Media Kit » Try RailPrime™ Today! »
Progressive Railroading
Newsletter Sign Up
Stay updated on news, articles and information for the rail industry

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy Policy and Terms of Service apply.

View Current Digital Issue »


Rail News Home High-Speed Rail


Rail News: High-Speed Rail

Get past the hype so you can get down to business, APTA 'Fact or Myth' webcast presenters say


Wading through all the high-speed hype can be a challenge for even the most fervent of high-speed supporters. But it’s essential to weed it out if you’re serious about making high-speed rail happen in your neck of the woods, as panelists suggested during “Fact or Myth: The Return on Investment of a National High-Speed and Intercity Rail Program — Lessons Learned and Best Practices From Abroad,” a discussion/webcast conducted June 9 at the Hyatt Regency Vancouver, British Columbia, during the American Public Transportation Association’s (APTA) 2010 Rail Conference.

“Do not listen to all the cheerleading — you’ve got to solve the problem, ‘What do you think high-speed rail will do for you?’” said panelist Andrew McNaughton, chief engineer of High Speed Two Ltd. (HS2), a company the British government established last year to consider the case for new high-speed rail services between London and Scotland. “If you don’t, you can’t make a business case.”

Making that case was but one discussion thread offered up by the panel, which was moderated by HNTB Corp. Senior Vice President Peter Gertler. In addition to McNaughton, panelists included:

•    Julián Sastre González, director of civil engineering at the Polytechnic University of Madrid and senior researcher at the Fundación Caminos de Hierro;
•    Tadashi Kaneko, director of the Japan International Transportation Institute in Washington, D.C.; and
•    David Gillen, director of the Centre for Transportation Studies, Sauder School of Business at the University of British Columbia.

The panelists weren’t there to be advocates for high-speed rail, said Gertler, who also chairs APTA’s High Speed & Intercity Rail Program. Instead, their aim was to take an objective view of how high-speed rail has been “assessed and implemented, and how that might apply to opportunities here in North America,” he said during his introductory remarks.

To that end, panelists shared their respective high-speed stories. Although system details didn’t always translate, fundamental threads connected them all. In addition to adhering to the “Don’t believe the hype” rule, panelists called for leadership (from planners and government folks alike), preached patience (high-speed rail is a long-haul undertaking) and advised fellow planners to articulate the need for high speed before formulating plans accordingly.

‘We believe in high-speed rail’
First to speak was Sastre, whose presentation “The Effects of High-Speed Rail in Spain” demonstrated how far the Spain system has come during the past two decades. Spain opened its first line, which connects Madrid and Seville, in 1992. Either later this year or early next, Spain will boast the world’s longest high-speed network, the more than 1,500-mile-long Alta Velocidad Española (AVE), Sastre said. And by 2020 — or, possibly, 2025, given the “current economic framework,” he added — the system will stretch more than 6,000 miles.

“We are not going to stop here — even in a downturn, we are going to continue developing our [system] because we believe in high-speed rail,” Sastre said.  

One reason: AVE trains, which travel at speeds up to nearly 190 mph, continue to prompt travelers to eschew air travel — and, to an extent, bus and car trips — and take the train, he said. As for AVE’s impact on the communities it connects and others along the way?  So far, so good. The line has had “a very positive impact” on commercial development, and it also has “enhanced new residential development and public services,” he added, although some communities aren’t benefiting as much as others.

“The need to offer reduced traveling times obligated us to reduce the number of stops,” Sastre said.

Of course, Spain’s going to have to pony up to keep its commitment, which Sastre didn’t delve into. To build those next 4,500 miles, it could cost upwards of $120 billion, according to published reports.

‘Build it, and they will come’ won’t cut it
All the more reason, then, to steer clear of hype and stick to what’s possible, based on research. Enter HS2’s McNaughton, who spoke next. HS2 was created “not to become a cheerleader for high-speed rail but to establish whether there is a business case for it,” he reiterated during his presentation (“Great Britain’s High-Speed Rail Plans”).

And in Great Britain, there is a business case to be made to expand the existing system.

“Our [high-speed] railways are full up, but the next phase will be very difficult, very expensive — almost like open-heart surgery,” McNaughton said, noting the cost, risk and uncertain outcome associated with building any high-speed system.

It isn’t just that existing high-speed system — Channel Tunnel Rail Link, aka High Speed 1 — is operating at capacity; Great Britain’s highways are, too, he said, adding that any high-speed extension game plan must focus on taking travelers off the highway.

“A lot of it is door to door, office to office,” he said. “The car in Britain is the dominant form of travel because cities are 100 miles apart. Britons love their cars every bit as much as Americans love theirs.”

So: What can high-speed rail do that car travel can’t? That is the business-case question, said McNaughton, who also is a professor of rail engineering at the U.K.’s University of Nottingham. Answer: High-speed rail must be able to compete with car travel between “major city pairs” that are about 80 miles apart, he said.

“It takes a car an hour and a half [to make that trip],” McNaughton said. “We need to halve the rail time to about 45 minutes.”

If they can, it’d result in a “massive modal shift” from car travel to high-speed rail.

“To do that, we need [to operate at] over 200 mph,” McNaughton said.

Such a system, he added, “is not to be a rich man’s toy — it [must be] a high-volume move.”

The slow boat to high speed
Late last year, the HS2 team suggested that a line linking London with West Midlands would be a good place to start. HS2 subsequently was asked to begin work on options for equivalent lines form the West Midlands to Manchester, and to Leeds via the East Midlands and South Yorkshire.

Selecting the proper terminal and rider access points will be key. Access can’t be problematic — if it is, it “wipes out the advantage of high speed,” McNaughton said.

Building High Speed 2 won’t be a slam dunk. Cities and villages typically don’t want these systems running through them. One way to avoid the problem is to go under those cities and villages by building tunnels.

“We won’t be building great big viaducts,” McNaughton said, adding that tunnel construction wouldn't come cheap. Then again, nothing about high-speed rail ever is.

For example, building the London-to-Birmingham and Birmingham-to-Manchester legs would cost $45 billion.

“We will wipe out the car, but at a price,” McNaughton said.

It’ll also take a while — “forever,” McNaughton said — to build the new system, given the lengthy “public consultation” process to come and the approval hoops through which high-speed system planners would need to jump. Construction would begin by 2018, with the year 2029 as the target completion.

So: High-speed system proponents would be advised to keep their eyes on the prize, as well as to buckle up for a long ride, McNaughton suggested. Other advice: Don’t fret over whether technology will be there when you need it — it will be, he said. What’s more important is minding the all the “public issues” and forging solid, long-lasting political relationships. In short: Your business case must be able to withstand the winds of political change, McNaughton said.

Don’t underestimate the potential
To Tadashi Kaneko, that ability is called leadership — another essential ingredient in the development of a high-speed rail system.

“Nobody can guarantee the success of the system, so strong opposition is always there,” said Kaneko, whose presentation focused on the growth of Japan’s Shinkansen high-speed network, which has been expanded several times since its 1964 launch. “[That’s why] strong leadership is important.”

By implication, Kaneko suggested that kind of leadership is one reason the Shinkansen system now carries 1 million people daily. So has consistent “modal shift” — from air travel — with every new extension. Take the Kyushu Shinkansen, which opened in 1982, and was extended in 2002 and again this year. The route’s marketshare went from 39 percent to 61 percent between 2001 to 2005. With this year’s extension, it could go up to “75-80 percent,” Kaneko said, adding that high-speed systems under development in California and Florida “would seem to fall into that 80-20 [percent marketshare range] compared with air travel.”

Meanwhile, Shinkansen network has helped foster commercial development along the various routes.

“It’s gone from rice fields to buildings,” Kaneko said, referencing PowerPoint “before and after” slides. “In 30 years, everything has changed.”

Kaneko didn’t detail the cost of that change, but Shinkansen system runs on dedicated track, which won’t be the case for many high-speed legs in the United States.

“I know it is very expensive [but] that is why in Japan, there is separation of construction, ownership and operation,” he said.

Other elements on Kaneko’s “very important” (if not “must have”) list for a successful high-speed rail network: “Grade crossings must be eliminated. Sufficient capacity from the beginning is very important. Do not underestimate the potential of high-speed rail. [If you do], when you realize it, it might be too late.”

Stay sober …
That said, there’s danger in overestimating and/or presuming that potential. In offering up what he termed a “North American Perspective of High-Speed Rail,” Centre for Transportation Studies’ Gillen expressed concern for what he termed “agenda-driven” high-speed funding.

“When we consider high-speed development in North America, we’re always considering it in a government realm, and I’m not sure that is the right way to go about it,” he said.

More appropriate, he suggested, would be to consider high-speed rail in an integrated context.

“High-speed rail is not about a city-to-city operation — it is door to door or business to business,” Gillen said, in another nod to McNaughton’s comments. “Therefore, it has to be integrated.”

He also raised questions about whether running higher-speed rail on existing freight-rail-owned track in the United States — with the exception of Florida and California, where systems would operated on dedicated track — could end up driving freight back to the highway. He also questioned the ease with which some high-speed proponents presume and pass along high-speed rail’s safety and environmental benefits, as well as its economic development impact.

“It depends very much on what your perspective is,” Gillen said of the latter. “You could be taxing Peter to pay Paul.”

Then there are the presumptions high-speed planners might not make — such as not factoring in the response from air carriers, say, which aren’t likely to sit idly by and let a high-speed rail system take that marketshare from them.

“The strategic response from competing modes is key — airlines, bus, car,” Gillen said. “You have to include that in your approach.”

As for factoring in the high cost of high speed? There, too, it’s crucial to stick to the facts to the extent that you know them … to stay objective  … and, again, to make the case for high speed on that basis. Over and over again, if need be.

“If you do not have a business case for high-speed rail, you’re going to have a very difficult time putting it in place,” Gillen said, seconding McNaughton’s assertion.

— Pat Foran

Contact Progressive Railroading editorial staff.

More News from 6/11/2010