What's ahead for high speed train in the future

Analysis of Mediarail.be - Signalling technician and railways observer
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Today, 480 high-speed trains (Trains à Grande Vitesse, or TGV) radiate around France and to the Benelux countries from Paris. In Germany, more than 260 trainsets in five different versions called InterCity Express run with speed from 250 to 300km/h. Treno Alta Velocita is the name of the Italian’s high speed train of Trenitalia and his concurrent is called NTV-Italo. Spain had the biggest high speed line network in Europe. Recently, first works began in California while China continue his gigantic network. So, life seems to smile on the sector of high speed train. In reality, it’s depend. A brief overview.

An irreversible phase of decline?
Until years 60’s, nobody thought the railways future would soon be threatened. This was the effect of building a comfortable welfare state after world war II. But in years 70’s, it appeared the idea of a irreversible decline of the railways, because people had reached an adequate standard of living by combination of cars and airplane. Railway became the unnecessary ground transportation and many plans were developed for dismantle the railway network. The mentality and the spirit can be summed up thus : we maintain just a necessary backbone for intercity trains, no more. English still remember the famous Beeching Plan which identified 2,363 stations and 8,000 km of railway line for closure in UK. Railway was in an irreversible phase of decline, say all politicians. The subsidies were falling down dramatically.

Renaissance of railways
This was without reckoning with tenacity of many ingenieurs and directors who have faith in the future. During the mentality time of decline, they studies a new concept of train, helped by the birth of the first high speed trains in Japan, in 1964. To ride at more than 200 km/h is not a theoretical dream, but became a reality. One condition : to ride on a specific infrastructure able to accept high speed level. That was the aim of the french which inaugurated his first high speed train in september 1981. Suddenly, railways changed their self-image dramatically : modernity of TGV buried definitively the filthy and worn steam train of our grand parents. Renaissance ?

A Duplex train set of SNCF (photo by Alain Stoll via flickr CC BY-NC 2.0)

A spectacular expansion
The first country in Europe equipped with a high speed network was however not France as mentioned but well Italy, with his Direttissima opened in 1977 linking Rome with Florence. The top speed on the line was 250 km/h while the first high-speed service was introduced in 1988-89 on the Rome-Milan line with the ETR 450 Pendolino train at 250 km/h. In France, the route Paris-Lyon in 1981 was followed by the Atlantic Route toward Tours and Le Mans (1989-1990) and in 1993, the North line called TGV-Nord toward Lille and Calais was open. In Germany, the 99 km line connecting the cities of Mannheim and Stuttgart was officially opened on 9 May 1991 while the first regularly scheduled ICE trains ran on 2 June 1991 from Hamburg-Altona to München Hbf. 
Frecciarossa ETR500 from Trenitalia (photo by Ricardo Zappala via flickr CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

In april 1992, Spain begins his great adventure of a new railways century, with his first high speed linking Madrid to Sevilla, but above all it’s first line with standard gauge (1,435mm). In November 1994, the first high speed train ran between London and the Continent, partially on high speed line. Success of France encouraged Belgium to build his own network, where first line L1 was open in 1997 : it was the first fully cross-border high speed service of the world, linking Brussels to Paris in 1h25. Thereafter, high speed network expands rapidly toward Marseille, Berlin, Naples, Amsterdam…

In 2005, Spanish government announced a very ambitious plan of high speed network which would allow a majority of people to live from 50 kilometers of a High Speed Rail station. Around 1,000 kilometers of new track is set to open in 2015, expanding the current network by a third.

Spain begins in 1992 on the route Madrid-Seville (photo by Matthew Black via flickr CC BY-SA 2.0)

Battle against airliners
The great challenge of the high speed is to beat aviation trips around an hour, or 1000 km. With a fully high speed line on the same traject, it's possible for railways to stay under three hours. This travel time is a kind of "mental frontier" where people choose the train or the airplane. These impacts greatly on the modal share of the high speed trains. As a study of MTI reports, mode shift to HSR results when passengers select HSR over modes, such as airplanes or cars because the competitive advantages of HSR, in sum, offer greater perceived value.

The French Train à Grande Vitesse (TGV) line resulted in a 24% loss of market share for aircraft and an 8% reduction in car and bus travel. The best example is the Eurostar service, linking Brussels, Paris with London : the modal share is today more than two third. The connection between Paris and Marseille rose from 22 to 70 percent of market share after five years of his opening. In Spain, a 27% loss of market share was observed for aircraft and an 8% loss for cars and buses.

In Japan, Shinkansen and Intercity services accounts for 18 percent of all domestic passenger-kilometers by all travel modes, airlines includes. By 2014, high-speed trains operate in nearly 24 countries, including China, France, Italy, Japan, Spain, and UK. The global fleet seems to reach in the world more than 3,500 trainsets. Countries as unlikely as Saudi Arabia, Oman, Qatar and...the United States want now their own high speed network. Works begin in California and are going toward the final step in Saudi Arabia. Without to count the expansion of the network in China...

The great question of costs
The question of costs must be seen within two aspects: the cost of infrastructure and the operating costs. The two should be considered separately because there are not subject to the same policy. Infrastructure is a public object, open for anybody (the railways). The costs of infrastructure must call upon public policy with public funds, because theirs amounts are unaffordable for a private business, even in the case of a concession, such in Netherland. The last example in California has shown this evidence of the need of state funds. In some case, financial technics such as PPP can be used to provide more funds that State cannot procure. In all case, taxpayers may be expected to carry the costs and in all case, there are no alternative.

The second kind of the costs is very different. Indeed, the operating costs are only the costs from the train operator. Generally these costs are two sets of issues: a cost of infrastructure utilization (tolls) and operating costs of the trains services itself (energy, maintenance, onboard personal, drivers, marketing...). On this point, experience has shown that management can be very different between an incumbent operator and a private operator. That has been even demonstrated into the French SNCF itself : the Ouigo TGV train sets provide much more mileage than the "classic TGV services", turning continuously to 12-13 hours per day instead usually of 6 hours. That impact on the maintenance process where fewer trains must be brought to a standstill and where the rules of maintenance must be renewed.

Times change in France
As reported The Economist in august 2014, most of the high speed lines in France are running at a loss and even the profitable ones are not earning enough to cover their cost of capital. This is forcing SNCF, France’s state-owned railway, to consider taking the axe to what has been a rare symbol of French technical and business success. Le Figaro stated that the growth of the TGV activity suffered a serious downturn. Number of travelers fall down in 2013 by 0.7 per cent while in 2012, the growth was barely 0.1 per cent. For the branch SNCF Voyages sales decreased by 1.4 per cent and now amounted to only 11.4 per cent of the total sales. In addition, between 2007 and 2013, the cost of infrastructure utilization rose to 8.0 percent per year. Similar changes are seen in other countries. What exactly happened?

New societal attitudes
This is some of the new habits taken up by people. For example, speed seems not play the same role as it did yesterday. Alternative consumption is becoming more frequent and citizens are concerned about the preservation of their lifestyle, but not at just any price. Low-cost products now plays a growing role in social life and economy. Restaurants, travel, cars, insurance, electronics, real estate, leisure, clothing, food: nothing seems to escape the pull of low-cost shopping. The buyer is finding that low-cost shopping helps him purchase similar articles at lower prices. Carpooling is no longer a marginal market but becomes a real competition, like that of intercity buses, which are now liberalized in Europe. This means that railways are now again an expensive product and everyone knows that Ryanair or Easyjet have widely conveyed the message : today, aircraft is  cheaper and is within everyone's reach. On politic side, all countries are implementing structural reforms and putting their public finances into order. That calls for a series of measures to reconcile increased needs with budgetary constraints and to seek, within the existing budgetary framework, better efficiency. This concerns also the business of high speed trains.

Missing targets?
It might seem at first glance. According De Spiegel, in Germany, the national railway DBAG has already received €60 billion ($76 billion) in taxpayer money to fund his renovation, spending more than a third of the money on new high-speed routes like the Cologne-Frankfurt and Nuremberg-Munich lines. Nevertheless, the political target was not met. From 1994 to 2009, the number of passengers on long distances declined while only suburban and local traffic increased, thanks to hefty subsidies. Which is clear evidence that citizens increase to focus to regional and local sustainable transport, because this is their living environment, as mentioned above. The low speed would replace the high speed ? This is also the opinion of the long distance bus customers, for who the low-prices are the main element rather than the travel time. So, in this context, what’s ahead for high speed train in the future ?
German's railways spend more than a third of the money on new high-speed routes (photo by Mundus Gregorius CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

High speed trains are not death
The development of high-speed railways makes still people's life more convenient. You can go in the morning in Brussels and come back to London in afternoon. You do that with a carbon reduced footprint. Of course not everyone has the same needs nor an "international" life. But without high speed trains, the same quantity of customers would use airliners with a very bad carbon footprint. It recognised that the crisis should also be taken as an opportunity to set our economy more firmly on the path to a low-carbon and resource-efficient economy. High speed can help but one of the things you have to consider is that there appear to be little gains from further improving speed while the cost of energy is rising. It's is crucial to renew the business model of high speed trains. The french SNCF made an attempt with his new low-cost service Ouigo. While manufacturers build trainsets with more efficiency, low carbon footprint, and more seats. The new Velaro UK of Siemens sold to Eurostar proposes 900 seats on 400 meters long, while the "old" train set of 1994 proposes only 700 on the same lenght. Efforts are increasingly focused on improving efficiency, safety and security, as well as on reducing environmental impacts. The success of high speed train will lie upon a good planification of the needs and a clever combination of financial tools. There is an ongoing need to try to do better with less and that will force railways to make better use of more and more scarce public resources.

The project of new station of Birmingham-Curzon (www.birminghampost.co.uk/)

The coming of high speed train in the city must be the opportunity to renew the station's neighbourhoods. For example, in Birmingham, according the HS2 website (UK), high speed rail has the potential to stimulate further the ongoing regeneration of the city centre. It's depends however of other factors outside the railway areas, such as local politics of urbanization. As a KPMG report says about HS2 in UK, by changing the connectivity offered in the West Midlands, certain business sectors could benefit more than others. For example, improving long distance passenger transport will help to create a market for many companies in the service sector. On environmental side, high speed trains are powered by electricity, so their environmental performance will improve over time as more electricity comes from renewable sources. The new high speed lines free up  more resources for local and regional traffic, and it is precisely that require the citizens, as mentioned above. The question today is whether they would be willing to pay for its social cost. And this is precisely what makes the contemporary debate so interessant...