17:15 GMT +323 January 2020
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    Manchester and New York City could one day be linked by a special underwater train that would transform the lagging economy in the North of England.

    That’s according to the research Group IPPR who launched a competition earlier this year inviting infrastructure ideas for the Northern towns and cities. 

    Evening out the regional variations in Britain has been prioritized in Chancellor George Osborne’s plans for a so-called ‘Northern Powerhouse’. He’s expected to make that objective a key part of his autumn statement. 

    At present, scheduled spending on infrastructure in London still far outstrips what the treasury has put aside for the North. 

    CrossRail and investment on London Underground and Thames Link over the next decade will cost £34 billion, that’s over double the amount that has been pledged to major Northern  cities. 

    Institute for Public Policy Research North says more ambitious ideas are needed to tackle the widening economic gap between the North and South of England. 

    That’s why it launched a competition urging under-25s as well as industry experts to come up with ideas for how to transform the North by the year 2050. 

    One of the winning ideas is a design for a vacuum train running under the Atlantic from Manchester to London.

    "The idea would be the equivalent to the Channel tunnel. It would be longer, bigger and more expensive, and it would operate in a different way." — Bill Davies, research fellow at the Institute for Public Policy Research North, 

    The train would operate like a pneumatic tube; set within a network of tunnels, a partial vacuum would allow the air pressure to  propel it forward.

    It is based on the same principle as the capsule pipelines that the Victorians used to transport telegrams between buildings.

    Pneumatic tubes were also  used up until the 1970s to transport paper receipts between different floors in department stores.   

    Applying this technology to trains creates a transport system that has been described as a cross between Concorde, and an air hockey table, and ideas for hoop and vacuum rails are gaining traction. 

    In America Elon Musk, who founded PayPal and pioneered the electric car, has been working on plans for a  hyper-loop train running from  Los Angeles and San Fransisco.  

    It could travel at up to 800 miles per hour, and tickets would cost the equivalent of £13 one way.

    The technology these British projects would require is already being developed. "Although  it is yet to be fully tested, it is increasingly achievable. These ideas weren’t meant to be deliverable immediately. It’s about working out what will be necessary in the future" — says Bill Davies from IPPR Norths.

    As exciting as it sounds, nothing like this looks imminent in Manchester. 

    But, IPPR North did have something more realistic to say about  transport solutions in the North. 

    The competition judges endorsed government plans for an interconnected rail and air transport hub between Newcastle, Leeds, Sheffield, Manchester and Liverpool.

    The ‘One North’ project is  expected to form the basis of Chancellor George Osborne’s plans for a so-called ‘Northern powerhouse’.

    The East-West train line, HS3, also forms a part of these plans. 

    Charlotte Aldritt is from the RSA City Growth Commission – a group set-up to find ways to boost growth rates in major cities in the UK.  

    She agrees that these transport links are vital, "National strategy for transport has tended to focus on North South,  and East West has lagged behind. If we are to see the emergence of a Northern Powerhouse it is critical there are effective links between those cities in the North East and North West."

    Apart from transport investment, another key area for developing sustainable cities in the North is green technology.

    Another of the winning responses was for  Newcastle to run purely on solar power. 

    Like the vacuum trains, this technology is being developed in America, where designers are working out ways to replace asphalt with solar panels. 

    This would turn city streets into sun-collecting sources of energy, and potentially reduce dependency on the national grid. 

    One of the challenges would be making  fragile solar cells strong enough to bear the weight of traffic. Planners would also have to overcome serious regulatory issues and safety concerns.  

    But, given that the roof of Blackfriars Bridge in London was recently fitted with 4,400 solar panels which will generate up to 900,000 killowatts of clean energy annually, perhaps it’s not too far-flung an idea. 

    And, Newcastle could be the perfect place. 

    An old mining area, it’s contribution to national energy supply has vastly diminished since the coal- pit closures, so it could do with alternative ways of producing energy. 

    It’s also been pushing up its green credentials in recent years, coming consistently high in votes for greenest city in the UK. Its carbon footprint is low, and it has been trialling innovative initiatives to encourage the use of electric cars and widespread recycling. 

    But being green doesn’t always mean a strong economy. The North East area, which includes Newcastle, has one of the poorer regional economies  in England.

    Investing in green technology isn’t necessarily appealing to  investors, as it may not yield immediate results. 

    But incentivising cities to go green is essential. "Investing in sustainability needs to be encouraged. There are good ideas for how environmental targets could be used better – cities could bid for green city status and receive batch money which would allow them to invest in environmentally sustainable technology. So they would effectively compete with each other for funding on their environmental credentials," — says Bill Davies from IPPR North.

    Whatever the infrastructure, most people seem to agree that in order to see fairer growth across Britain, local areas should be given more power to decide how public money is spent. 

    Although the Chancellor has expressed support for greater devolution in areas like housing and education, and announced earlier this month Manchester would have an elected Mayor,  he has been reluctant to hand over tax-raising abilities. 

    A year long RSA study concluded that if UK cities were allowed to make their own decisions on tax and spending it could boost economic growth by £79 billion a year by 2030. 

    "It will allow them to respond to local priorities in a far more dynamic way. They need to be able to benefit from the proceeds of the growth they are being incentivised to create. There is no reason why Greater Manchester say – with its ten constituent boroughs – should not be able to take fiscal responsibility." — Charlotte Aldritt from the RSA growth commission explains the importance of devolving spending as well as policy powers.  

    This would not only lead to more innovative financial solutions, but would help with engaging local communities she says, "It would help create better relationship with the electorate. This is against the background of diminishing political trust. And it would help to re-engage citizens  in the fact they pay their taxes, live in particular places,  and have a connection to the people that represent them and make the decisions on their behalf."

    For the moment however, we can only dream of vacuum trains. 

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