High speed rail spreads around the world

Building a high-speed rail line between London and the North of England was one of the few policy areas on which all three of the main political parties agreed during the recent UK election campaign. That was a complete turnaround from the previous election when the subject was barely mentioned and none of the parties were supportive. Perhaps British politicians now realise the UK is lagging behind the rest of the world on building high-speed lines. Even the U.S. is getting in on the act.

The UK plan is for more than 300 miles of new line linking the three largest provincial cities – Birmingham, Manchester and Leeds – with London on a Y-shaped network that would cost upwards of £30 billion ($45 billion) to build.

Andrew Adonis, the transport minister in the outgoing Labour government, thinks the focus on high-speed lines is the result of a change in the way that transport problems are addressed. “The most important aspect of the high speed decision is that the next generation of transport capacity between our major conurbations will be rail capacity and not either road capacity or aviation,” Lord Adonis told the WSJE. “That is one of those transformational moments in transport policy.”

This thinking is bringing the UK into line with most of Europe and parts of Asia.

The first high-speed line was the Tōkaidō Shinkansen between Tokyo and Osaka, completed in 1964 for the Olympics that year. These early trains ran fairly slowly by today’s standards reaching just 130 miles per hour compared with speeds today of 200 mph on the French TGV Est. But crucially the service was on dedicated lines with no other traffic, creating a fast and reliable service. Its development – as with the first European service, between Paris and Lyon that opened in 1981 – was stimulated by the need for extra capacity as much as the desire to go faster.

This is a crucial point. As roads become congested and existing rail lines fill up with both passenger and freight trains, building a new line that can accommodate trains running at 200 mph is not much more expensive than constructing conventional track. 

While there were a few developments in the 1980s, with Germany joining the high-speed league, it is only really in the past twenty years that the concept has spread around the world. Countries as diverse as Taiwan, South Korea, Russia and Turkey have been building lines. In Europe, Spain recently overtook France as the country in the region with the largest high-speed rail network. China is by far the world leader.

When large sections of European airspace were closed in April this year, hundreds of thousands of people discovered that high-speed rail is a genuine alternative to short-haul flights. Eurostar – which operates services through the Channel Tunnel from London to Paris, Brussels and several other destinations such as the French alps in the skiing season and Avignon in the summer – ran more than 70 extra 700-seat trains during the crisis. The company’s advertising now highlights that Amsterdam can be reached in just four hours from the UK capital and Frankfurt in five.

The time savings that result from the construction of a new high-speed lines are remarkable. In the 1960s, the Tōkaidō Shinkansen reduced the time for the journey between Tokyo and Osaka from seven hours to four. The same trip now takes just under two and a half hours. On the much more recently built Madrid to Seville service, the journey time is just two and a half hours compared with more than six previously.

These reductions make rail a realistic proposition for business travellers. The conventional wisdom in the industry is that rail journeys of up to three hours are preferable to travelling by air because train stations are generally located in city centres and the total journey time is therefore likely to be around the same. The recent proliferation of security checks at airports, along with the fact that many trains now how have internet connections, is changing the balance of power towards rail from air travel..

The High Speed Revolution, a report produced in March for the UK government, found that “the railway’s share of the market for travel of up to 800 kilometres can be 50%, and for 500 kilometres as high as 80% to 90%”. Indeed, the Paris to Lyon TGV, helped by a relatively cheap fares policy, captured more than 90% of trips between the two cities. There are now hardly any flights between Paris and Lyon. Similarly, when the Madrid to Seville high-speed line opened in 1992, it quickly obtained an 80% share of the trips between those locations. Before the line was built that proportion of trips was made by plane.  

That line was the start of a hugely ambitious programme of high-speed rail construction in the Iberian peninsula. The aim is to make sure 90% of all Spanish citizens are within 50 kilometers of a high speed rail station by 2020. The country’s government is planning to spend €120 billion to achieve this goal, although the recession may now slow things down.

Such ambitions are dwarfed by China where the planned scale of investment in high-speed rail is quite simply breathtaking. The government is pouring around $100 billion a year into the railways, mostly on the high-speed rail network, which is already the largest in the world extending more than 4,000 miles. By 2020, China hopes to have 30,000 miles of high-speed track, as much as the rest of the world put together.

The scale of ambition in the U.S. is far more modest. The $8 billion stimulus package for the railways announced last year will mainly be spent on preliminary studies. These will look at obvious routes such as those linking the main cities of California or Florida, or improving existing services which are not high-speed by European or Asian standards. For example, the one route in the U.S. that could be called high speed – the Acela services in the North East corridor – rarely achieves its potential of 150 mph. The average speed is barely faster than driving and the 450-mile trip from Boston to Washington takes almost seven hours. Contrast that with China. When the Beijing to Shanghai line is completed next year, the 700 mile journey will take just four hours, with trains reaching 240 mph.

However, high-speed trains are not a total no-brainer. The biggest barrier is cost. Research conducted in 2005 showed that, on average, high-speed lines cost €18 million for every kilometer laid. That figure could rise to €39 million over the trickiest terrain. Moreover, virtual all the money has to come from the public coffers as the rail companies only ever appear able to make enough money to cover their operating costs. According to the authors of The High Speed Revolution: “Returns to investment will not normally be strong enough to attract private sector funding, and most projects will only thrive where there is a large market, a substantial public sector commitment, and some degree of network co‑ordination.”

Creating seamless journeys across Europe is hard because the different lines have different owners. Tthere is an embryonic organisation called Railteam that links high-speed services. But the failure to standardise different ticketing systems and to agree on fare pooling means it is hard to book tickets and fares tend to be high.

Indeed, the cost of travel tends to be higher than the airlines, especially the new generation budget companies such as Ryanair and EasyJet. Rail overheads are high and the industry can suffer from old-fashioned labour practices, with rules that stretch back generations. This was starkly demonstrated when the skies closed over Europe. Passengers hoping to jump on a train in France found that many lines had been closed by a two week strike of drivers and conductors. They were also confronted with exorbitant costs – tickets for the 240-mile journey between London and Paris priced at £179 one-way for passengers who had not booked in advance.

Despite these problems, the high-speed rail is a growing worldwide phenomenon. Nothing illustrates that better than the Chinese ambition to build a high-speed service between London and Beijing, taking just two days to make the journey. It is a fanciful notion which faces fierce practical difficulties. But the fact that it is even being considered, demonstrates the scale of rail’s revival: The 19th century invention has found a role in the 21st century.

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