Jean-Paul Rodrigue (2013), New York:
Routledge, 416 pages.
Authors: Dr. Jean-Paul Rodrigue
1. Existing High Speed Networks
High speed rail (HSR) refers to passenger rail systems running at operational
speed between 200 and 300 km/h, and above in some cases. The HSR era originates from Japan with
the Tokaido line, bridging Tokyo and Osaka,
which entered into service in 1964 in time for the Tokyo Olympics. Today,
is perceived as an efficient alternative to highway and airport congestion.
Evidence underline that rail travel time is
cut in about a half when a
high speed service is established between two city pairs. The setting of
high speed rail systems
has accelerated around the world over the last two decades,
particularly in China where since 2000 several high speed rail corridors
have been rapidly set, reaching 9,300 km in 2012. Several countries, including the United
States, are also planning for high speed rail corridors, but these
projects tend to take decades to implement in part due to funding
issues, the limited importance of existing passenger rail services
as well as the dominance of air and road. Dedicated high speed
postal trains are used in Europe (e.g. France and Sweden) on a daily
basis, but the relative decline of postal use leaves such endeavors
with questionable growth potential.
High speed rail currently functions
under two discrete technologies:
The first high speed rail networks were built to service national
systems, mostly in a linear fashion along main corridors. For the case
of Europe this development has reached a phase where integration
between different national high speed systems is taking place. This
notably involves Eurostar (Paris - Lille - London) and Thalys (Paris
- Brussels - Antwerp - Rotterdam - Amsterdam). The setting of high speed
rail networks consequently must take into consideration the following
- Improvement of conventional rail. The first type uses
existing conventional rail systems and its great velocity is
primarily the fact of considerable improvements in locomotive performance
and train design. They may not be considered as a pure high speed trains
per se. England (London - Edinburgh), Sweden (Stockholm - Gothenburg),
Italy (Rome - Florence and Rome - Milan), and the United-States
(Boston - Washington) are examples of this type of technology. Trains
can reach peak speeds of approximately 200 km/h in most cases and
up to 250 km/h in Italy. The principal drawback from using this
system, however, is that it must share existing lines with regular
- Exclusive high speed networks. In contrast, the second
category of high speed trains runs on its own exclusive and independent
tracks. In Japan, trains can attain speeds
of 240 km/h, but ongoing projects to raise peak speeds at 300 km/h
aim at maintaining competitiveness of rail passenger transport versus
air. In France, the TGV Sud-Est (Trains a Grande Vitesse) reaches
speeds of 270 km/h while the TGV Atlantique
can cruise at speeds of 300 km/h. One of the key advantages of such
a system is since passenger trains have their exclusive tracks,
the efficiency of rail freight transport increases as it
inherits the almost exclusive use of the conventional rail system.
2. Benefits and Challenges
HSR provides a number of economic, social and environmental
benefits for the corridors they service. The most salient are:
- Distance between stations. A distance of 50 km is often considered
a minimum, leaving enough for trains to accelerate and reach cruising
speed. Servicing too many stations undermines the rationale of
high speed systems, which is to service large urban
agglomerations in a fast and continuous manner.
- Separation from other rail systems. This is mainly the case
in and out of metropolitan areas where high speed trains are forced
to use the standard rail network so that they may connect to
central rail stations.
- Availability of land, both for terminals and high speed lines.
This problem can be mitigated by using existing central rail
stations. The development of new HSR stations has often required
the use of suburban greenfield sites.
High speed rail systems can have substantial impacts on other
transport modes, even freight transport systems. One of the most
apparent is on air transportation services between cities of the
high speed rail corridor, particularly the most distant ones. High
speed rail is able to compete
successfully with short to medium distance air transport
services as it conveys the advantage of servicing downtown areas and
has much lower terminal time, mainly because of less security
constraints. Another emerging trend concerns a complementarity
between HSR and air transportation, which involves cooperation
between a national air and rail carrier. For instance, Lufthansa and
Deutsche Bahn as well as Air France and SNCF offer single fares
and tickets for selected routes where a high speed rail segment is
offered instead of a flight. There is thus a balance between
competition and complementarity for HSR and air transportation
particularly when there is congestion in the air transport system.
In this situation the complementarity may help release airport gate
slots that can be used to support more revenue generating (longer
distance) flights or to reduce congestion.
Rail stations with high speed rail services are also
increasingly becoming transport hubs with the associated demands on
urban transport systems, particularly public transit. Regarding high
speed rail stations, two dynamics have emerged:
- Capacity and reliability. HSR corridors
have the capacity to move a large number of passengers in a safe
and reliable manner. They can mitigate congested road and air
infrastructure, particularly for short to medium distance trips.
They are also much less impacted by adverse weather conditions
(e.g. storms) than road and air transport.
- Energy and environment. HSR systems consume
less energy per passenger-km than road and air transport. They
are perceived to provide a more sustainable mobility with
electric power and denser land use structures associated with
For freight transportation, there are several potential impacts,
mostly indirect. The most straightforward is that since high speed
rail uses its own right of way, the separation between passenger and
freight systems promotes the efficiency and reliability of both
networks. The main reason is that passengers and freight have
different operational characteristics, namely in terms of speed and
frequency of service. For each passenger car that is removed from
regular rail lines an additional three freight rail cars can be
accommodated by the new slot. The setting of high speed networks may also
incite additional investments in rail freight infrastructure,
particularly in metropolitan areas, better signaling technologies
and cost sharing initiatives. Although there have been discussions
about the potential of using high speed rail to move freight, these
have not yet led to concrete realizations. There are plans to have a
high speed rail cargo network in Europe by 2015, which would link
major air cargo hubs such as Paris, Liege, Amsterdam, London and
Frankfurt. The goal is to provide an alternative to short haul air
cargo routes as well as the possibility to move cargo between the
hubs and improve their long distance air cargo connectivity.
Yet, HSR do not have the far reaching impacts on passenger
mobility that its proponents suggest, at least on the medium
term. Although HSR in Europe is considered to be successful,
its implementation required massive subsidies and its
profitability remains difficult to achieve. The case of China is
also illustrative in spite of the massive potential that HSR may
have in a context of existing high usage levels of passenger
rail and a dense urban system, the development of HSR networks
is challenging. The rush to construct the system
has raised technical and security issues and has been associated
with low ridership. China remains a developing country were low
fares are the dominant factor in mode selection, implying that
HSR is not affordable for the great majority of the population.
The location of stations remains a salient issue as suburban
locations are advantageous from an availability of land
perspective. However, suburban locations tend to be not well
connected to the local transport system and are remote from
central areas, which is commonly the destination for most
passenger traffic. The impacts of new HSR stations as poles for
urban growth and development remain so far elusive.
In addition to present technologies, an entirely new technological
paradigm has been under development in Japan and Germany since the late
1970s. The new technology is known as Maglev (Magnetic Levitation);
it utilizes magnetic forces to uplift trains, guide them laterally and
to propel them, relying upon highly efficient electromagnetic systems.
The first commercial maglev rail system was inaugurated in
Shanghai in 2003.
Maglev systems have experienced some constraints on widespread commercialization,
however, such as difficulties with integration in established rail corridors
and perceptions of high construction costs.
- The reconversion and usage of central railway stations. Such
facilities benefit from high accessibility levels due to their
central locations and can thus grant a significant customer base
for HSR services.
- The setting of new facilities in suburbia. In this case, the
HSR station represents an opportunity to create a new node of
activity (growth pole) within a metropolitan area.