The Wiki Man

My £30k alternative to HS2

Plus: Why is Ed Miliband gunning for energy companies instead of mobile phone networks?

26 October 2013

9:00 AM

26 October 2013

9:00 AM

Someone in New York told me this story. I admit that I didn’t believe it when I first heard it. But a little online research seems to confirm that it is true.

It concerns a group of people who had bought early versions of the Tesla Model S, a $90,000 high-performance electric car much loved by Silicon Valley’s rich set. The earlier versions of these cars behaved slightly differently from a standard petrol vehicle. In particular there was no ‘creep’. For the benefit of European readers irrationally wedded to the stick shift, I should explain that ‘creep’ is a feature of almost all cars with automatic transmission. It means that when you engage ‘drive’ or ‘reverse’, the car moves slowly ahead or backwards even when there is no pressure applied to the accelerator pedal. The Tesla did not do this: it remained stationary until the accelerator pedal was pressed.

Creep did not originate as a deliberate design feature. It is a by-product of the way torque converters behave when a conventional engine is idling. But most automatic drivers like it. When manoeuvring in tight spaces or when inching forward in stop-go traffic (what Londoners call ‘motoring’), it is safer and easier to keep your right foot poised over the brake rather than having to switch repeatedly between two pedals.

So a group of Tesla drivers met the car’s designers and told them that they wanted the Tesla to creep. And you might assume, as I did, that these suggestions would be either ignored by the company or else ‘taken on board’ for possible incorporation into the new version of the Tesla S to be released ‘some time in 2016’.

Instead what happened was this. The car’s designers asked for a few minutes to tap at a computer. They then turned back to the owners and said ‘All done. We’ve written the code, and we can send it to your current vehicle as an over-the-air firmware upgrade in the next few weeks. You’ll have a choice. If you want your car to creep, just go to the control panel and turn the new feature on. If you don’t, just do nothing at all.’

This then is an interesting glimpse of the future. Those of us with smartphones are already familiar with our handsets being upgraded remotely. What we have yet to see is what is possible when that combination of software and connectivity extends to things we had always thought of as being physical. Ford is already working on a technology which allows your car to talk to traffic lights; your vehicle will automatically slow to avoid reaching a junction when the lights are on red.

Hardware improvements are costly, slow and irrevocable. Software improvements are quick, inexpensive and flexible. Yet governments seem fixated with hardware. Next week, at the Spectator debate on HS2, I plan to reveal how a few lines of code could reduce the duration of the rail journey from London to Manchester by over 25 minutes — overnight and for a cost of about £30,000.

I don’t understand why Ed Miliband has such a vendetta against Britain’s energy companies: compared to mobile phone networks they seem a paragon of reasonableness. If the mobile phone companies ran the energy sector, 1) every member of my family would need to pay a separate electricity bill; 2) you would need to take out a new contract every two years, for which you would be given a new washing machine whether you wanted it or not; 3) once or twice a year you would ring up and ask why your monthly bill was £100 higher than normal. You would then be told, ‘Ah, Mr Sutherland, you used some electricity while you were abroad.’

HS2_trainNigel Farage, Matthew Parris, Rory Sutherland and Cheryl Gillan  will debate whether the government should ‘Stop HS2!‘ on 31 October 2013 in Westminster. Click here to book tickets.

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  • Matt Sharp

    “You would then be told, ‘Ah, Mr Sutherland, you used some electricity while you were abroad.’”

    Ed doesn’t need to worry about this, because the EU are sorting it out.

  • I assume you don’t stop the 0700 train from Manchester at Stockport. You don’t need to slow down, stop, then speed up again. That could shave 25 minutes off the arrival time at Euston.

    That’s a reasonably easy software update. But it screws over anyone commuting to/from Stockport. So you need an extra train somewhere – which means jiggling the timetable around, finding platform space, employing more train crew.

    Surely the real answer is decentralise from London and do more working from home?

    • rorysutherland

      Not that. I have nothing against Stoconians, and that would be a hardware fix. My idea would save 20 minutes on almost every train…….

      • CheshireRed

        Is it something to do with the ‘slack’ they allow in the schedule? In other words a train leaves Manchester and actually has leeway built in to the due arrival time at Euston.
        So a 2 hour journey is listed as being 2:10. Just happens to allow them to claim high efficiency figures too.
        You going to tighten that slack a little?

  • The voice

    You need hardware in order to implement such software improvements. To take the example of the traffic lights ‘talking’ to cars, that would necessitate all traffic lights to have sensors linked to some sort of central network. Most UK traffic lights are self contained with a programmed sequence: hence you can be stopped at red at 3am with no other traffic around. To make all traffic light ‘smart’ would be a major infrastructure program. I would also suggest that most traffic light impede traffic circulation rather then improve it.

  • rhys

    We are now told that HS2 is not justified by shaving a few minutes off journey times to London but instead is all about the need to cope with ‘extra capacity’.

    Well if it’s all about getting more people onto trains what’s wrong with investing in a load of double-decker trains ( as the French have on their TGV ) ?

    I imagine some upgrading of lines / bridges etc would be necessary, but surely nowhere near as expensive as the whole new line of HS2.

    Has anyone even costed such a proposal?

    • rtj1211

      There’s the little matter of completely reconfiguring all the overhead power cables for trains which are twice as high. Devilishly difficult to do that whilst keeping the existing trains going. It could be done, but it’d cost rather a lot.

      • Normandee

        Close but no cigar, Bridges and tunnels is your problem. With most of the French infrastructure completely destroyed during ww2, when they rebuilt they put in the ability to run double deckers. Had we upgraded when we had the money and manpower after the war things would be different now.

        • dalai guevara

          I am reliably informed the Swiss were never bombed. They even have panoramic skylights in theirs.

    • IslingtonBlue

      i think this has been touched on today somewhere, i think in order to boost capacity by the same amount we would have to suffer some 14 years of weekend track closures.

      • rhys

        No one official has mentioned what could ( or not ) be achieved by upgrading lines / tunnels / etc to take double-deckers.
        I just get the impression no one has even thought of it.
        How many decision makers in Whitehall have even ever seen one ?
        If they have not, why would it even cross their minds ?

        And the French double-deckers are nowhere near ‘twice as high’ as single deckers – they seem to sit a bit lower in the track, and then are just somehow designed to take an upper storey.
        I suspect there would be wind resistance problems if they were ‘twice as high’. The double-deckers were by no means there at the start of TGV decades ago, so I do not believe that the lines were specially configured for them when TGV started up.

        I would not be at all sure ( unless an engineer doing a full survey says so ) that ‘all’ the UK’s overhead lines would need to be raised. But even if that were the case I cannot believe the costs would remotely approach those posited for HS2.

        One cost which would not be necessary would be the lengthening of platforms at stations to take longer trains.

        And remember that there are acknowledged serious downsides to HS2 – such as that many cities ( eg Nottingham ) which currently have a decent number of direct trains a day to London actually get to have that number much reduced as HS2 will not stop in Nottingham’s main station, but instead somewhere else – to which travellers will have to get a feeder train – totally negating whatever time advantage HS2 theoretically brings over today’s travel times. [ Plus if you are lugging a suitcase all that palaver of changing trains is a deterrent to even taking the train. ]

        All I am saying is that the double-decker possibilities should at minimum be investigated and properly costed – as should the re-opening of the central England line which no-one knew about – possibly dedicated to freight for which speed as such is not even of the essence.

        When Government ministers were negotiating with the BMA over doctors’ salaries during the Brown ‘spend like mad’ years it never occurred to one of them to require civil servants to contact our Embassies in EU countries and do a survey as to what GPs were paid in those countries : had they done so they would have discovered that UK doctors were already handsomely rewarded by comparison with even richer EU countries such as France. The BMA leaders were quoted as saying they just ‘couldn’t believe’ how easily the Government rolled over to their demands.

        I’m just saying – we have such a self-serving, inexperienced-in-the-real-world, cocooned political class that they are pushovers for special interest groups and lobbies – the absence of experience of the ‘outside Westminster’ world, let alone the world beyond Dover, really tells.

        How long would it take / how much would it cost, to at least do a full survey of what the double-decker alternative might provide ?

  • MalcolmRedfellow

    We learn:

    “A government-commissioned report says the alternative to a new HS2 high speed rail link would see 14 years of weekend route closures and longer journeys.

    “The report, by Network Rail and Atkins, says upgrading existing rail lines would severely affect the East Coast, Midland and West Coast mainlines.”

    Quelle shloque horreur! But it’s from Network Rail, and WS Atkins (who have major contracts from Network Rail) — so it must be impartial, yes?

    However, another way of reading that is no major upgradings and maintenance are expected elsewhere while HS2 is a-building (and devouring all other rail investment before it?).

  • Zag

    Is the Spectator is advocating for a state controlled mobile phone industry?

    The author needs to shop around for a better mobile phone supplier if he isn’t satisfied with his current supplier.

    The mobile phone comparison is specious. Competition in the mobile phone industry seems to be working quite well. There are a large number of suppliers that consumers can choose from, including ‘virtual’ suppliers, with a wide variety of tariffs on offer.

    “1) every member of my family would need to pay a separate electricity bill;”

    Actually, there are family mobile phone deals on the market.
    But individual mobile phone tariffs cater for individual needs, and they offer maximum flexibility and control, and itemised bills. So they suite many consumers.
    A family tariff wouldn’t necessarily work out cheaper, or less complicated.

    “2) you would need to take out a new contract every two years, for which you would be given a new washing machine whether you wanted it or not;”

    This is nonsense. There are plenty of sim-only tariffs that don’t involve buying or upgrading your mobile phone.

    “3) once or twice a year you would ring up and ask why your monthly bill was £100 higher than normal. You would then be told, ‘Ah, Mr Sutherland, you used some electricity while you were abroad.'”

    Again, this is nonsense. They only charge you extra if you actually use your phone abroad. If you want a free service for using your phone abroad then I can only think you are advocating for state control again, with state controlled subsidised tariffs. Phone companies offer various deals and tariffs for using abroad.

    • rorysutherland

      The mobile phone industry is “efficient” purely in very narrow economic terms. Because most people are on tariffs and bundles, there is no incentive for networks to improve coverage. I would like to pay more per call in return for a higher quality service – there is no possibility of this, even though it would be technologically easy to implement. I get essentially the same service as a teenager. I don’t call this “efficient”.

  • Jackthesmilingblack

    Did you mortally offend the person that drew that cartoon?

    • rorysutherland

      I can only assume so.

  • Jackthesmilingblack

    In 1964, the Bullet train began operating between Tokyo and Osaka. Essentially the equivalent of London to Birmingham. Now there`s a HS2 network that covers the entire country, with new sections opening all the time.
    Do try to grasp the big picture Britisher pals. Face it, the present rail system in UK is last century, so get with the programme. Don`t fix it, replace it.
    Jack, Japan Alps

    • Pyrmonter

      Last Century? The only 20th century mainline – the Grand Central – was closed under Beeching. The current network was organised in the time of gaslight, steam and the manual telegraph.

  • yoyoegg

    Funnily enough the East Coast Class 91 trains were designed for 140mph but are restricted to 125mph as flashing green signalling wasn’t accepted in UK. Running at design speed, London to Edinburgh would be 3.5hrs – a wasted opportunity.

  • Mark McIntyre

    NO2 HS2 – the $64K question !