Six Questions with John Kinghorn, author of Beyond the HST

This year, we’ve begun a series of author Q&As, designed to give our authors an opportunity to speak on their new book in a way that will engage as opposed to simply spitting out a sales pitch. As we ramp up to a new set of Q&As in the near future, this week we’ll be running a few from earlier in the year. This book is the result of many years of study, as well as John’s background in electronic stystems engineering. Enjoy!

Beyond the HST deals with the future prospects of High Speed Trains in Britain, touching on critical points which are currently being discussed by the government and in the media–making this is a good time for the book to be released.  Did you see this shift in the rail network coming, or is this a bit of serendipitous timing?

The question of a new high speed train design has been a matter of debate in the railway press for several years now. It is only more recently that these matters have come into focus in the media, principally concerning issues relating to the IEP (Inter City Express Programme) and the new high speed lines to the Midlands and North. There has also been considerable political change in the last two years, both with a new Transport Secretary in the last Labour administration and also of course with the election of the new Coalition government. I did not predict those changes, which occurred during the writing of the book. So to a large extent the timing of Beyond the HST in the middle of public and government interest in this subject is purely coincidental.

On the other hand, there is a certain inevitability in the timing of these events: sooner or later both abstract theories and actual systems run out of steam, and decisions need to be taken about strategies for the next phase. So perhaps the timing of the book is not so surprising after all.    

Your book discusses new solutions for the rail network and high speed trains, including improved speed, comfort, flexibility, cost and accessibility.  What was the impetus behind putting together such a comprehensive proposal?

Although I have never been involved in the railway industry directly, as an enthusiast I have followed events in it for 40 years through reading various railway magazines and the media in general. When I started the book two years ago, the situation concerning the development of coherent technical strategies for the British railway network was very bad. Clearly much of the industry was at loggerheads with the civil servants on policy, for example on railway electrification, and there was much political and business opportunism going on to muddy the waters further.

In my opinion many of these problems were the inevitable consequence of a poorly designed structure imposed on the industry at privatisation, and subsequent tinkering with the system did not really get to the root causes of these issues. So at that time (in common with many others, judging by comments in the railway press) I was frustrated by the battles and technological naivety of the protagonists, together with their apparent disregard for the needs of their customers: the passengers. It looked as though this nation, which once led the world in railway technology, was going to be lumbered with an unimaginative adapted commuter multiple unit for its future inter city expresses. Something had to be done! But what?

It was no use just whingeing; the only valid argument would be to come up with something better. My background in system engineering (albeit in a different industry: electronics) would give me many of the necessary skills to devise something, and as I now had the time in retirement I could research the bits I didn’t already know about. So I put on my thinking cap, studied many options, came up with solutions, checked with a mechanical engineer at my old university that the solutions would work; and Beyond the HST is the result.

How do you think the proposals in Beyond the HST match up with what is currently being debated?

The first point to make is that Beyond the HST is a proposal of what rolling stock I think should be built for Britain in future and why. It makes no comment about who should build it, where, how it should be financed, who should decide, when it should come into service, which routes should benefit first, etc. These are all interesting questions, but it is not my business to answer them. I have absolutely no responsibility for deciding anything (hooray!), I’m just a man with some ideas which seem to be attractive who invites anyone who is interested to consider whether they agree.

The second point is that (to avoid making things even more complicated than they are already) Beyond the HST restricts itself to trains for the established British main line network. There are no proposals for 250mph ultra high speed trains on new lines, nor are there designs for metro trains or trams. Within the scope of the book, however, you will find a coherent rolling stock strategy covering everything from the Flying Scotsman express (if it were still called that!) to the local single coach stopping train from Norwich to Lowestoft.

In comparison with the proposals currently being officially considered by the DfT, there is no doubt that passengers would consider my solution superior. It is also quite likely that overall my solution would be more cost effective in the long term, if full account is taken of all the costs and benefits for the network as a whole: however, long and fierce argument can be expected on that subject before a real conclusion is reached to validate or disprove that impression.

Transport Secretary Philip Hammond recently unveiled details about the government’s plans for the high speed rail network (  How does this compare to your proposal, and what do you think of the plan?

As mentioned earlier, Beyond the HST is more about making the best use of the existing main line network rather than new high speed rail lines. We do need some new high speed lines, though, for reasons of relieving capacity bottlenecks as well as reducing journey times to achieve a real modal shift of transport use in our overcrowded island.

The plan for the new high speed network from London to the Midlands and North is quite good, I think, but of course is a compromise between facilities and cost. I would have omitted the Old Oak Common interchange with Crossrail and gone to Paddington instead for that interchange, then continued eastwards to Euston/St.Pancras/King’s Cross as a through station with a further link to HS1 in that area. Then domestic HS2 trains could continue to Stratford ‘International’, and you could probably contrive a terminus station off HS1 curving back to the Docklands area to get domestic trains out of the way of international ones. This would give London passengers a choice of Paddington, Euston, Stratford and Docklands stations to spread the load better and give many useful onward connections, without delaying those who just want to get from the Euston Road to Birmingham as fast as possible. No doubt hands will be raised in horror at the cost of such a proposal!

I agree Heathrow is best served by a spur: only a small proportion of passengers on the high speed network will want to go there and it is undesirable to spend billions on ultra high speed for the majority then slow them down again for the minority.

We’re launching Beyond the HST on Saturday, 29th January at the Waterloo branch of Ian Allan, from 1 to 3pm.  What can you tell us about your presentation?

I plan to give an outline of the objectives of the strategy, followed by a quick overview of why I think none of the existing trains and proposals being considered at present meet those objectives. Then I will explain what my proposed strategy is to meet the requirements, with some pointers to how the various vehicles operate technically. I hope to bring along some simple models of the vehicles too, if I can finish making them in time! Then we can have a question and answer session, followed by signing books for those who want to buy a copy.   

One way or another, transportation in the UK is going to have to change in the near future.  What do you see in the rail network’s future in the next 100 years?

When I was at university in the late 1960s, a commonly held view was that conventional railways were obsolescent and by the turn of the century (10 years ago!) we would all be whizzing around the country at ease in 300 mph magnetically levitated trains powered by linear motors. Well, it hasn’t happened, for many good boring economic and technical reasons. Steel wheel on steel rail still reigns supreme throughout the world, and (as most recently the Chinese have shown) is still capable of considerable further development.

Another change from 50 years ago is that then the car was king and the future, and railways were only needed in special situations. Stuck in traffic jams and breathing the fumes, that’s another prediction we all now regret. In the air too, the jet airliner was definitely the coming thing, and nobody would seriously consider anything else for journeys over 200 miles or so.

So making predictions over even 50 years is a bit of a gamble, never mind 100 years. It does seem, though, that because of environmental concerns support for the idea of railways in Britain is stronger than it has been since the 1970s; concerns are more about how efficiently and effectively the railways are run. If the organisational and strategic policy making issues can be sorted out (and I know the politicians are working on that), railways in Britain have a great future. Railway staff have managed to grow the business massively in the last two decades, in spite of all the problems.

Just think what they could do if they had clear objectives, strategic imagination, decent kit and a management structure and leadership they could all believe in!

Thanks to John for taking so much time out to work with us on this Q&A, and hopefully he can still finish those models in time for the launch next weekend.  Beyond the HST is available through Gardners, Amazon, Ian Allan and other select locations, so stop into your local bookseller for a copy.