The billions we will spend on HS2 will get us from London to Birmingham 28 minutes faster than the present system does. After Birmingham, the trains will travel on old lines

China has the longest commercial maglev train service in the world. Japan holds the speed record (361mph). Germany has the best technology. And Britain … well, as usual, we’re just the ones who invented the thing. Readers of a certain age may recall Eric Laithwaite’s Christmas lectures to the Royal Institution in which he demonstrated how a linear induction motor (which he invented in the forties) could supply both lift and movement.

Some underfunded attempts were made to turn physics into product, and indeed the UK was the first country to build a maglev service, in 1984. It took the form of a shuttle that connected Birmingham’s airport and railway station, and ran at a speed of … 26mph. No doubt that was comforting for those travelling in a driverless train powered by a novel technology, but it was hardly likely to catch anyone’s imagination, either. It was replaced by a cable car in 1995, and little has happened since.

As we explain on page 38, maglev holds many advantages over conventional trains - indeed, so many that it’s hard to believe it hasn’t emerged as a serious contender for high-speed, long-distance transport before now. A British company called Ultraspeed has been patiently making the case for it for a decade or so, and it has been joined by Transrapid, the German company that built the Shanghai system, architect Ryder, which has produced concept designs for maglev stations, and Faithful + Gould, which has worked out what the bill would be.

The claim is that maglev would cost about half as much as conventional high-speed rail, even though all the infrastructure would be built from scratch; the maximal case is for a system linking London, Birmingham, Manchester, Liverpool and Leeds (with Edinburgh and Glasgow to follow in the fullness of time). This, the proponents say, would cost the same as HS2, the proposed London-to-Birmingham link.

If these figures are robust, we have reached a junction and we should seriously consider the option of maglev. One consideration is that the billions we will spend on HS2 will get us from London to Birmingham 28 minutes faster than the present system does. After Birmingham, the trains will be travelling on old lines, which means we will not be able to have super-long double-decker trains à la TGV: they wouldn’t fit our bridges or our platforms. Indeed, HS2 only makes sense if it is the first step in a strategic rail vision for the whole of the UK. But if we are prepared to spend that much money, we could take advantage of our relative backwardness by leap-frogging other countries and adopting the latest technology without paying the development costs.

But there is another dimension to the choice. Countries are judged on their engineering. Just think how Japan’s Bullet train and France’s TGV network burnished their national brand. The rail network that Britain built in the Victorian era not only created a national market, it established the idea of Britain as the most advanced country in the world, with all the prestige (and the commercial advantages) that came with that. This pioneering spirit lost momentum in the 20th century, and reached its nadir in the eighties, when British Rail developed, then abandoned, the tilting advanced passenger train. The Italians bought the technology, perfected it, then sold it back to us in the form of the Virgin Pendolinos that run on the west coast main line. Now we have the chance to redevelop that pioneering spirit in the form of maglev. But we’ll have to make our minds up sooner rather than later: once we start on HS2, all bets are off.

Thomas Lane, assistant editor