Call for new rail line to use 300mph technology

RAIL industry leaders have called for magnetic technology enabling speeds of more than 300mph to be considered for a new line between London and Scotland.

Alistair Darling, the Transport Secretary, this month announced that shelved plans for a new north-south link were back on the table.

However, industry leaders said magnetic levitation - or maglev - traction which is already in use in China, could put Britain ahead of the rest of Europe. Backers of the technology unveiled a 16 billion scheme that could nearly halve cross-Border journeys to two and a half hours.

The UK Ultraspeed project said a 500-mile line could be built in stages within ten years to link London and Glasgow via Birmingham, Manchester, Newcastle and Edinburgh.

It could serve a new rail interchange at Millerhill, on the south-east edge of Edinburgh, then skirt west to Edinburgh airport. Journey times between the airport and Glasgow are expected to be just 11 minutes.

Dr Alan James, the project leader, said the system could operate at up to 311mph (500kmh), with ten-car vehicles accommodating about 1,200 passengers.

The vehicles would levitate above a guideway, steered by electromagnetic "cushions".

A variable electric current would provide propulsion and braking. Dr James said the system could be fully automated, dispensing the need for drivers, and would incur very low maintenance because it contained no moving parts.

The only currently operating maglev runs at 267mph from the city of Shanghai to its airport on a 19-mile line that opened in 2003.

However, the technology used another British transport breakthrough - like tilting trains - which was perfected abroad. Professor Eric Laithwaite, of Imperial College London, demonstrated its potential in the 1950s, and the world’s first passenger-carrying maglev linked Birmingham airport with a nearby rail station in 1984.

However, it proved unreliable and was scrapped a decade later - technology ahead of its time, according to Dr James.

Moir Lockhead, the chief executive of Aberdeen-based FirstGroup, who visited Shanghai last month, said it could be the future of high-speed travel.

He said: "Seeing really is believing with this revolutionary technology. I didn’t believe a surface railway could travel at 500kmh without wheels until I travelled on the maglev.

"The UK does not have a European-style high-speed network and so is in an almost unique position to leapfrog ahead. We are well placed to look 20-30 years ahead and ask ‘is this the technology for us?’."

However, Dr Iain Docherty, a transport expert at Glasgow University, urged caution.

Several planned maglevs in Germany have been scrapped because of their cost, and the remaining 2 billion Munich airport scheme has been hit by funding problems. Dr Docherty said: "Britain would bear a lot of the risk to be the first to adopt it on a large scale."

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