Why trundle at 186 when you can whizz along at 300?

The age of high speed rail finally reaches London on November 14th, when the final section of High Speed 1 – or HS1 to its friends – opens, to complete the link from London to Paris and Brussels. This will cut the travel time to just two and a quarter hours, and even less to Brussels, by allowing high speed operation on the final 39 km of route from near Gravesend in Kent into London. But why have the media missed the opportunity to use even more impressive big numbers?

The top operating speed of 186 mph has been widely publicised – and indeed the Eurostar phone number includes it twice in its call centre number.

But if you take a minute to think about that curious speed – 186 mph. Why such an odd number? Maybe, you wonder, it’s because that’s the limit of the vehicles? No, they can go significantly faster than that, but at a higher operating cost. Maybe it’s the speed it takes to break the 2 hour barrier? No, this leaves the journey time tantalisingly over two hours, to hit two hours with normal service would require greater power demands and higher cost. Maybe the engineers were just being awkward with the number? No, engineers are only human and they prefer to design to round numbers too.

All becomes clear when you avoid the “helpful” dumbing down traditionally meted out to the British public and recognise that in the real world no-one builds anything in such practically obsolete numbers as miles, and lo, we find that the trains will actually run at a maximum operating speed of 300 km/h!

Suddenly it makes sense – and while our close, and from 14th November even closer, neighbours can take satisfaction at whizzing along at 300 km/h, we are told to be excited about 186, because we can’t be expected to understand those new-fangled kilometres we have been educated in since the 1960s.

The line, of course, has been built and designed to a metric standard; the 8 m diameter tunnels, the 110 km of double track, the million cubic metres of spoil removed from the Stratford station box, right down to the speed limits in km/h – all metric. But, shh, don’t let the public know that every British professional who’s ever worked on the project has done so using metric measurements… we must dumb it down, so that the Little Englanders can continue to think that they’re still living in the Victorian age and the sun still doesn’t set on the British Empire!

Personally, I don’t feel the need to dumb down figures to give myself an illusion that Britain still rules the waves. I’m very proud of this achievement of modern Britain though, and I’m looking forward to taking to the new line, but I’ll do so at 300 km/h, thank you very much, not however-many fathoms per second, feet per month, yards per week or miles per hour.

So, next time you’re on board a Eurostar heading out of London on our first high speed line, thinking, “Wow, I’m doing 186,” the person sitting opposite you is doing 300.

Some HS1 statistics:

Length: 110 km
Length of single track bored tunnels: 25 km
Maximum operational speed: 300 km/h
Cost of construction: £5.8bn
Bridges: 150
Fastest UK speed by Eurostar: 334.7 km/h in 2003
Length of trains: 394 m

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8 Responses to Why trundle at 186 when you can whizz along at 300?

  1. Crooked Miles says:

    British Rail (RIP) once launched a class of trains called the 225 (built to travel at 225 km/h) as the next generation on from the 125s (which run at 125 mph of course). So not only is "186" ridiculous but unnecessary, given this precedent.

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  2. Martin Vlietstra says:

    It would appear that Eurostar is using the figure 186 mph in their advertisements and that the press is following suit. The Eurostar English-language website starts off with the words “Hello to 186 mph�. The French language website emphasises a time of 2h15 (after all the TGV has been clocked at 574 km/h and the TGV travels up to 320 km/h in commercial use – see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/TGV and http://fr.wikipedia.org/wiki/TGV).

    In contrast, travellers to Waterloo station (and probably elsewhere) can see advertisements for Ryanair flights to Dublin for €10. This raises the question – “Why should one company who are advertising in the UK use the Euro on their advertisements, while another company who is probably targeting the same market hesitate to use km/h?�

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  3. Keith Hodgkin says:

    The daftness of using 186 mph became only too evident on the Reuters website when the figure was given with a conversion in brackets of 299 kph. Leaving aside the erroneous abbreviation for km/h, this is an example of why giving conversions all the time can become confusing as different rounding methods end up being used. In any case, for a non-technical publication such as a business news website, I wonder if such precision is absolutely necessary?

    See:http://uk.reuters.com/article/domesticNews/idUKL1484614120071115

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  4. Martin Ward says:

    In describing their trains as "186mph", Eurostar have done themselves a disservice ("Hello to 186mph" http://www.eurostar.com ).

    Many news providers have converted this figure back to km/h for their readers and in the process have lost the original 300 km/h value. Readers might conclude that Eurostar trains are not quite up to the task of reaching speeds of 300 km/h and more.

    Here are a some of the news articles from around the world that have reported the speed as 299 km/h !

    http://uk.reuters.com/article/domesticNews/idUKL1484614120071114
    http://thestar.com.my/news/story.asp?file=/2007/11/15/worldupdates/2007-11-15T000620Z_01_NOOTR_RTRMDNC_0_-305038-1&sec=worldupdates
    http://www.thestar.co.za/index.php?fArticleId=4018206
    http://www.worldtravelguide.net/news/2901/news/Eurostar's-inaugural-train-runs.html
    http://www.smh.com.au/news/World/Eurostar-sets-ParisLondon-speed-record/2007/09/05/1188783280143.html

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  5. David says:

    Why do Eurostar use in their advertising the slow-looking 186 mph when the actual speed of the trains is 300 km/h (average speed)? The 300 figure is much higher, or maybe they think that British people would not understand such a large number.
    I would prefer to see the speed given as 300 km/h, not only is the number bigger, but it also shows a more intelligent approach to advertising, as well as being more consistent with the destinations of Eurostar, i.e. both France and Belgium use metric including km/h for speeds, rather than the old Roman-type measures of miles.
    In the Belgian and French versions of the Eurostar website there is no mention of the "186mph", and I see no reason for it on the UK site or in their advertising.
    I think a better approach is to state the time it takes to get to the destinations rather than an approximate average speed, as they do on the French and Belgian sites.

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  6. Alex Bailey says:

    Since it is generally the case that industry uses metric and merely converts to imperial measures in their public interface one might have been surprised that the railways haven't already fully converted to metric - however given the past militancy of rail workers, particularly back in the old BR days, we probably shouldn't be that surprised.

    However, this is no excuse for Eurostar to use imperial measures on a section of rail which is otherwise 100% metric.

    One thought I did have, perhaps the phone number 300 300 wasn't available!

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  7. Han Maenen says:

    However, the Imperialists might claim that the standard rail gauge of 4' 8-1/2'' is being used on that project and even throughout Europe! Too bad for them, that gauge converts to the very neat metric number of 1435 mm, meaning that is is totally compatible with the metric system, and thus can be regarded as a metric standard. A classic Pyrrhus victory for Imperialism! I once read that when rail came to The Netherlands in the 19th century a Dutch railway engineer was opposed to this gage, and wanted it metric. I would emphasise with his oppostion to Imperial encroachments, but I could say to him now that this gauge is metric after all. A happy coincidence indeed!

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  8. Phil Hall says:

    I wonder whether the UK promotion of 186 mph (and they really are making a lot of fuss about it) is in part due to government and Civil Service (i.e political) influence.
    In February 2006 when UKMA published "Metric Signs Ahead" there was a hostile reaction from DfT, who were so anxious to quash any public sympathy for changing to metric on road signs and speed limits that they published their ludicrously exaggerated cost estimates.
    In the wake of that they are now keen to defend the mile and mph in transport. Waving the figure of 300 km/h under the public nose would definitely not go down well with them!

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