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High Speed Rail: all aboard?

Atkins | 10 Apr 2013 | Comments

There has always been something special about rail travel – from the early steam-powered locomotives to today’s streamlined services that transport you to your chosen destination at hundreds of miles per hour. But is the romance of rail enough to convince investors and the public that new networks are necessary, especially in tough economic times?

In early 2013, Britain’s Prime Minister claimed the country must, “get on board the high speed revolution”. He was speaking about HS2, a rail project that will link London with cities in the northwest of the country. It will include 330 miles of track and will be built at an estimated cost of up to £34.5bn.

The justification for the expenditure, according to the Prime Minister, is that it will help secure economic prosperity across Britain and ensure the country remains competitive in the global marketplace. But this is not a compelling argument for all concerned. There is a perception that benefits are restricted to the areas closest to the station hubs while the disruption caused by construction will affect everyone along the route. For this reason, many protesters believe the benefits do not outweigh the costs.

“High speed rail schemes can be a hotly debated investment,” says Atkins’ business development director, Dr Andy Southern. “But in the UK, the demand for rail services has risen faster than the standard rail forecasts predicted, which means that additional capacity requirements do need to be considered.”

But why invest in new high speed lines instead of upgrading conventional networks? According to Southern, high speed rail should be seen as a means of shaping economic geographies rather than being considered an isolated transport project. It should also form part of a wider strategic plan so investment can be judged against its contribution to economic growth, social cohesion and environmental improvement.

“Governments need to be clear about the size and distribution of the potential economic benefits,” he says. “For example, does high speed rail offer better value for money than investing in local transit projects?”

The potential economic benefits include a reduction in journey time, improved productivity in the employment centres served and the scope to use existing track capacity to improve local commuter services. The number of travellers who decide to take the train rather than fly or drive to their destination will have a significant impact on the possible environmental benefits.

In continental Europe, high speed lines have reduced journey times between established major centres, for example, London, Paris and Brussels, and at the same time stimulated growth and economic regeneration in these and intermediate centres such as Lille in France and Ashford in the UK. In Japan, high speed rail has transformed outlying rural communities into new urban centres while in China, it forms the main arteries that are shaping a rapidly growing economy.

Atkins is acting as lead advisor in Scandinavia, where a high speed network is providing the connectivity necessary to create the “Scandinavian 8 million city”, joining Copenhagen in Denmark, Gothenburg and Malmo in Sweden and Oslo in Norway to form a new region that is at the centre of government measures to drive global competitiveness. Similarly, the proposals for a high speed line between Kuala Lumpur and Singapore promise to greatly enhance the links between the two centres as well as increase economic activity in the other towns and cities served.

“When plans for a high speed line are being drawn up, it is also crucial to consider the local infrastructure requirements that will be necessary to support high quality and large-scale transit oriented development (TOD), Atkins’ Jason Hutchings, who is responsible for architecture and urban design at Atkins in Hong Kong, explains.

“Capturing the increase in land values and the planning gain as contributions to the capital and running costs of rail and associated infrastructure reinforces the need for an integrated and holistic approach to planning,” he says. “High speed rail, while not a primary driver for TOD in terms of footfall, greatly increases the status, and therefore the value of associated property development, in terms of civic prominence as well as commercial ROI”.

The scale of the investment and the time it takes to plan, design and deliver high speed schemes require political resolve and some certainty over long-term funding arrangements.

As Southern says: “It is vital that any scheme offers value for money, is financially affordable and deliverable in planning and engineering terms. A carefully researched evidence base that gives the public and private sectors the confidence to invest in a high speed scheme is paramount to success.“

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