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10 Jun 2008
Europe’s high-speed rail network is set to treble in size by 2020, bringing more cities within four hours reach – the pivotal point at which people choose rail over air. Could UK passengers join them or will there still be missing links?
Operators such as Eurostar are already wooing passengers with fast, low-carbon journeys – London to Paris, for example, now takes just two hours and 15 minutes. High-speed rail generates a fraction of the CO2 of air travel. The future looks bright.
“It’s the most civilised way to travel,” reckons Simon Calder, travel editor of UK newspaper The Independent. “It gives you entirely productive time and, for the most part, a pleasant travelling experience that compares favourably with pretty much any other form of transport.”
Modern high-speed railways are usually purpose-built and dedicated to passenger traffic – there are no slow moving goods trains to get in the way, no level crossings and few intermediate stations. The benchmark speed on high-speed routes is 300kph (186mph), although many routes are configured for up to 350kph (220mph).
The UK currently has only one stretch of modern high-speed railway, High Speed 1, which links the Eurostar terminal at London’s St Pancras International station with the Channel Tunnel. The final section of this route opened late last year. But St Pancras International is where the European high-speed network begins and ends. Travel from London to anywhere else in the UK and it’s back to conventional rail, with its maximum speed of 125mph, but only in places. Many now believe it’s time the UK considered building its own high-speed network.
“In Europe, high-speed rail lines play a substantial role in facilitating and spreading economic development, bringing cities closer together,” says Richard Brown, chief executive of Eurostar. “Britain needs some of that.”
Making better use of existing infrastructure is the cornerstone of current government rail policy and is highlighted in the 2007 white paper, Delivering a Sustainable Railway. £10 billion will be invested in UK capacity improvements between 2009 and 2014. Atkins is playing a lead role in renovating the existing network, with recent projects including the major resignalling upgrade at Rugby and Nuneaton, part of the West Coast mainline programme, and installations and commissioning work for the resignalling and infrastructure upgrade at Basingstoke. Better signalling, track improvements and longer trains will all help to ease the strain. But will it be enough? Atkins’ recently published high-speed rail report, by Michael Hayes – the first in a series of Because Transport Matters publications – suggests long-distance capacity could start to run out within 10 years unless new high-speed routes are built.
“Passenger growth on the UK network is growing far faster than the official forecasts predict,” warns John McSheen, project development director at Atkins. “There are all kinds of things that can be done to squeeze the asset. But once it has all been squeezed out, we’ll be back in the same position we are now. If we started today, it would take 13 years to get a high-speed network planned and implemented. The planning should start now.”
The tide now seems to be turning in favour of UK high-speed rail. In June this year, the Liberal Democrats included an extensive network in its manifesto pledges. Their idea would see fast trains running from St Pancras International station, stretching out to Heathrow, Birmingham, and Manchester. It would all be paid for, they said, by emissions-related charges on road freight and internal flights.
Following hard on the heels of last year’s rail white paper, a government discussion document – Towards a Sustainable Transport System – also flagged up high-speed rail as a potential candidate for boosting travel capacity on the strategic London- Birmingham-Manchester corridor. And the House of Commons Environmental Audit Committee, reporting in March this year, recommended new fiscal measures to encourage travellers to choose rail instead of air on short-haul domestic journeys.
The Atkins high-speed rail report builds a persuasive business case for new north-south high-speed rail links. “Our message is that high-speed rail has a massive positive impact on gross domestic product,” says McSheen. “The UK is now driven by business rather than manufacturing, and high-speed rail directly serves that population. We’re seeing urban regeneration and a shift back into cities. I think high-speed rail suits that ideally.”
It’s a view that’s beginning to be more widely shared. “High-speed rail has a huge amount to offer,” says Eurostar’s Brown. “In terms of facilitating and spreading economic development across the UK, it would help take pressure off the south-east and London economies and further boost the already strongly growing economies in key regional cities.”
The Atkins report also highlights the potential economic gains of agglomeration – or clustering. “You would get higher density clusters of business working more closely together because of improvements in accessibility and the concentration of business in a particular location,” agrees Andy Southern, managing director of Atkins’ transport planning business. “And faster journey times enhance economic productivity, so industry and business operate far more efficiently.”
Analysis carried out by Atkins reveals that construction of a full high-speed rail network – with both east and west coast links – could unlock long-term GDP productivity benefits of approximately £44 billion. And it would reduce the need for road and air travel.
The report showed that if you try to put new rail in at conventional speeds, you don’t get the abstraction from other modes. So there’s no business case. High-speed rail would take a lot of patronage from conventional rail, but also from air and road. A new high-speed rail network could also mean a brighter future for local transport, as it would release main lines currently used for conventional fast trains.
Elsewhere in the world, there are even more ambitious plans. Plans in the Middle East to develop the heavy rail network include proposals for a Gulf Co-operation Council (GCC) Railway, with high-level political support.
“The project aims to achieve co-ordination, interconnection and integration among the GCC member states in all fields,” said Mohammed bin Ubeid Al Mazroie, GCC assistant secretary-general for economic affairs, at a lecture in Abu Dhabi last year. “This will enhance unity and strengthen relations and co-operation among their peoples,” he added, in comments reported by the Khaleej Times.
The scale of the network envisaged has huge strategic implications for a region with almost no rail infrastructure. The network is likely to link the six GCC member states, from Muscat to Kuwait, and will connect up the region’s burgeoning ports and industrial zones. With the involvement of Turkey it could provide a direct rail link with Europe.
“Governments here have recognised that rail is the way to go,” says Paul Abbosh, Atkins development director for the Middle East region. “The drivers are inner city congestion, closer co-operation between the GCC members, sustainability and rail’s ability to support trade.”
South Africa’s new Gautrain Rapid Rail Link, another Atkins project, with links to Johannesburg and Pretoria, falls between high-speed rail and hi-tech metro systems. As well as improving transport in Gauteng province, the 80km network is intended to spread wider social and economic benefits. According to the Gauteng Provincial Government, the project has already created nearly 30,000 jobs, both directly and indirectly.
But whatever the merits of the high-speed argument, there’s no escaping the reality of day-to-day rail travel, and problems that have nothing to do with physical infrastructure. High ticket prices and complex booking systems continue to hamper operations. Frustration has driven Mark Smith to set up a website dedicated to making life easier for international travellers who want to go by train. In the seven years since he set it up, seat61.com has become a cult travel resource and a must-click site for anyone planning a cross-border rail trip.
“What inspired me was how easy, practical and affordable train travel to Europe can be – and how impossible it is to find anyone who can tell you how to do it and sell you a ticket,” says Smith, known as the Man in Seat 61. “A journey from my local station to, say, Naples can be booked online, but I need to use at least three different websites to book it.”
That’s changing, however, with high-speed train operating companies such as Eurostar and SNCF grouping together to form a new partnership called Railteam. Railteam provides a one-stop shop for trans-European high-speed rail travellers, and business travellers in particular. It aims to exploit the potential of Europe’s high-speed network to the full, and provide a practical alternative to airline travel in Europe. From 2009, it will be possible to book complete journeys through its website (railteam.eu). The aim is to build up services and develop smooth interchanges right across the Railteam network. This includes minimising passenger waiting times (the goal is a max dwell time of one hour) and allowing passengers to access the cheapest fares possible for their journey. Ultimately, it promises to be the fastest way to open up a whole new range of towns and cities for high-speed rail.
In the longer term, changes in the way the rail market operates could also help boost passenger numbers by driving ticket prices down. Liberalisation of Europe’s railway market in 2010 will open international passenger services up to greater competition. That will mean new cross-border services and – potentially – a new generation of low-cost rail carriers bringing affordable international rail travel within a much wider reach.
But to offer a real alternative to the low-cost airlines, the rail industry will have to do whatever it can to get connected. Four hours may be a pivotal journey time for the switch to rail, but without the convenience of fast, efficient ticketing, an extensive network, and seamless connections, high-speed rail will go nowhere fast.
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