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The future of our railways

Delayed or cancelled trains, leaves on the line, rocketing fares - it is fair to say that the rail industry has occasionally had something of a bad press, making headlines for all the wrong reasons.

Train-bashing seems to be something of a national trend, with the media and the general public seemingly taking great delight in trashing this traditional means of transport. It is certainly true that there is room for improvement in many areas of train travel, but there are a number of projects under way to make this happen. Unfortunately, as with all major infrastructure works, this means getting through a pain barrier of inconvenience while the works are completed. 

Perhaps the most famous project in train travel at the moment is the HS2, a £33 billion investment in providing high-speed transport links between London and the Midlands and north of England. The project is designed for launch in around 20 years, so some way off into the future, but it will hopefully ease the current congestion as well as offer a high-speed alternative.

The government has recently announced a 'new stations fund' to the tune of £20 million, which is earmarked towards helping with costs of opening new railway stations across England and Wales. While not covering the entire costs of a project, it will support those which are already in progress.

Network Rail has also launched a new sustainability programme, 'A railway fit for the future', which is designed to take a holistic look at its train travel offerings in every aspect. As well as tackling the expected environmental impact questions, the strategy will consider accessibility, inclusivity, safety, passenger experience, energy, staff and passenger wellbeing, and buildings and land.

Examining the relationship between these aspects and their interdependencies is what the strategy hinges on. Launched in 2013, the strategy is designed to run until 2024, with a view to taking it forward in an appropriate manner from then onwards. The company hopes that it will be able to make decisions which impact all areas positively, rather than implementing smaller changes which have no immediate benefit to other aspects.

While it is clear that our current infrastructure and systems need something of an overhaul, there are some major high-concept potential projects which could totally revolutionise train travel (if they ever come to pass).

A superconducting vacuum train, for example, could reach speeds of an incredible 4,039 mph using the Evacuated Tube Transport (ETT) system, while the Terraspan proposal suggests a vast network of superconducting tunnels.

Meanwhile, a system based around string theory proposes above-the-ground electrical wires which actually support the carriages. This would be less expensive than a monorail or motorway, and potentially much more efficient.

This magnificent concept is taking yet another step further in the Tubular Rails idea, whereby trains carry their own tracks, which wheels and motors are contained within elevated rings through which the trains pass at high speed. This system would again be more cost effective as it would cause minimal disruption to the existing infrastructure.

All of these exciting proposals are not as exaggerated as they may seem, with the technology for most of them already available. They just require the investment and buy-in to make them feasible. But there are plenty of existing projects under way to determine the future of our railways and make this type of public transport a talking point for all the right reasons.

Naysayers tend to scoff at the costs involved for these investments, but the reality is that they are necessary costs made for necessary projects, and the outcomes will make the inconveniences well worthwhile.

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