It has been said that Britain is becoming a knowledge economy, and also that metal bashing can now be safely left to the low-wage economies of the Far East. If only it were that simple. Consider the railway industry …
A visitor to the National Railway Museum at York will see in the main hall plenty of steam, diesel and electric locomotives, some dating back to the early part of the nineteenth century, almost all designed and built in Britain including many world beaters. But the visitor may also notice that the story of the British locomotive appears to end suddenly in the 1970’s.
The end of railway locomotive building is one small part of the decline of manufacturing in the UK, and the reasons for this decline have been discussed in Metric Views on more than one occasion. They include the disappearance of markets for goods using imperial measures, particularly in the former British Empire, and the failure of manufacturing industry to make a timely changeover to metric standards. The consequences of this decline are far reaching, as proposals for a new high speed rail line in Brazil illustrate.
The airspace between Rio de Janeiro and Sao Paulo is among the most congested in the world. Almost eighty flights make the 400 km trip daily each way between the financial and cultural capitals of Brazil, and demand is growing. Airport capacity can not be increased, and the mountainous terrain means that the road journey takes five to six hours. Clearly there is need for a high speed rail link, which would reduce the journey time to 90 minutes, comparable with flying.
This technically challenging project has an estimated price tag of £5.3 billion. Bids to design, build, finance and operate the line close on 29 November. Potential bidders are believed to include:
China (a consortium comprising the China Railway Construction Company, China North Locomotive and Rolling Stock Industry Corporation, China Investment, and China Development Bank);
France (Alstom and SNCF);
Germany (Siemens and Transrapid);
Japan (Mitsui, Mitsubishi, Toshiba, Hitachi and Japan East Railway);
South Korea (KRNA, KRRI, Hyundai, Samsung Engineering and SK Engineering & Construction); and
(Source : Infrastructure Journal)
Readers will have noticed that there are at least two notable absentees from this list.
For the US, a reluctance to “think metric” is clearly a problem. Evidence of this appeared earlier this month when it was revealed that Westinghouse has made safety submissions in USC units to the UK Nuclear Installations Inspectorate, relating to its AP1000 Pressure Water Reactor: http://tinyurl.com/3ydc5qy
For the UK, the absence of a domestic world-class builder of rail vehicles has proved to be a real handicap. As a result, our internationally recognised expertise in other areas relevant to the project, such as financial services (yes, now making a come-back, despite problems on the other side of the Irish Sea) and civil engineering design (metric since the 1970s), counts for nothing. This has become a ‘no-go area’ for the knowledge economy, probably one of many which can be traced back to the decline of manufacture.
The list of potential bidders includes only one low-wage economy. It will be interesting to see, in a few weeks time, who bid and who won. One thing is certain – it won’t be a consortium based in the UK.