Virgin’s new zoomer

By Rupert Swallow

Last year Richard Branson unveiled his newest invention, not a jetpack or a space shuttle, but an English bullet train. He and his marketing team have christened it the Virgin Azuma which, while also meaning ‘East’ in Japanese, already sounds like it’s going to be incredibly fast. It is. Built by Hitachi, makers of the bullet train in Japan, the new fleet of 65 Azumas will considerably shorten journey times across the network, as well as increase capacity. They can accelerate from 0-125 mph around a minute quicker than the current fleet and have a top speed of 140mph. London to Edinburgh will take 4 hours, 22 minutes faster than the current quickest service. This speed increase means that the new trains will provide an extra 12,200 seats and increase capacity to London by 28% during peak times. Branson was also keen to point out that, as they are being built in a factory just 12 miles from Durham, they are trains made​ ​on​ ​the​ ​East​ ​coast,​ ​for​ ​the​ ​East​ ​coast.

London to Edinburgh will take 4 hours, 22 minutes faster than the current quickest service

So, I hear you ask, what does this mean for us? Well, given that Durham is not a major stopping point it’s unlikely that it will be served regularly by the Azumas, if at all. Newcastle, however, certainly will, which means we can at least zip down to Edinburgh or up to London from​ ​there.​ ​It​ ​may​ ​not​ ​be​ ​worth​ ​the​ ​hassle​ ​though.

This speed increase means that the new trains will provide an extra 12,200 seats

What is really interesting about this new roll-out is how small a stir it has caused among the popular press. Ever since the Intercity-125 revived the flagging national railway service in 1976, and incidentally became the most successful passenger train of all time, the UK has had a problem with its national transport infrastructure. Throughout the ‘70s branch lines and local stations had to be closed due to lack of funding. The privatisation of the railways has led to an almost unmanageably complex system of private companies, none of which own the carriages or the actual track that they run on, and all with different and often conflicting interests. The current system is not conducive to cooperation. This creates major difficulties​ ​with​ ​improving​ ​the​ ​service,​ ​as​ ​can​ ​be​ ​seen​ ​in​ ​the​ ​furore​ ​over​ ​HS2, the highly controversial governmental plan to connect London, the West Midlands, Leeds and Manchester by a high-speed rail link.

With hindsight, that most fickle friend of the historian, the government’s decision in the 70s to invest a vast amount of its resources into the development of a national road network has come to look like a miscalculation. Cars, in those days a new and important status symbol for the aspirational workers, are now coming to be seen more and more in terms of pure utility. According to McKinsey, a consultancy, it is usually cheaper to use a ride-hailing service such as Uber than to have your own car, if you travel for less than 3,500 miles a year on the roads. That is a mind-boggling statistic. Consider this, had the motorways never been built, but the extensive railway system that existed previously been maintained and improved instead, we could have an integrated train-to-taxi system. You would travel to the station using either a taxi or public transport, hop on the train and arrive at journey’s end with another taxi waiting to pick you up. Cities would become pockets for ride-hailing companies. This would have the effect both of reducing pollution, the average car only contain 1.3 people, and reducing road deaths, since there would be far fewer drivers going long​ ​distances.

It is usually cheaper to use a ride-hailing service such as Uber than to have your own car

I’m not saying we should scrap cars entirely, but just a bit. The above pipe-dream becomes less and less viable the more rural the destination. Likewise the impressive developments in the field of battery technology may mean that electric cars are set to revolutionise our transport system as radically as Henry Ford’s internal combustion engine did over a hundred years ago. We will have to wait and see. The Azuma fleet begin serving the East coast in 2018. In the meantime, let’s enjoy our extra 22 minutes of gazing out the window.

Photograph of Virgin’s Azuma train pulling into Kings Cross Station, London, by Hitachi Rail Europe.

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