Trains ‘to replace planes’ within 20 years

Flying: The world’s fastest train, the Chinese Shanghai Maglev, travels at 268 mph. ©

Are they the future of travel? Britain, yesterday, announced its new railway. Meanwhile, engineers are designing “space travel on Earth” to replace planes with clean, super-fast trains.,

Imagine stepping through steam and smoke on to the first train in Manchester, 190 years ago. You thought travelling by horse and coach was fast, but now you’re sitting in a carriage propelled by steam-power, hurtling towards Liverpool at a frightening 30 mph! The wind in your face, the thunder of wheels and pistons. This is the future!

Flash-forward to 2020 and the UK, yesterday, gave the green light to the new HS2 trains. Running between London and Manchester at 224 mph, they will be the fastest in Europe. Critics say it will destroy the countryside, cost a fortune, and take forever to finish. Boris Johnson says we must look to the future and “dream big dreams”.

During the Industrial Revolution, steam-powered trains catapulted us into the modern age. They shrank the world, connecting far-flung cities and reducing journeys from days to hours. But in the 20th Century, car and air travel left trains lagging behind.

Until now. Many think trains are due a comeback. Our roads are jammed with traffic and the skies clogged with the CO2 emissions from the 250,000 flights made every day. We need greener and faster ways to get from A to B.

“Trains are humanity’s best bet to replace planes. If we are ambitious, we can do this within 20 years,” said one expert yesterday.

Some of the ideas will, literally, take your breath away.

The AeroSlider aims to replace intercontinental flights, darting through magnetic hoops at 500 mph. Suspended above the ground, trains as long as three football pitches would be like “moving buildings”, complete with offices, parks and gyms.

Too slow? The fastest trains currently use magnetic levitation to reduce friction.

But to go even faster, engineers are designing vacuum tunnels with all the air sucked out. Like underground spaceships, these trains could cross the Atlantic in one hour at 2500 mph. Because of the time zone difference, they would arrive four hours before they set off.

These trains won’t come cheap, but it’s not just the money people are worried about.

The faster we travel, the harder it is to turn corners and the more time it takes to stop. This is great news if you live in a megacity, but could leave the rest of us feeling less rather than more connected.

So, are trains the future?


Of course not, moan the critics. This obsession with speed and everything bigger, better and faster, is what got us into the climate crisis we are now in. Do we need to travel quite so much? Instead of finding ways to get to the next city 20 minutes quicker, we should focus on how to live greener, happier, and maybe even slower lives in the city where we live.

How uninspiring, others say. From Stephenson’s Rocket to the Tokyo Bullet Train, locomotives are about inspirational invention and the romance of train travel. We must ditch cars and planes in the next 20 years if we are to meet targets for reduced CO2 emissions, and it will take big and bold ideas to make this happen. With congested roads and stretched rail services, the time to “level up” is long overdue.

You Decide

  1. For the trains of the future, is speed the most important thing?
  2. Should we ban cars and only use public transport?


  1. On a piece of paper, design the ultimate train of the future. How is it powered? What is it like inside? Use the expert links and think big!
  2. In groups of three, create a table showing the advantages and disadvantages of trains, planes, cars, and bicycles.

Some People Say...

“Neither a wise man nor a brave man lies down on the tracks of history to wait for the train of the future to run over him.”

Dwight D Eisenhower (1890-1969), 34th president of the United States

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
The UK was the first nation to develop a rail network, extending across 24,000 miles of tracks. In the 1960s, this was vastly reduced so that the remaining railways could be upgraded. But these too are now outdated, with trains overcrowded and delays and cancellations commonplace. With roads and runways also at capacity, the government must decide which form of transport to invest in. And its pledge to be “carbon neutral” by 2050 means it must focus on more environmentally-friendly forms of travel.
What do we not know?
Many people are suspicious about how much these projects will cost and how long they will take: a current London rail project is years behind schedule and billions of pounds over budget. Others debate how environmentally-friendly high-speed trains will be. However, the biggest row is about the path of the new train line and where the stations will be. A station may be a huge benefit to a local town, but the train will inevitably pass many more places without stopping.

Word Watch

Green light
Governments love announcing “new” building projects. So much so that they announce them over and over again. This is the seventh time HS2 has been given the green light and will probably not be the last.
High Speed 2 will be the UK’s second high-speed railway, following HS1 that links London with the Channel Tunnel. The largest infrastructure project in Europe, it is expected to cost £100 billion and take 10 years to build.
CO2 emissions
Countries have agreed to reduce carbon dioxide emissions, one of the causes of global warming. The biggest contributor to CO2 emissions is the burning of fossil fuels, including road and air transport.
Magnetic levitation
Maglev uses magnets to elevate a train above the tracks and move it along. This removes the friction of the wheels against the track, making the train go faster.
Air also creates friction and drag, which is why planes are designed to cut through the air. In a vacuum, there is no air and, therefore, no friction to slow objects down.
Cities of 10 million or more people. They are becoming more common and more important, but critics argue that these big transport projects neglect smaller cities and towns.
Stephenson’s Rocket
One of the very first steam trains designed by Robert Stephenson in 1829.
Bullet Train
Japan was the first country to develop a high-speed train network to boost economic growth. In 50 years and 5.3 billion passengers, it hasn’t had a single fatality or injury, making it one of the safest modes of transport on the planet.

PDF Download

Please click on "Print view" at the top of the page to see a print friendly version of the article.