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The British Way

train_photos, CC BY-SA 2.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons

Meeting Details: In person, Tuesday March 28th, 7pm

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The British Way: Building high speed rail the long way

Over the past years were we have talked extensively about high speed rail in Japan, China, France, Spain, Germany and Italy. However, what about that country where passenger rail all started with James Watt and his steam locomotive: Britain

Wendover Productions did a great video on what happened with the privatization of British Rail back in 1993. What is fascinating about the Wendover production is the role that private industry should have in building high speed rail.

Prior to 1993 British Rail was owned by the government and owned all equipment, stations, tracks, hotels, and provided all passenger and freight rail across Britain. In 1993 that all changed, and everything was sold off to separate companies. Not as separate railroads, but separate components. Tracks and stations went to one company (Railtrack), freight was divided among several companies, and passenger service was among six vendors.

It sounds like a great strategy, until you look at the results. Ridership did go up, but Britain is the only major Western European country without a 150-mph high speed rail system (excluding the Eurostar service which can be argued as an extension of France’s TGV). The UK does have legit routes with 125 mph trains, compared to the US’s very limited 125+ trains (hello Wisconsin back in 2009), but….

Now Britain is building HS2, which will be capable of speeds up to 225 mph. However, much like the California project, it is way over cost and being cut back. Then just like California, HS2 is given a time horizon of between 2029 and 2033.

However, the issue in Britain is regulation. When the UK privatized the rails, the government regulated everything from routes that needed to be served, to frequency of service to stations, to pricing. In effect the companies essentially were just vendors of the government and not allowed to be act like real privatized companies with the ability to set their own schedules, own the tracks, and most importantly drop and add service as necessary.

The question is what can be learned from Britain and be applied to the idea of a private interim company to run the California High Speed Rail project?


Do City Planners Have it Wrong?:

Should high speed rail stations be built in the city center, or on the outskirts?

It is an interesting question. On one hand, serving downtowns would solve congestion problems. However, it is very expensive to acquire the land and would be fraught with legal battles over eminent domain. Further, when the interstates were built they demolished whole low income neighborhoods, which led to social injustice. Building on the outskirts of downtown areas would be cheaper, faster, and more equitable (since low income neighborhoods would not be razed). Further, real estate value capture could be utilized to pay for the construction (since price appreciation would be greater). In fact, this is one of the reasons China has been able to build High Speed Rail so cheaply, while California’s costs and time delays continue to spiral. However, maybe a station on the outskirts could also solve congestion. After all, a high speed rail station in the center would just increase car trips into the city, which increases congestion. While a station on the outskirts would be fed from all directions and serve cities outside the main city, like an airport does today. Hmm, its an interesting thought.


We asked ChatGPT:

What’s the fastest a train could go on the earth?

-Turns out ChatGPT still believes in the Hyperloop...and is stuck in 2017.

Are you ready to have your mind blown? Let's talk about the theoretical fastest a train could go on Earth.

Theoretically, there is no limit to how fast a train could go. However, there are certain factors that make it difficult to reach certain speeds. The primary factor that limits the speed of trains is air resistance. As a train moves faster, it encounters more and more air resistance, which makes it harder and harder to go even faster.

But let's say we could somehow eliminate air resistance completely. In that case, the fastest a train could go would be limited only by the strength of the materials used to build it and the curvature of the Earth's surface. This is because the Earth is not perfectly flat, and as a train moves faster and faster, it would need to "climb" up the Earth's surface more and more in order to maintain its speed. This would eventually become impossible, even with the strongest materials.

However, there is a proposed solution to this problem: a vacuum-sealed tunnel. This would essentially eliminate air resistance and allow trains to reach incredibly high speeds. One such proposal is the Hyperloop, which uses magnetic levitation technology and a vacuum-sealed tunnel to allow trains to travel at speeds of up to 1,223 km/h (760 mph). That's like traveling at the speed of sound!

So, while there may be theoretical limits to how fast a train can go, technology and innovation continue to push the boundaries of what we thought was possible. Who knows what the future holds for high-speed trains? The sky's the limit! Or, in this case, the vacuum-sealed tunnel's the limit.


The Faster Badger is produced by students at the University of Wiscosin-Madison to help break through the misconceptions of high speed rail and high speed transportation. This blog is for educational purposes only and all opinions presented are of the students.

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