Global Expansion of High-speed Railroads Gains Steam

Interest in high-speed rail (HSR) is growing around the world and the number of countries running these trains is expected to nearly double over the next few years, according to new research by the Worldwatch Institute for Vital Signs Online. By 2014, high-speed trains will be operating in nearly 24 countries, including China, France, Italy, Japan, Spain, and the United States, up from only 14 countries today. The increase in HSR is due largely to its reliability and ability to cover vast geographic distances in a short time, to investments aimed at connecting once-isolated regions, and to the diminishing appeal of air travel, which is becoming more cumbersome because of security concerns.


The rise in HSR has been very rapid—in just three years, between January 2008 and January 2011, the operational fleet grew from 1,737 high-speed trainsets worldwide to 2,517. Two-thirds of this fleet is found in just five countries: France, China, Japan, Germany, and Spain. By 2014, the global fleet is expected to total more than 3,700 units.


Not only is HSR reliable, but it also can be more friendly than cars or airplanes. A 2006 comparison of greenhouse gas emissions by travel mode, released by the Center for Neighborhood Technologies, found that HSR lines in Europe and Japan released 30–70 grams of carbon dioxide per passenger-kilometer, versus 150 grams for automobiles and 170 grams for airplanes.


Although there is no universal speed definition for HSR, the threshold is typically set at 250 kilometers per hour on new tracks and 200 kilometers per hour on existing, upgraded tracks. The length of HSR tracks worldwide is undergoing explosive growth in order to meet increasing demand. Between 2009 and 2011, the total length of operational track has grown from some 10,700 kilometers to nearly 17,000 kilometers. Another 8,000 kilometers is currently under construction, and some 17,700 kilometers more is planned, for a combined total of close to 43,000 kilometers. That is equivalent to about 4 percent of all rail lines—passenger and freight—in the world today.


By track length, the current high-speed leaders are China, Japan, Spain, France, and Germany. Other countries are joining the high-speed league as well. Turkey has ambitious plans to reach 2,424 kilometers and surpass the length of Germany’s network. Italy, Portugal, and the United States all hope to reach track lengths of more than 1,000 kilometers. Another 15 countries have plans for shorter networks.


But in Europe, France continues to account for about half of all European high-speed rail travel. HSR reached an astounding 62 percent of the country’s passenger rail travel volume in 2008, up from just 23 percent in 1990, thanks to affordable ticket prices, an impressive network, and reliability. And in Japan, the Shinkansen trains are known for their exceedingly high degree of reliability. JR Central, the largest of the Japanese rail operating companies, reports that the average delay per high-speed train throughout a year is just half a minute. On all routes in Japan where both air and high-speed rail connections are available, rail has captured a 75 percent market share.


Further highlights from the research:


  • A draft plan for French transportation infrastructure investments for the next two decades allocates 52 percent of a total of $236 billion to HSR.
  • In 2005, the Spanish government announced an ambitious plan for some 10,000 kilometers of high-speed track by 2020, which would allow 90 percent of Spaniards to live within 50 kilometers of an HSR station.
  • Currently, China is investing about $100 billion annually in railway construction. The share of the country’s railway infrastructure investment allocated to HSR has risen from less than 10 percent in 2005 to a stunning 60 percent in 2010.
  • Intercity rail in Japan accounts for 18 percent of total domestic passenger-kilometers by all travel modes—compared with just 5 to 8 percent in major European countries and less than 1 percent in the United States.
  • In France, rail’s market share of the Paris-Marseille route rose from 22 percent in 2001 (before the introduction of high-speed service) to 69 percent in 2006. In Spain, the Madrid-Seville rail route’s share rose from 33 to 84 percent.

Tags: high-speed rail, air travel, travel modes, transportation infrastructure, France, Japan, Portugal, Germany, United States, Turkey, Italy, Center for Neighborhood Technologies, environmentally sustainable travel, Shinkansen Trains, china, spain (all tags)



high speed rail -- buses and car pools make more sense in most places

In Turkey, most people travel by bus, and it works.  In Japan, low and moderate income people go by bus, too.  High speed rail makes a tremendous amount of sense between Tokyo, the world's largest metropolitan area, and Nagoya and Osaka to the west.  But the price charged for rail tickets is enormously high, so moderate income people can't use it, not even between Tokyo, Nagoya, and Osaka, where transportation logic would dictate they should.  I had enough money to fly across the Pacific, and when I traveled to Japan, I used discounted Japan rail passes, only available to foreigners who buy outside the country.  But it was still shockingly expensive for me.  The Japanese rail system was bankrupted by building high speed rail to other parts of the country, away from the biggest cities.   Also, high speed trains limited the use of the system for freight rail.  Only 4% of freight goes by rail in Japan, whereas the US railroad system has recovered a lot from the abuse handed out to it early in the 20th century, and now carries a much bigger share of freight.  The US rail system may make a bigger contribution that the Japanese intercity rail system in promoting energy efficiency and protecting the environment.  (Japanese intracity rail transit is good, albeit expensive, and is economically very highly utilized and valuable, but that is not "high speed rail.")

It's a lot like how Amtrak has never been able to properly exploit the high-value Northeast corridor because of political insistence that it waste valuable funds that could have upgraded it in parts of the country that are just too sparse to support passenger rail at all.  Who needs passenger rail in Mississippi?  Low road congestion and low passenger density makes the bus much cheaper and higher frequency than the train with relatively little additional delay. 

When I was in Spain, I drove from Madrid to Barcelona rather than ride the train.  It would have cost $1000 to take the whole group there.  Renting a car and buying gas was $200 instead.   Madrid and Barcelona are among Europe's biggest cities, but the distance is still large enough that the most speed-minded may fly, while large families will drive even with high gas prices.  Maybe they subsidize the connection to Seville more due to the poverty in Andalusia, or the road connection there is much worse than to Barcelona.  But Seville is too small for the government to recover its investment in connecting it to Madrid in less than several decades, at best.  I wonder if they even cover operating costs.

Very high speed rail makes good sense between New York, Philadelphia, and Washington, DC.  At lower Acela-type speeds, it makes sense between New York and Boston.  Some day, with growth of population, it might also make sense between Dallas and Houston.  But the other distances in America are just too far.  Not enough people going between, and too much delay versus an airplane flight.

For San Francisco to Los Angeles, they should create a dedicated bus lane for high-quality mercedes buses along interstate route 5, and then send buses down that lane at 100 miles per hour.  It would take some subsidies, but maybe building the lane would cost $1 billion vs $60 billion for a train line, and the ongoing operating costs would be far lower, too.  You could provide cusy seats, free internet service, and free beverages, and the cost would be minimal versus the train.

Europe has a lot of high quality bus travel, with very comfortable buses with internet service, free coffee, etc.  This is more realistic and economically feasible if we must have mass transit.


by Bill Mebane 2011-11-12 12:48PM | 0 recs
correction: of course there is no way they cover operating costs on Madrid to Seville

it would be fine if high speed rail didn't recover its creation cost in high-density areas, since at least one would get high usage and long-term energy savings.

But I doubt they cover even 40% of operating costs for high speed trains from Madrid to Seville.  High speed rail routes will only ever recover the energy cost of building them if one end point is a huge city or both end points are large cities.  Madrid to Barcelona is two large cities.  But Seville is not a large city, fewer than 1 million people, and Madrid is a large but not huge city, 5 million people metro.  They are too far apart for commuting, so the route will never carry a really large number of people.


by Bill Mebane 2011-11-12 12:52PM | 0 recs


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