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By Angela Cotey, Associate Editor
The 8th World Congress on High-Speed Rail’s opening session, held July 11, began the same way many high-speed rail (HSR) conferences have: with a loud, fast-paced video showing snippets of trains speeding along throughout the world.
This particular video featured graphics depicting countries that recently or soon will build or expand HSR systems: Spain, France, Russia, China, Turkey, Morrocco, Italy, The Netherlands, Korea. And this time, it featured a graphic depicting the United States.
Nearly 1,000 HSR leaders, experts and stakeholders from 37 countries swarmed the Pennsylvania Convention Center, eager to teach, learn and listen about how HSR development is unfolding throughout the world. Rumblings around the convention center halls were that about 200 of the attendees were day-of walk-ups. The large number of last-minute registrants presumably was due to the California Legislature’s decision to advance the state’s project just days before the conference.
Of course, news about HSR development in the United States isn’t always positive. Shortly after International Union of Railways (UIC) and American Public Transportation Association (APTA) signed off on the agreement to hold the 2012 World Congress in Philadelphia, governors in Florida, Wisconsin and Ohio turned back federal HSR dollars. Since then, the federal HSR funding pot has all but dried up. But the slowed pace of U.S. HSR development didn't seem to put damper on the excitement. Ultimately, it gave agenda planners an angle to play off. As UIC Director-General Jean-Pierre Loubinoux said: “We held the conference in the United States for the first time in 20 years, precisely for the idea of bringing the experience of those who have done this to those who wish to do it.”
Based on the showing of U.S. transit leaders and suppliers they do, indeed, wish to do it. The event’s kick-off included a speech by APTA President and Chief Executive Officer Michael Melaniphy, who said the United States has a long way to go in its pursuit of a high-speed rail network, but that “we’re working very hard to achieve that goal.” APTA Chairman Gary Thomas spoke, as well, likening the Obama Administration’s rocky HSR start to that of previous presidential administrations that built the transcontinental railroad, tunnels between New York and New Jersey, and the interstate highway system. All faced harsh criticism but eventually completed their infrastructure projects.
“I predict the very same thing will happen with high-speed rail in the United States,” he said.
U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood was on hand, too, and used a portion of his speech to applaud California legislators for approving the bond sale that will enable the state to invest $6 billion in an initial high-speed rail segment and collect more than $3 billion in federal dollars.
“This is a historic opportunity for America — not just California, but America,” he said. “This train will be twice as fast as driving on highways.”
An international perspective
Today, more than 17,000 kilometers of high-speed lines are in operation and more than 9,000 are under construction, 791 trainsets are being manufactured or are on order, and 1.15 billion passengers ride high-speed trains each year.
HSR delegates from around the world shared stories of how HSR has helped them increase connectivity throughout their country and beyond, and increase economic development. Some of those experiences could serve as lessons learned, and provide insight into what U.S. HSR leaders will be facing in their efforts.
In Japan, where Shinkansen high-speed trains began operating in 1964 — making it the world’s first high-speed system — lines have been extended to various parts of the country. Last month, Japan’s government approved yet another Shinkansen extension. So, even 50 years after its initial opening, Shinkansen construction still is under way.
In late 2009, the Russian Railways launched 250 km/h operations on a line between Moscow and St. Petersburg. One year later, 200 km/h trains began operating between St. Petersburg and Helsinki. But operations were supposed to commence much sooner.
High-speed train service in Russia initially was discussed in the 1960s and 1970s. In the early 1990s, the Russian government began to advance the project. Private capital backed by government guarantees was secured, a feasibility study was prepared, and government and public studies were conducted. However, a 1998 market crash sank project financing and construction ceased. Construction finally resumed in the mid-2000s. The slow start has set back the Russian Railways’ long-term high-speed plans.
“Our example is one of how past processes can make you face problems in the future,” said Russian Railways President Vladimir Yakunin. “Never will an opportunity return again. The possibility might be there, but the opportunity will not.”
The railway plans to have a network of HSR lines in place by 2030.
But on the good-news front, the Russian Railways’ high-speed trains have become very popular.
“The occupancy of these trains is much higher than the occupancy of conventional trains,” said Yakunin. “Within less than three years, we carried more than 6 million people between Moscow and St. Petersburg, and that is only with eight trains.”
In the densely developed areas of Northern Europe — reminiscent of the northeastern portion of the United States — HSR has been critical to increase mobility and accommodate port traffic between Belgium, The Netherland and Luxemburg.
“We have a very dense economy, so mobility is everything,” said Marc Descheemaecker, CEO of the National Railway Company of Belgium.
High-speed trains also give the small countries better access to the larger countries of France, the United Kingdom and Germany. In an analogy that probably best summarized the benefits of having high-speed trains in northern Europe — and also makes the case for building a HSR system in densely populated regions — Descheemaecker put it this way: “It’s possible now to live in Brussels, have breakfast in Paris, lunch in Amsterdam and dinner in London.”