The slow progress of high speed trains

The opening of the first high speed line, the Japanese Shinkansen, ushered in a new era of rail travel but it took a surprisingly long time for the concept to spread. Indeed, fifty years later, there are still barely a dozen countries in the world that boast trains which can be described as high speed and while there are lots of schemes in the offing, the huge cost and long lead times are proving a barrier for their rapid spread.

The definition of high speed train services is, loosely, lines on which passenger trains run at a top speed of at least 250 km per hour (155 mph) and on dedicated tracks. The high speed network, therefore, is the motorway system of the railways with fast services, limited stops and uninterrupted tracks. The aim behind the Japanese system, as implied by its name (Shinkansen means literally ‘new trunk line’), was not so much high speed as extra capacity and in a way the reduced journey times were an added bonus rather than the raison d’être of the scheme.

The building of the inaugural 300 mile long Shinkansen between Tokyo and Osaka was stimulated by the hosting of the Olympics in Tokyo in 1964 but actually had long been mooted. Construction had even been started in the 1930s and then was abandoned at the outset of World War Two. The impetus was the severe overcrowding on the old route which, despite electrification and modern signalling, could not take any more trains. That indeed is a common misconception behind high speed trains. Their genesis has often been in the recognition of the need for extra capacity and then the logic of high speed becomes obvious: if a new line is being built, it might as well be high speed, taking fast passenger trains and leaving the local and freight services to the old line.

Japan has a topography and demography that are particularly suited to high speed rail services. The bulk of the population is concentrated in large cities along the coast of Honshū, a very favourable distribution for intense railway operations. The line was both a technical and commercial success but subsequent attempts to build other lines resulted in opposition from local residents and consequently there were delays to the opening of subsequent lines, though Japan can now boast 1665 miles of high speed line

The particular advantages which Japan enjoyed in relation to the introduction of high speed rail may explain why other countries, with a different population distribution, took so long to follow the example. Certainly the technology was available and it was in France, which had taken the lead in terms of electrification technology, that the idea first took root in Europe.

As with virtually all high speed lines, the TGV was a political project as much as a technical or transport one. What better opportunity to show off both French technology developed jointly by the French railway company SNCF and the nation’s industrial giant Alsthom (now Alstom). As in Japan, the line linked two populous cities and was intended to boost capacity as the old line between Paris and Lyon, which had sections where the two tracks could only be extended to four at great cost, was full. France became the second country in the world to have a high speed line when the Sud Est line opened in 1983, almost three decades after the Japanese.

Given the cost and the need to override objections, which perhaps are rooted in antagonism to a technology that is seen as old-fashioned and inappropriate in this Age of Individualism since it involves collective travel, high speed rail projects often face a bumpy ride in gaining acceptance. Governments have to be confident or arrogant enough to push them through. They are the ultimate grands projets seen as emblematic and modernising. Consequently there is a tendency for governments to announce schemes before any realistic assessment of their viability has been undertaken.

It is no accident that China, now by far the the world leader in terms of mileage, does not need a democratic mandate to push through schemes. In democratic US, by contrast, where there is historic hostility to rail, high speed rail projects are either mired in controversy over cost and environmental effects such as in California or have been shelved or delayed with some states such as Wisconsin even turning down federal money to pay for projects.

The most interesting case is Spain, now Europe’s leader in terms of mileage, where sustained support from the two main political parties has resulted in a policy of trying to ensure every significant town in the country is no more than 50kms from a high speed line station. Other countries are joining the party such as Poland, Russia and Saudi Arabia while in the UK the proposal for a second high speed line, to add to the meagre 67 mile link between St Pancras and the Channel Tunnel, has faced considerable opposition though it has cross party support. The advent of high speed lines has been successful in several counties such as Japan and France but elsewhere such as Taiwan and South Korea, passenger numbers have not matched expectations. The case for high speed projects can, therefore, at times be uncertain and it will be politics, rather than sober assessments of its worth, that will determine its rate of growth over the next 50 years.

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