pink paper but on pink-tinted glass as FT Weekend’s editorial is projected on to the window of a carriage while it hurtles along at more than 300kph.

As you watch the countryside whoosh past, there will be little pop-up facts and figures boxes that will highlight pieces of information about your journey while also tying in with this paper’s coverage. For example, an arrow will point to a herd of cattle while explaining that their milk is part of Arla Foods’ new super-organic dairy range and most of the production will be used for a new collection of ice lollies that will hit stores in late spring. A few kilometres further, and up pops a graph with a steep arrow climbing to the right and a small caption to highlight how much property prices have increased since trains began to run on the line.

As you process all of this information and stare at your reflection in the glass, you wonder why it took so bloody long for this to happen and conclude how much better your life would have been had this network existed when you were in your prime. Then again, at least you’re not in Australia, Canada or the US where the high-speed rail dream never materialised.

Not being a civil engineer or a lawyer specialising in environmental affairs, I’m slightly puzzled as to why it’s going to take two decades for this stretch of high-speed track to make its way up to Manchester and Leeds. No doubt the Chinese could have the whole thing up and running in about six months, Japan could manage it in three to five years and the Germans in less than a decade. Given the high unemployment in some of the regions where the trains will cut through, surely there must be scope for ministers to propose some type of labour scheme to press young, able bodies into some sort of high-priority national development programme that would cut the delivery time for this most vital project.

As regular readers will know, this column has pushed for a proper high-speed network in this country for a long time, so it’s more than a little disappointing to see that the project timelines (that will no doubt slip) are so dreadfully long. However, the good news is that it will allow plenty of time to plan the whole project properly and ensure the various participants deliver something that’s not only world-class but also meets the most basic needs of travellers.

One of my favourite cock-ups currently plaguing a major UK infrastructure project is the decision not to have toilets on the new Crossrail trains, and the lack of public toilets in some of the stations on the Crossrail rail link that will run east to west, under- and overground across London.

How did this happen? It’s a disaster waiting to happen: imagine you’ve just stepped off a long flight, board a train and then some 15 minutes later find yourself in that most uncomfortable position with your stomach grinding and gurgling after that suspect dinner in Rabat the night before. You know you have about two minutes (at best) to find a toilet. Or what about the recent outbreak of Norovirus where hundreds of thousands of people have been suffering from the violent vomitting bug?

While I’m sure someone got a pretty bonus for making a case for not installing toilets on the grounds that they might be a security risk and maintenance costs would be too high, I’d like to see that person recalled to deal with the clean-up when people are ducking behind corners to relieve themselves. At a later date we can spend considerably more time on this topic but I do wonder what people are thinking when they decide to leave out the most basic services but still manage to find money for ugly lighting installations and mediocre public art.

As planning gets under way for stations and rolling stock, the people in charge of making this all come together might want to remember that everyone will be a winner if they focus their efforts on getting the simple things right and spend less time attempting to surprise and delight. At stations travellers want smart signage, storage lockers, clean toilets and places to freshen up (see Switzerland and Japan for special premium services in this area), an interesting array of food, drink and retail options, places to sit (indoors and outdoors) and well-designed platforms with ample space. On board, everyone loves a dining car where real cooking happens rather than just warming up; silent carriages; family carriages and perhaps even a rolling crèche (see JR Kyushu’s children’s carriage concept); low lighting and seats that actually recline rather than just shift your bum forward.

All aboard!

Tyler Brûlé is editor-in-chief of Monocle magazine


Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2017. All rights reserved. You may share using our article tools. Please don't cut articles from FT.com and redistribute by email or post to the web.