Tuesday, 29 January 2013

Building the networks of the future

It is only 22 years next month since the first Minerals Engineering conference was held in Singapore. How things have changed beyond recognition since then.

The internet was in its infancy, and very few companies had websites, or even email. All correspondence was by mail or Telex, and the emerging fax machines. We had built a data base of names and addresses, to which we would mail registration brochures, and delegates would mail their completed forms, together with a cheque for payment.

There was no PowerPoint of course, so all conference presentations were by 35mm slides. Singapore itself was the window into the future of technology, and I remember bringing back one of the first digital cameras, a crude low-resolution device, which nevertheless created a lot of interest on returning home.

It would have been impossible then to predict our modern world of high speed internet, digital cameras, mobile phones, Skype etc. And probably, given the exponential increase in change, totally impossible to predict what the world will be like in another 20 years time, and how we will be going about our business.

The whole point of my waffle is that the news in Britain at the moment is dominated by the proposal to build a high speed train network, from London to Birmingham, then branching to Manchester and Leeds, at an estimated cost of £33 billion. The proposal is highly controversial, as the line, which by necessity has to be as straight as possible, will cut through areas of outstanding natural beauty, and many people on the route will lose their homes and businesses.

There are compulsive arguments either way, but the one that convinced me was an article in The Times (29 January), by Andrew McGuinness, which considered the points that I mentioned above, and argued that saving an hour on the journey from London to Leeds may be of little importance to the business world of the future, where working from home might be so commonplace that it would be hard to imagine a time when hours were wasted in commuting.

The article proposed that if we want to invest in a network, it should be a digital one. McGuinness suggests that we should emulate what South Korea did in 1997 to rebuild its economy, by investing in a high-speed fibre optic network. This allowed the country to avoid recession in the current global crisis. He argues that Britain should use the billions proposed for the railway to make the country a leader in the digital age, as many of our high-tech companies are let down by a creaking infrastructure. It has been estimated that high speed broadband could be put in every home for £5 billion, and could create over 600,000 jobs in four years. With decent internet across the whole country, entrepreneurs could do business in remote areas such as Cornwall and never need catch a train!

So, is the High Speed Rail network a potential white elephant? What do you think?


  1. High speed internet should have the first priority followed by a less expensive upgrade to our existing rail network.
    Stuart Patrick, IOM3 Polymer Society/PVC Committee, UK
    (via IOM3 LinkedIn group)

    1. I agree with Mr Patrick on this, lets get the lo hanging fruit first and then go for our HS2, I live in thr South East and HS1 has made a huge change for us but we needed this change more than the North needs to upgrade. We had our journey halved in time over a 60 mile route. This was a great improvement. The change to he north will not be as great and yes let's first put in high speed Internet and free wifi on all trains before we waste time on a train to the north that will not be needed when we have high speed Internet in ALL of our country.
      Tony Pringle, Majimoto Ltd, UK (via IOM3 LinkedIn group)

  2. It is possible to push information down a wire (or fibre optic) but our society is heavily dependent on the movement of physical material. Anybody experiencing the M6 must surely acknowledge the need for some change, if not now, then soon. It is very obvious that shipping of goods around the UK is painfully difficult and expensive. Increasing the capacity, flexibility and resilience of the existing rail system, as HS2 would do, is surely going to improve access for lower speed traffic, both human and material.

    I do agree with Stuart Patrick that an upgrade to the existing rail network is called for. However, the HS2 project reflects the London orientation of the Victorian legacy railway system. The population and economic activity of the nation have been redistributed in the past century. Surely new railways could and should be aimed at catering for the needs of the future. An efficient, fast, network might improve links the conurbations of the North of England, linking towns A and B not because B happens to fall between A and London. Improving access to ports and the Channel Tunnel would also seem a worthwhile potential target. Money might also be diverted into improving access to the network.

    Final point: is HS2 expensive? £32 billion over 20 years is something like £50 per salary earner per annum. Less than the cost of a daily newspaper. More important than the cost, I suggest, is ensuring we make sure we reap maximal benefit of the expenditure.
    John Stuart, Sibelco Europe R&D, UK
    (via IOM3 LinkedIn group)


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