I’d take the slower train a lot.
They’re discussing a newly announced long term plan to build a new rail network in the UK that will slice huge chunks of time out of the long distance travel times between London and points North. There are many reasons why this is good news (and some bad, since there’s going to be impact on parts of the country side – this is not upgrade of existing rail lines), and these include the benefits that will result from people choosing rail over cars, and even planes, the possible further decentralization of the country (although I doubt this – I think the overall change in that regard might well be neutral. It might in fact have the opposite effect), and so on and so forth.
The national discussion that has been taking place has been interesting, of course, but I’m not hearing enough about one aspect: That travelling from point A to point B as fast as technology allows is not always the best option. I don’t think that the UK is a very big place, frankly, and I’ve got to the point where I think that the long journeys that I sometimes do on either corridor (West or East) have improved quite a bit over the years to the extent where they are about as fast as I want them to be. I care more about them leaving and arriving on time than I do them getting there much more quickly. Yes, I know that some people have urgent business in London and need to get there fast from Glasgow or Preston or Newcastle…. but would the extra 45 or even 60 minutes really make that much difference? Well, sure it might for some, and I do not mean to remake the world to suit only my personal foibles (it is tempting sometimes, I’ll admit) but I just want to remind that the longer journeys make for wonderful travel at times, and I’d not want that to be entirely lost as an option. Travelling between Preston (where I went to secondary school and sixth form college) and London, for example, now takes less than two and a half hours. You leave on time on a comfortable (more or less) train equipped large windows for looking outside, a cafe and (if you desire) power sockets for your phones and computers and wireless internet access (although it is just wrong that it is not free given how much you spent on the ticket). I’m not sure I want it to be any shorter a journey than that. Once it gets to, say, under two hours, the nature of the journey changes. You don’t get to settle, reflect, and/or simply watch the beautiful countryside go by, think about the towns and people that you pass by, lazily follow the line of the canals that you catch fragments of, with their lovely slow narrowboats floating along them, remind yourself to look up a map of the canal network to better understand what you’ve just passed over, etc, etc. I’d miss that. I need that. They’re talking about being able to get to Birmingham from London in 30 or 45 minutes. No disrespect to that fine city, but I can’t imagine why I’d want Birmingham to be routinely easier to get to from London’s Euston Station than, at a guess, more than half of the London underground stations are. Is it just me?
Now I know it would be nice to have the option to go fast. I can give a seminar on some exciting, new, urgent development in string theory research in London, then jump on a train and give the seminar later that day in Durham, or even Edinburgh. Right. But is it worth the many tens of billions of pounds it will cost to allow people do this? In such a tiny geographical area, with an already pretty quick system? (The case under discussion in California is very different. Ultra-slow is actually the high speed option there. That the best one can do on the train is three or more hours from Los Angeles to Santa Barbara in a supposedly technologically sophisticated country is beyond me… and don’t even ask how long it takes to travel the 430 or so miles by train from LA to San Francisco… or, actually, Oakland ‘cos there’s no actual stop in SF; you won’t believe the answer. (Ok: Over 11 hours. Current high speed rail proposals would cut this to almost 2 and a half hours. Play with the program here.) I don’t know about this UK discussion. Maybe the money might be better spent elsewhere. For example, on improved reliability, ticket prices, (luggage space!!), and so forth, for the existing lines. Or maybe changing our business practices and building and/or enhancing the infrastructure needed in order to make these urgent journeys less essential to the success of business, etc. (Yes, I mean more video conferencing and so forth, where it makes sense. I don’t mean it should replace face to face meetings entirely, but can be a major supplement.) A lot of that is (simply) a matter of education, changing traditions, etc. Then travel can go back to being more about enjoying the journey rather than a fight against distance and time.
Some Related Asymptotia Posts (not exhaustive):