Robotics Might Save the Railways

The rail system in the UK is a mess. Start from basics: rail travel, when it started (in England, in the world) in the 19th century, was a fast expanding private enterprise system of competing lines. These lines (companies) solidified into an efficient cartel by the time of the First World War. During the war itself, the railways were under State control (and until 1921). The Railways Act 1923 put the de facto private cartel on a statutory basis, with four large railway companies running virtually all passenger and freight services. Profitability waned with the coming of cars and road freight so that, by the time of nationalization in 1948, losses threatened. This became reality in 1955, when British Rail recorded its first operating loss.

The “modernization” plans adopted from 1955 culminated in the Beeching Report of 1963 and the subsequent and consequent closures of lines, services and stations. More than a third of passenger services were closed down. The closures of railway stations were even more dramatic: out of 7,000 stations, more than 4,000 were shut.

The 1990s privatization was carried out in a manner so poorly-conceived that only free-market ideologues who knew little of the realities of how to run a railroad could ever have decided upon it. I do not propose to delve into the detail here (and I myself am no expert anyway), except to say that there seems to be a good case for re-nationalization, possibly on a low-compensation or even an expropriation basis.

What of the future? We see that, all over the world, even in the UK, that driverless train transport, indeed driverless transport generally, is becoming common. Many British people will have travelled on limited forms of automated transport such as the Docklands Light Railway or the monorail at Gatwick Airport which connects the main terminal with another. It would be possible to run many more light rail and ultralight rail services on new branch lines, connecting with existing mainline stations and lines. Indeed, computerized and robotized ultralight narrow-gauge trains could run from towns, villages and suburbs not presently connected to rail, such lines terminating at an existing railway station. A whole huge new web of public transport could come into operation in this manner, eventually becoming more dense even than the railway system that existed before the 1960s. At the extremities, such lines could be narrow-gauge and the trains very small, perhaps single carriage. The expense, though considerable, would be worthwhile, knitting together a country which has become dislocated.

Road transport will be the dominant mode for the foreseeable future, but if an enhanced branch line network can take even 10% of passenger journeys off the roads, the cost of the new system will perhaps have been justified on that basis alone.

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