A Great Nation?

Those who watched HS2 advocate Pete Waterman on Channel 4 News may have failed to get his points. I’m still not sure why anyone would drive a Ford Fiesta to Manchester three times a day. Besides posing that ultimate question, he said ‘We used to be a Great Nation’, somehow thinking that if we have a really expensive flash new fast train line Great Britain will be ‘Great’ once again.


Living near Waterman’s home town of Coventry, it’s quite clear what went wrong, we gave up the mechanism of ‘greatness’, the industrial manufacturing base. We flogged off every asset the country owned and put the market in charge. The market quickly realised things could be made cheaper elsewhere, and hey presto, besides a few all but hoovered-up fragments, over 200 years of building up industry just went. After what happened with the Thameslink contract going to Germany’s Siemens instead of Bombardier, it is clear that we’ll be lucky if more than a couple of washers for HS2 are made in Britain. Of course any such washers would be made by Siemens, whose name is proudly displayed on the side of the ‘Yes to HS2’ open-top bus. By when it’s time to build the trains, the Bombardier Factory in Derby which dates back to 1840 -or those ‘Great Nation’ days- will almost certainly be rubble. The ‘Derby Carriage and Wagon Works‘ is the only bit of the formerly nationalised British Rail Engineering Ltd left, the last train factory in Britain.


As reported in China Daily, there is already a £200m order being sorted out to provide High Speed Trains in the UK from China. Both China Daily and Alliance Rail Holdings describe these new trains as ‘high speed’, that speed being a bit short of HS2s proposed 225/250mph, at just 140mph. These are for the new franchise from 2013 and will be used to cut journey times to proposed HS2 destinations such as Manchester, Leeds, and Sheffield. Many of the intermediate services would probably be cut when HS2 arrives and some will be disrupted during the 8 years of construction at Euston. Besides what this order will do to Bombardier, the services are another nail in the coffin of the business case for HS2. This is because the cash value of the time saved by going faster (£38bn out of the £44bn ‘wider economic benefit’ from HS2) has been compared against current running times, not the new ones with these trains. Details of proposed services from December 2013 can be found here.


On Saturday, the Coventry Evening Telegraph reported that German bombing maps for Coventry were up for sale. It was clear that all Goering should have done was wait 70 years, as next to none of what the Luftwaffe were after is still standing. A day out with my son and I quickly realised that Coventry, once the ‘Motor City’ of Britain was now the city of “Museums for stuff we used to make.”


There’s the well known Motor Museum, but also The Watchmakers Museum and the Herbert, which looks at the textiles industry amongst others. Sadly the Toy Museum was burned down a couple of years ago. Electric Vans were never around long enough to get a museum, with Modec going bust in March without a hint of Government intervention. This was despite Modec being exactly the thing the Government say we need to support and invest in for the future. Other countries do things like giving contracts for light council vehicles, to help firms set up new industries which will work, given the investment. All they needed were orders to get them through the development stage.


There are a couple more industrial gravestones just outside Coventry at the airport in Baginton, where I took my six year old son for a day out on Saturday. We didn’t get time to look at Bagot Castle which is currently being excavated, due to finding a remote control car race track hidden behind the rugby club, and while I parked at the Lunt Fort the first stop was the Midland Air Museum.


Like the other Coventry museums, it is a tribute to British Engineering. You start off with the story of Coventry born Sir Frank Whittle, inventor of the Jet Engine. There are several Coventry built planes, including a Humber which looks like it was made just after they realised bat-style wings wouldn’t work. The Humber Road factory where that plane was made was left just like that like that Derby factory is now, ‘last man standing’. Along with the Ryton Plant, they were the last ‘proper’ car manufacturing plants in Coventry, until Peugeot did a ‘lift and shift’ to Slovakia in 2006.


Outside there were a host of planes including the cutting-edge Sea Harrier (there will obviously be some more of those up for grabs soon, but as for Baginton they are running out of space), and open for a cockpit tour, an Avro Vulcan Bomber. The Vulcan Bomber was the plane that was meant to drop ‘the bomb’ on Moscow if the balloon went up and only saw active service in the Falklands, bombing the runway in Port Stanley from a base on Ascension Island. “This was the pinnacle of what we could do in terms of design and technology when we had the capability,” said the guide, “but we let it all go for nothing. The shame is we’ve still got the people who can do this sort of thing, but we don’t make any of it anymore.” He also pointed out that these factories had an entire social structure where the young and the old would mix, not just with cards and dominoes, but with engineering, political, community and arts societies as well. While the facts behind the film ‘Brassed Off’ is the most famous example, there are still other reminders of the social benefit which even private enterprise used to consider as a duty.


The sports page in the CET showed Massey Ferguson FC was the last remnant of tractor production in Coventry, but like what happened with Leamington FC (formerly AP Leamington, with that being ‘Automotive Products’), it doesn’t help when they want to sell your ground. Coventry City FC of course started off as the Singer works team. The factory site is now ‘Singer Hall’, a student hall of residence after Peugeot pulled the plug in the late eighties and as for Coventry City FC, that is just another institution which doesn’t know where it’s going because it’s forgotten where it came from. In terms of further comings and goings, there’s also still no sign of the train station that was meant to be at their new ground when it opened five years ago, and the sickening thing is that all you need is a platform and ticket machine. A canopy/shelter if they really want to splash out. This would not only take cars off roads which are impassable on matchday, but make the Ricoh Arena more viable as a concert and exhibition venue, with single-minute links to both Coventry and Nuneaton mainline stations. Unfortunately there are no further connecting trains on that line, as trains were axed a couple of years ago as a result of ‘improvements’ at Nuneaton Station. These meant the Coventry-Nottingham service couldn’t cross the tracks at Nuneaton, so it ended. The plan is to now going to build a bridge for freight traffic at Nuneaton. 


Next door to the air museum was a bit of an enigma. For the last 30-odd years when I’ve driven past, I’ve always asked myself; “Why are there railway carriages in that field?”, more recently adding the word ‘more’ to that sentence. Well as it turns out it is now the Electric Railway Museum, whose next public open day will be on 10th-11th September. There they have the last working standard gauge industrial electric loco in the UK, built by Robert Stevenson & Hawthorn in 1945 and only retired after 64 years in 2009 –in favour of a diesel. Also there is a car which clocked up 54 years in Liverpool, where the first open air electric suburban railway was dismantled for buses in the fifties. It hadn’t been maintained, so the repair bill was too high and the entire railway was dismantled.


A rusting remnant of the Advanced Passenger Train (APT), being restored at the Electric Railway Museum in Baginton

The one that had caught my eye though was the APT, the Advanced Passenger Train. Well, it was the spare power car rescued after had been left outside to rot at York Railway Museum for the last 20/30 years. The APT was meant to have been the train of the future, capable of 155mph on the existing tracks, but what happened to it? When I was just a little older than Alex, it was the next ‘big thing’. The problem was they were put into service before they were ready. They stuck on tilt and with a launch in December 1981, the weather caused the brakes to freeze. They were in service for just five days. The ‘Accident Prone Train’ came back in 1984 after the problems were sorted out, but the name was too tarnished. It was considered a failure.


Well actually not. Firstly, the APT tilt technology was sold to the Italian Fiat Ferroviaria, who used it to make the Pendolinos (it was called the ‘powered pendular tilt’), and recently on a one off non-stop run for charity, a Pendolino completed the Glasgow to London journey in 3hrs 55min. The APT did London to Glasgow in 3hrs 52min in 1984. Secondly, there have been trains incorporating the APT’s groundbraking hydrokinetic braking system, which allow them to brake at 160mph in existing signalling distances on the East Coast Mainline ever since 1990. Of course the optimistically named InterCity 225, can’t go that fast, or even it’s ‘service speed’ of 140mph because you need to upgrade all the other trains to in-cab signalling. The only place which has that sort of signalling in the UK is HS1, and the Chunnel link in Kent. The IC225 is limited to 125mph because the signalling still works on the driver being able to see the trackside light in order to brake in time. That’s what some reports say went wrong with the recent ‘not enough time to stop’ train crash in China. This International Business Times article on that crash is well worth reading, not only for the insight, but to see a picture of the ‘advanced’ train. It’s also worth pointing out that the trains we are buying from China are capable of 140mph and will only be allowed to go 125mph. We’ve been making those in this country since 1988. They could be made in Derby especially as Bombardier completed a complete refit of existing IC225s in 2006. Maybe we could do the work on signalling throughout the network and increase capacity that way? I would guess the 19th Century stuff on commuter routes around Leeds might be somewhere to look at the signalling so they can have longer trains? HS2 is simply picking the most expensive way of solving a tiin and barely the most pressing part of the problem.It’s the wrong thing at the wrong time, benefitting the wrong people.


This is another reason why Waterman’s insistence that ‘you can’t have longer trains’, is not only incorrect, but simply the wrong attitude at these times. You can go to the end of more or less any platform and see the little yellow/black signs that tell the drivers of longer trains to stop, and if you looked at what is best for the country at the moment, maybe giving the last train manufacturer a job they can do that solves part of the problem we actually have might be a good thing?


The IC225 was one of the last trains built by BREL at Crewe and post-privatisation the trains were snapped up by HSBC, just so we could rent them back! The privatisation of the railways, or more rightly the fragmentisation that caused, is of course the real elephant in the room. Whilst the idea of restoring that ‘natural monopoly’ is nowhere near the political agenda, fragmentisation has caused annual rail subsidies to soar to £6bn from a pre-privatisation equivalent of £1bn.


But even thinking such things seems completely out of sync with all political opinion. Political thinking is what we need is something really expensive and brand new, and we need it now. What that of course means is another government construction project, a soon-to-inflate white elephant. Not only that, but a construction project spearheaded by Philip Hammond who made his fortune in construction. Besides the fact it is clear that the £33bn quoted for HS2 is just plain wrong due to the clear errors and omissions in the plans, you have to remember that’s just the cost of constructing the line. Trains are extra. All that money is going yet again to the construction industry, the one sector besides banking that always seems to do well out of Government, and far worse than the bankers, they always seem to get their figures wrong and need more money than they first said they did. At least with Government contracts. You have to remember, that as far as the maths of the pro camp are concerned, Pete Waterman thinks three times a week is every day.


The obvious and inescapable conclusion is that we don’t need HS2, another massive ‘sexy’ project at massive opportunity cost, which does nothing but connect cities with financial sector districts and airports faster. What we need to is to back up innovation and carry that through into manufacturing, if we need to invest, it’s in broadband and the existing rail network, and what we need to do is provide sustainable jobs throughout the country. That’s the sort of thing that makes a great nation, opposed to what we have just descended into.

20 comments to “A Great Nation?”
  1. Pingback: STOP HS2 | China Crisis- high speed trains withdrawn, new projects shelved following crash.

  2. Below is the link to an article in the Yorkshire Post, together with my comment. I have placed many comments in the northern newspaper web sites in the past but this time having made my point I was able to direct the readers to the government website in order to sign the petition. These web newspapers are an ideal vehicle to get our message about the extravagance of HS2 out to the millions of people who are still unaware of the financial implications it will have on their own lives and would strongly recommend that we all take every opportunity to draw this expensive white elephant to the attention of the population living further afield that the HS2 corridor. Even more important by using this media source we are actually directly contacting those with the facilities to reply quickly via the internet rather than read it in a newspaper and have to take the trouble to put pen to paper and post it physically.


  3. You criticise Pete Watermans rant, but what is this? I’ve never read such mindless drivel. It goes off at so many tangents I had to read it several times to understand what on earth the thrust of the argument was. This just confirms my impression of the anti HS2 camp, stupid little Englanders who want to live in the past with no ambition for the country or themsleves. Every other country in the civilised world has invested heavily in High Speed Rail, can they all be wrong? In every case the High Speed service has been a great success.

    • You are right about living in the past Paul. You only have to check out our hospitals compared to the vast majority on the continent, and our road infrastructure leads a lot to be desired too.
      I just think the money earmarked for HS2 would be better spent getting our house and finances in order first before ‘trying to keep up with the Jones’ by spending money we don’t have on something we don’t really need at this time.

      • I am grateful for you putting stuartf’s comment on the site, at least those who read it will be able to appreciate the incredible ignorance of many of those people who believe that a new high speed rail will solve all our financial worries. It does sound as if stuartf is very upset, like one of those hoodlums in the riots who wasn’t able to get all the things that they felt society owed them. Just as well he wasn’t injured then and was sent to hospital where he would see where the billions should be spent. Clearly he wants the HS2 so he is able to get to London faster and not miss any more freebees he feels he deserves.

        • Err, I think you are getting the wrong end of the stick. I was replying to the ‘Stupid Little Englander’ comment. Mine was slightly ‘adjusted’ by the moderator. Lets just say that my original response was to those who have such an overwhelming zeal in Favor for Hs2 who won’t listen to any rationale argument against it.

    • The world changes fast, the arguments were sound when many other countries made their decision to go high speed rail. Today, they are not and a “me too” attitude 15 years too late is not the order of the day.

  4. Great nations don’t follow others, one of the arguments for HS2 is that Britain needs to catch up with the continent.
    Of course this is not true, but the idea that we need to follow others shows a lack of vision and backwards thinking on the part of politicians.

    The story of Maglev is very apt to this post, because it was a Prof Eric Laithwaite who worked on the first commercial Maglev in Birmingham, but sadly, and largely down to the government, the technology never developed and we lost out to the Germans.
    Where is the Maglev museum, another great tribute to British Engineering?

    A nice bit of trivia, a Maglev weapon appeared in The Spy Who Loved Me where it levitated and propelled a tray along a table to decapitate a seated dummy.

    But the point to make to politicians, is that the future is not in the past, TGV was the 70s, just after the APT, the future is in future technologies like Levitating trains, self-drive cars.

    It saddens me to hear that our politicians are looking backwards to the future and that they display no visionary leadership, however, with the resent riots and the ever growing divide that I see between people, unfortunately it seems that the future is the past, when TGV is the latest technology and a persons life is doomed because of where they grow up.

    • Errr…The Spy Who Loved Me is fictional…

      But I’d check out under Coombe Hill to make sure it isn’t a hollowed out volcano housing a super-villain’s lair. Perhaps that’s where Philip Hammond has been all along…

  5. I am against HS2, it is going to destroy the area I live in and local community. Also ruining beautiful countryside and ancient woodlands. Besides all this, even if HS2 goes ahead, it is going to ruin many local businesses, homes and community buildings benefiting young and old alike. Furthermore, the building of HS2 is likely to be given to many companies outside of britain, one company who is already having to make people redundant and likely to close down is Bombardier in Derby, the place where I was born!

    And at what further costs, saving little time on journeys around England that are really of little benefit and not likely to be used as much as Central Government suggest. Plus the gigantic cost of 32 billion plus.

  6. Joe

    Well said, some very good points which I wish the politicians would consider before embarking on HS2. However such solutions put forward are not sexy enough for their egos…

    Pete Waterman’s comments reflects the blinkered stance of such pro HS2 supporters. He does himself no favours in making such silly statements.

    Increase capacity in the current system first and then plan new lines for improved capacity if required, and consider connectivity rather than speed. The poor connectivity put forward by the plans for HS2 is deeply flawed.

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