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: Â£5.8bn
Fastest UK speed by Eurostar: 334.7 km/h in 2003
Length of trains: 394 m