Does Chris Grayling have a secret adoration for maglevs? The futuristic train technology, where magnets are used in place of wheels to make the carriage levitate, has a rocky history in this country. But as talk stirs of plans to build a maglev line from Manchester to Leeds (no, really), it’s worth taking a look at what the now-transport secretary had to say in a speech back in March 2007.
“No one who has travelled on the only commercially operated Maglev route in Shanghai could fail to have been impressed,” Grayling said, presumably with the sort of gusto reminiscent of a 19th century rail engineer. “It could well be a vision for the future. Not only is it fast – It also appears to offer much more versatility than conventional rail.”
That misty-eyed speech, made while Grayling was shadow transport secretary under David Cameron, used to be available on the Conservative Party website. In November 2013, the party started deleting speeches made during its time in opposition, so today it’s only accessible from the MySociety archive.
It’s true, the Shanghai maglev is impressive. Passengers are whisked from the airport to the city centre in just eight minutes, covering 19 miles at a speed of around 270 miles per hour. Costing 1.2 billion yuan, it was meant to serve as a testing bed for a longer line that would the city to Beijing. Unfortunately, the Chinese government opted for traditional rail, as a maglev would not work with the country’s existing network.
Much like Shanghai, Grayling wanted to start small with a regional route to demonstrate the system’s viability. In the speech, he specified Leeds to Manchester and Glasgow to Edinburgh as two ideal routes. He promised the party would conduct a feasibility study into the technology. Also much like Shanghai, it didn’t quite work out that way.
Unfortunately, while Grayling was giving his speech, one private company was trying to put the cart before the horse (or rather, the train before the magnet). UK Ultraspeed, which submitted evidence to the 2006 Eddington Review of Britain’s transport network, wanted £29bn to fling trains across the country. The plan envisioned two southern terminuses, at London Stratford and Heathrow, with the lines meeting at a station by the M25. It then ran up to Birmingham and Manchester (where an offshoot ran to Liverpool), then continued up to Leeds, Newcastle and Edinburgh, before terminating in Glasgow. The whole trip from London to Glasgow would take just 2 hours and 40 minutes.
If the Eddington Review was sink or swim time for maglev, it swiftly sank, in dramatic fashion. In June 2007, a government-commissioned team of researchers reported that the train could actually make carbon emissions worse; it would do little to reduce journey times between nearby cities, as the plan placed the stations far from city centresl; and the system would not work with existing rail lines. In July, the government confirmed they would not be going ahead with the plan, not least because it was likely to cost double what UK Ultraspeed claimed, with the bill coming in at around £60bn.
That same month, Grayling was reshuffled out of the transport brief. What seemed like a forward-thinking idea just four months prior suddenly looked costly and ridiculous.
But UK Ultraspeed didn’t give up. It produced a press pack in July 2008, which hilariously included a quote from Grayling’s speech. The firm managed to leave out the part where Grayling specifically said it would be better to test the technology on a shorter route instead of jumping in at the deep end.
In the decade after the speech, neither Grayling nor his party said anything much about maglev. Hansard documents the odd cry from backbench MPs demanding why we aren’t pouring money into floating trains, but the former shadow transport secretary stayed oddly quiet. Curiously, Tory MP Cheryl Gillan made reference to a “super maglev” in 2015, but it was never mentioned again.
Fortunately, this tale has a happy ending. When Theresa May became leader last July, she put Grayling back on transport. There’s a lovely photo on Twitter of Grayling in Japan just two months later, about to get on a maglev, living out the dream snatched away all those summers ago.
But Grayling’s vision may find a new lease of life in Sean Anstee, who’s vying to claim the Greater Manchester mayorality for the Conservatives next month. Anstee previously told CityMetric that if elected, he would study the viability of a maglev system for the city.
A line in the candidate’s manifesto makes the sort of promises that would have made Grayling proud: “I will commission a study into how new transport methods such as Hyperloop technology can be used to make a transport system envied by the world.”
Perhaps the UK will get an incompatible train system with questionable benefits after all.
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