GREAT Missenden is a sleepy Chilterns village that has been a peaceful escape for former prime ministers. Harold Wilson and Clement Attlee are said to have loved the place.
Today, farmland near this idyllic spot is earmarked for HS2: high speed rail to you and me. By 2026, trains travelling at 250mph will be whistling north on a £33 billion railway. The residents of the sleepy Chilterns are not greatly enamoured at the prospect, as local council elections in England demonstrate.
But whatever the reservations in the Chilterns, high speed rail is the global engineering future. France and Japan have had bullet trains for years, but many other countries – led by China and the United States – are now investing in fast rail journeys. Last July, California began developing a line from San Francisco to Los Angeles. Hardly the romance of Route 1 ambling down the Pacific coast; but rather more efficient than hours in the security queue at an airport if you want to fly.
The UK looks set to link London with the north of England and help reduce air miles. It should not stop at the Border, however; high speed should come to Scotland. The best long-term investment for our rail services would not be an Edinburgh to Glasgow route – train services are already good between two cities 48 minutes apart. New rail investment should instead link Scotland to London.
Engineers can produce a train that goes incredibly quickly. The significant challenge is much more what the train sits on. Professor Peter Woodward at Heriot-Watt University leads a team respected worldwide. He wants to turn a track testing station into a global centre of excellence here in Scotland. Woodward is a star turn on the international conference circuit, where train track designers queue up to hear how to build stronger and safer track beds to cope with the enormous pressures and stresses of high speed rail.
Woodward and Heriot-Watt’s vision is to make west Edinburgh the global “go to” place for design and testing of new ideas. Atkins, a global design engineering businesses, has bought into the vision and more should follow. The Japanese are interested. China and France have both reported failures to run trains at their intended speeds due to the impact it causes on the track structure. Across the world, rail bosses are looking for international expertise to solve complex engineering problems.
This has enormous potential. Scotland and the UK are exporting intellectual knowledge. But Heriot-Watt could become the place where experts gather to design new track beds, the shape of embankments and the fail-safe solutions that can work anywhere across the world.
This is an exciting venture. Heriot-Watt has pitched this future to Scottish Enterprise. If ever there was a proposition that put academia, business and innovation into one heady mix, this is it. A centre of excellence in Edinburgh would benefit the UK railway industry across the globe. Scotland should back it.
• Tavish Scott is the Liberal Democrat MSP for Shetland