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Arguing the case for space versus speed: did we get it wrong?

Years ago I used to dream of running a seaside boarding house. Not the kind with a nosy landlady and notices everywhere about turning off the lights, but a hi-tech, self-catering, fast-throughput, miniaturised, unisex, one-class-only boarding house accommodating twice as many people in half as much space.

There would have been no kitchen, just three frozen meals a day fed into a microwave and dispensed at the press of a button. There would have been no laundry, only an incinerator for disposable paper sheets, stacked on the beds like boxes of tissues. There were more Fordist and Taylorist details like this but I am sure you get the idea. It would have been a Corbusian machine for bucket and spading in.

The trouble with this Orwellian vision, as I later realised, was that staying in it would have been like being trapped in a hijacked jumbo jet parked in the corner of an airfield during prolonged negotiations. Pretty soon all the guests would have found out that time is inversely proportional to space, as indeed the fate of Concorde has recently proved.

When the crash of last July led to the entire Concorde fleet being grounded a single aircraft was left stranded at JFK. There it remained for nearly three months before Air France received permission to fly it home. The idea of that lonely flight, with no passengers or cabin crew, illuminates the space/time transaction. The flight crew, looking back down the narrow tube of the aircraft's fuselage, must have found the experience disturbing. They must have been able to visualise it with a hundred people strapped in for three and a half hours at a time; gorging themselves on fine food and drinks from tiny silver trays dispensed by cabin staff who had to crouch down to serve them in such a tiny space.

Worse still, not only did Concorde's passengers eat and drink there, they died there, strapped in their tiny allocated space. Viewed in this light, Concorde's cabin sheds its pose as luxury accommodation and becomes what it really is - an air conditioned version of a London Underground train in August, with speed justifying all contortions and suspending all objective judgements.

Space on inter-city trains is more lavishly distributed than on Concorde, but not for everyone. The kitchen of the buffet car, which suffered the most severe damage in last week's Hatfield train crash, is a narrow corridor normally shared by the chef, two waiting staff and a manager. This corridor is lined with electric hot plates, grills, pans of boiling water and microscopic chopping boards with their attendant knives. Passing one another in this space is almost impossible without dislodging something, especially at 115 miles an hour.

Disaster illuminates conditions like this, but only briefly, for travel is generally a personal experience and accidents are infrequent, however rapidly they may appear to succeed one another. More importantly, disaster illuminates the way the great age of mobility has recklessly traded space for speed.

One hundred years ago, at the beginning of the twentieth century, the captain to the German barque Preussen had a suite of nine rooms, while his wealthiest passengers enjoyed even larger and more luxurious accommodation. As late as the 1930s the accommodation available to passengers on the great ocean liners and the airships Graf Zeppelin and Hindenburg were colossal by present day standards. The fact that the Hindenburg met its end in a Concorde-style conflagration - often cited as the reason for the end of airship development - overlooks the equally relevant benefit of its approach to speed. Two thirds of the passengers and crew of the Hindenburg survived the Lakehurst fire - a proportion not many air crashes manage today.

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