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The need for, and appreciation of…speed

May 27, 2010

High Speed 1

Business travel is a bit of drag, but it doesn’t have to be. On a crisp and sunny early May morning, traveling at over 140mph on the UK’s fastest train service, it occurred to me that we rarely get the chance to celebrate or enjoy speed as part of our everyday life.

Here in the UK, several long-running powerful, cross-media road safety campaigns have incorporated the rather terse, foreboding declaration; “speed kills” as their central tenet and declaration of intent. Road traffic speed cameras are increasingly omnipresent on a national level, often sited on heavily congested arterial roads, which are regularly jammed with traffic. Years of under investment in our national rail infrastructure means with few exceptions, there has been little advance in reducing journey times since the Victorian age. Rightly or wrongly, all of this has left us with strange feelings, connotations and perceptions about the benefits of speed. Aside from commercial air travel, most of us rarely get the chance to appreciate the real benefits derived from fast travel over significant distance. Due to carbon emissions harming our environment, excessive or unnecessary air travel is considered damaging, so it could be argued that our perception of high speed transit, even in the context of essential business operation is not generally seen as a good thing.

High Speed One, the UK’s fastest train
Now I don’t want to come over all Top Gear, harping on about the need for speed and how safety campaigns are misplaced etc. It must be said however that the experience of crossing the river Medway, smoothly, at over twice the national speed limit whilst sipping a skinny latte is sublime. Having also struggled along the A2/M2 on numerous occasions myself, I won’t mention the gentle feeling of superiority as motorists are passed like they’re slowly crawling. In balance it’s acknowledged there are many journeys when only a car will do. For me, what’s truly remarkable is the effect that’s felt when traveling smoothly at high speed over rolling landscapes and in particular when crossing the Medway Bridge. If you blank out peripheral vision it’s a strange sensation; the landscape passes at a distance and speed that we only really experience when flying.

Urban spaces also feel odd when they’re bisected at high speed. When crossing by car, the QE2 Bridge feels like an immensely grand structure. It seems to climb quickly then majestically offers wide panoramic views over mostly flat, rural, industrialized landscapes alike. From underneath, South Eastern Trains’ HS1 offers a very different take, as the track sweeps around in a gentle curve and the imposing bridge suddenly becomes apparent. From the ground and at high speed, this immense structure is reduced to a strangely delicate edifice; a toy construction whose fulcrum appears oddly precipitous strung between two thin towers, stacked with lories as it rapidly fades into the distance. I suppose this is literally what’s mean by seeing things in perspective. It’s a small but enjoyable experience and apparently one considered unremarkable by regular commuters. Personally, I’m never bored by the benefits that this speed delivers.

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