High speed boosts rail

 The iron road is a 19th century invention that is set to flourish in the 21st. After being threatened by extinction in the face of a pincer movement from cars and planes in the second half of the twentieth century, trains are re-establishing themselves as a crucial part of many countries infrastructure.

 The most visible signs of this success are the high speed trains such as Eurostar which are now operating at speeds of up to 200 mph in more than a dozen countries and planned for many more. They have not only revolutionised train travel by attracting people off aeroplanes, but they have become visible emblematic signs of a nation’s modernity as demonstrated by the fact that no Japanese tourist brochure would be complete without a photo of the Shinkansen high speed train rushing past Mount Fuji.

 While France currently has more than 1,000 miles of high speed line, Spain is set to become the European country with the highest mileage as it completes an ambitious programme to build 6,000 miles of track by 2020 with the aim of bringing every sizeable town within 30kms of a high speed station. But China dwarfs the scale of ambition of any other country with 4,000 miles already open and a plan to have a 30,000 network by the end of the decade.

 China is even considering the development of a high speed line between Beijing and Europe that would take a couple of days to cross Asia. It might not be realistic in the face of the cost and the size of the undertaking, but the mere fact that the idea has been put forward shows the scale of ambition.

 The railway renaissance is not only about flash modern high speed trains. The humble freight train is still the preferred carrier for long distance traffic, like the vast numbers of containers arriving on America’s West Coast, or for minerals which are taken from mines to ships by rail, the very purpose for which the railways were originally created. This month, for example, massive 240 wagon iron ore trains have started running over a newly constructed line in Labrador, Canada.

 Then there are the equally prosaic metro systems which are being built in the most unlikely such as Dubai which opened last year and obscure Eastern European towns such as Kharkov and Yekaterinburg. There are more than 130  metro systems around the world with half dozen more being opened every year.

 Driving the railways’ revival is a combination of road congestion, comfort and, increasingly, their green credentials. Railways can be powered by renewable and low carbon sources such as nuclear or wind-generated electricity, while aviation is stuck with oil-based fuel with no viable alternative on the horizon. Far from being superseded by the car and the plane, the train may outlive them all.

  • Michael Weinberg

    Is this the same Christian Wolmar who continues to pour cold water over our own feeble efforts to develop Hi-Speed rail?

  • RapidAssistant

    The jist of this is that high speed railways are suited to large continents with vast swathes of emptiness, and where a high speed line can be a genuine alternative to flying between major population centres – not on a crowded island like Britain with all the physical and legal minefields to navigate before you can even lift a shovel to build anything.

    Everyone quotes the TGV in these arguments, but remember outside of the Alps and the Pyrnees, France is a fairly flat country where it is easy to build a railway in a straight line. Aside from the fact of course it is a politically left leaning nation with a state owned railway, which doesn’t throw billions of good money after bad like our own.

  • It’s also twice the size of the Land of Uk with roughly the same population.
    For us, better co-ordination of the existing system, infill and bypass schemes will achieve the time savings and capacity enhancement far sooner, without blasting a new line through the countryside. Remember the final bit of M3 through the Downs controversy at Winchester and Swampy? Frightened politicians ever since.
    Building to GB+ gauge (W12 or whatever) is no great advantage until we use the existing capacity to Europe fully and that looks like a long way off, if ever.

  • Michael Weinberg

    Rapid states

    “The jist of this is that high speed railways are suited to large continents with vast swathes of emptiness, and where a high speed line can be a genuine alternative to flying between major population centres –”

    Like Japan, Korea and Taiwan, I suppose?

    Or Holland Belgium and Switzerland: and please dont tell me they are part of a large Continent: so are we!

    You will find that many of the busiest sections of high-speed line are over just the same sort of distances as pertain in Britan.

    Paris – Brussels – Amsterdam
    Madrid – Barcelona
    Cologne – Frankfurt.

    But dont take my word for it. The information is out there in the railway press all the time.

    Arguments against the need for High-speed in Britain are spurious, but where you are dead right is that apart from London it is virtually impossible to build any large-scale rail infrastructure in the UK, or should I say England!

  • Dave Holladay

    The Spanish thinking is appropriate – we have at present a few cities bickering over being on an exclusive high speed network when the real gains will come from delivering reduced journey times between all significant places in the UK and through a truly integrated network expanding this as widely as possible.

    Some of us are already enjoying greatly reduced journey times on some trips – cutting up to an hour from a trip between Preston and Gillingham (Dorset), or via Stansted Montfitchet and Liverpool Street to the City, but equally are frustrated by the lack of connectivity – for example the penalty of at lest an hour when traveling from any station between Euston and Crewe to Glasgow due to the lack of a Great Western style of cascading through local and semi-fast connections.

    A few by-passes – some strategic reconnections – eg Tebay to Appleby to get a relatively short parallel freight route past Shap, and use the immensely improved CWR which has almost replaced all the jointed track on the S&C Line, and a focus of the UK rail operators to match their EU equivalents in delivering the whole journey, door to door – using the low cost and fast delivery of eliminating the time spent waiting on a platform, and getting to & from the station, and (more attractive) retaining all or part of the revenue from selling the last mile elements of the journey – DB, NS, SBB, etc all have total or part share in the operations that offer car and bike hire or sharing, and big PT conglomerates like Veolia offer a full package through giving the passenger a single route to information and purchase of the travel resources.

    The added hook comes from the recent Carplus survey, where members of car sharing clubs who have access to 24/7 pay as you go cars make substantially greater use of bus and rail services – and a few places actually have these cars available directly you get off the train (Darlington has just got one, there are also 3 cars in Melton Street by Euston Station). Making at least one trip a month as a measure – over 90% of Car Club members make a bus trip and 77.4% use rail at least once per month, compared to the NTS figures of 18.0% (rail) 40% (bus) for the general population.

    So the real question is – when will the UK’s rail & bus operators start selling a coherent whole journey package to their customers rather than a station to station one.

  • RapidAssistant

    At least the nonsensical Heathrow spur plan for HS2 has been rubbished by the latest review…something that didn’t make any sense at all.

    Meanwhile we have the NIMBYs getting themselves very organised, very quickly – remembering that HS2 is just a paper exercise at the moment that may never see the light of day:


    If anything it is a far more detailed website than the official HS2 one!

  • Paul Holt

    To supplement Dave Hollaway…

    The real evil of Beeching was that many journeys ceased to be viable, leading directly to the explosion in car ownership. Ignoring HS1, in the thirteen years of the last government, how many route-miles of track were (re)opened?