Friday, November 5, 2010

High Speed Rail - Europe and the American Election

It was President Obama who famously said, after the 2008 vote that “Elections have Consequences.” Well two years later that dictum still applies (as it will two years from now). I bring it up since (h/t to Luis) the European Commission has just released a report on High Speed Rail which gives some of the progress that has been achieved on that continent since the first high speed line was inaugurated between Florence and Rome in 1977, though it was not until the service between Paris and Lyon in 1981 that the boom began. And now Europe has 3,861 miles of high-speed lines where trains can travel at faster than 150 mph (the fastest is over 220 mph in commercial service, 350 mph in trials). The inter-continental service is continuing to grow, though to facilitate progress the EU is seeking to develop common technical standards across the network. Unfortunately, after Tuesday, the prognosis is not that favorable to the change in the United States.

It will be a considerable boon in Europe, as expansion continues. Spain, for example, is planning on expanding the network so that 90% of the inhabitants are within 30 miles of a station. The results can be seen with the reduction in travel times between major cities. (And remember that the stations generally lie in the heart of the city, not an hour or so away as many airports now are).

It becomes faster, and more efficient, as well as (speaking personally) less physically tiring, to travel increasingly great distances in Europe by train, in contrast both with air and car. As a result, the report notes:
The advantages of HSLs, in terms of frequent connections (which can easily be modified depending on demand) and flexibility for passengers, have allowed the railways to compete more effectively against other modes of transport. Since 1997, over 6 million passengers a year have been using the Brussels–Paris HSL. As a result, flights have been cut back on this route.
Overall the growth in traffic has been a six-fold increase in usage.
Since high-speed lines were introduced, the number of passengers opting for this mode of transport has constantly increased. The number of passengers on all German, Belgian, Spanish, French, Italian and British lines increased from 15.2 billion passenger-kilometres (bpkm) in 1990 to 92.33 billion in 2008.

In looking at door-to-door travel times, the report chart shows that air becomes faster than conventional rail at a travel distance (in Europe) of around 240 miles, while air does not become faster than high speed lines until a distance of about 500 miles. I start to think about flying instead of driving at a distance of around 300 miles.

At the present time those dealing with the anticipated growth of the network over the next ten years have not, I suspect, taken into consideration the changing fuel availabilities of the next decade. If, as is a reasonable possibility, crude oil pops over $100 in the next year, thereby drawing increasing attention to the coming of Peak Oil, then it is likely that demand for improved rail traffic will likely rise significantly beyond the 25% increase in growth that has been projected. As I have noted before, trains in Europe are becoming increasingly full, at current rates of demand, even in off-peak hours. In the shorter term, as the report notes, train transport may also be helped by the increasing saturation of existing airports with flights. But it also leads to the problems of using rail to transport goods as well as people. These services have different imperatives, and so the report concludes that two separate systems will evolve.
The difference in speed between a (slower) goods train and a high-speed train impacts on rail traffic management for the simple reason that freight trains spend longer on the track and therefore use up more traffic capacity (train paths). This difference in speed may also cause safety problems when these two types of train pass. This makes safeguarding infrastructure availability, while guaranteeing optimum capacity and security, an extremely difficult task. Physically freeing train paths simply means dedicating HSLs solely to passenger traffic and giving freight a higher priority on conventional lines. This is an option being explored by Sweden in particular.
They do however expect that, if environmental policies are tightened, that rail traffic as a whole might increase to as high as 420 bpkm for the entire network by 2020, from 189 bpkm in 1999. The planned network expansion at present looks to being completed in 2030, at which time it will be at around 20,000 miles of track, and carry 535 bpkm per year, with extensions moving out into Eastern Europe. The initial connection to Russia will be through Finland.

The report even looks at the environmental impact of the change in travel mode, since it recognizes that while the trains are electrically powered, that power does not magically appear in the power lines.

And for those interested in energy efficiency
Although the environmental impact of HSLs can also be reduced by improving the energy efficiency of trains and working on other elements of the vehicle, the carbon foot- print of rail travel is still much smaller than that of air or road travel. In the case of a journey from Paris to Marseilles, CO2 emissions in grams per passenger-kilometre (g/pkm) are just 2.7 g/pkm by HS train, compared with 153.0 g/pkm by air and 115.7 g/pkm by car. From the point of view of energy efficiency, HSTs also perform better, using 12.1 grams of petrol per passenger-kilometre, compared with 17.6 for conventional trains, 18.3 for a coach, 29.9 for a car and 51.5 for an aircraft.

So how does this tie into the first paragraph? Well in the United States, and a part of the Stimulus from the Federal Government, high speed lines had been proposed, with funding from Washington. However, with the election of Republican governors in several states due to receive that money, the plans may have to change. The new governor of Wisconsin, for example, has vowed to kill the high-speed line between Madison and Milwaukee. This was meant to be part of a network that would run from Chicago to Minneapolis, and stopping the project will likely cost the state money and jobs – but as a top campaign issue it is likely something the Governor-elect may have to follow up on.

Similarly in Ohio, the incoming Governor, John Kasich has said that “Passenger rail is dead in Ohio.” In this case he was discussing the $400 million plan to restart passenger service between Cincinnati, Columbus and Cleveland.

Work on the high-speed Florida link has already started, this is expected to carry up to two million folk a year from Tampa to Orlando or back, by 2015. It was not favored by Rick Scott who was just elected Governor of the State, though some of his opposition may come from the investment needed to extend the link from Orlando down to Miami. However the incoming Chair of the House Transportation Committee has already spoken out against it.

On the other hand the fate of the investment in a high-speed link in California has not been changed by the election. The backbone of that system, the 500 miles from LA to San Francisco is planned for completion by 2020. (video here). The discussion is more about where the construction will start.


  1. It is meaningless to talk about the fuel saving from rail travel without including the fuel costs to build all those miles of road bed and manufacture all those miles of steel rail -- and to maintain them.

    Europe certainly needs to do something to get freight off their roads and onto more efficient rail, as the US did long ago. But as the article points out, freight and high-speed passenger trains require separate tracks -- which further increases the energy sunk into roadbeds & track.

    The resistance to high speed rail in the US is largely tied to the need for massive initial & continuing subsidies -- at a time when governments have run out of money. ("Peak Government"?)

    Surely the smart answer is to remove governmental subsidies and remove governmental barriers to construction -- then let the market sort out where rail makes sense and where modern airline transport is more economical?

    Further, long-range planning should recognize that future higher energy prices are not going to drive airline passengers to rail; higher prices are going to reduce travel. With high energy prices, we will go back to Europe circa 1900, when most people rarely travelled.

  2. Thanks for digest Dave.

    Many of the dotted lines you see in the chart are now at risk with the blind austerity measures spawned across the Union. If the liberals get elected for the Government in the coming years we can forget about any links from Portugal to Spain or France...

  3. With the future being so near at hand it looks to be silly at the greatest levels to consider rapid rail. Home commuting, integration by bit and developments along those lines means physical presents will be less and less valuable. Wouldn't 3d presentations be more energy efficient than transporting thousands of tons of empty steel across country?
    The fact that the USA has minus money period, should put a stop to train dreams. There exists no logical reason to develop rapid rail in the light of the direct business/civilization is evolving.
    Meanwhile I suggest the automobile is the keenest travel possible for the individual.

  4. Kinuachdrach:
    One of the things that Governments are, arguably, supposed to do is to look into the future and prepare for situations beyond the immediate future and the ability of normal citizens and industry to respond to. I would argue that the coming peaking of oil is one such situation, and that putting in facilities, such as high speed rail, is a sensible way of at least starting to address some of the major problems coming in the years ahead. Our views of the role of Government may, however, differ.

  5. HO -- I certainly agree that one of the roles of government should be to look into the future.

    Unfortunately, we have been stuck with European governments in 1914 and the 1930s that could not see war heading their way; with a Soviet government in 1990 that could not see their central planning collapsing; and with governments today from California to Greece who refuse to see that their Ponzi scheme retirement programs are doomed to collapse because of simple arithmetic.

    So I don't have much faith in the ability of governments to look into the future effectively.

    I concur with you that Peak Oil is coming. But long before we get to Peak Oil, we will get to Peak Government. It is time for some humility from those who would rule us: First, Do No Harm!

    Government today should focus on promoting research and on removing artificial barriers to existing technologies such as nuclear power -- or even unsubsidized high speed trains. If government could do that right, we would have no need for concern about prospering after Peak Oil.