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Metros & Urban Rail

High speed rail: one size doesn’t fit all

Japan High Speed Rail

Increased urbanisation, environmental impact, passenger expectations and cost of system delivery all influence the shape of future rail networks.

High speed rail (HSR) has entered its second half century. More and more countries are looking at developing HSR systems to help cope with the ever increasing demand for fast, reliable transport and to reduce the adverse effects on the environment of other, existing modes of transportation.

Asia has always been at the forefront of HSR development. Japan led the way with the introduction in 1964 of the “Bullet Trains” between Tokyo and Osaka. This network was followed by the development of HSR in Taiwan, South Korea and most recently China.

By the end of 2013, China had built a HSR network of over 10 000 route-km, far exceeding that in any other country and larger than the network in the entire European Union.

Following the success of these lines, a number of other countries in Asia are now considering developing HSR systems – including Thailand, Malaysia/Singapore and Vietnam. However, HSR may not be the most appropriate solution for every market.

“Before committing the significant investment necessary to develop a HSR system a number of factors need to be carefully considered,” says Stuart Littlewood, Metros Leader, Asia.

Train station in AsiaThere is no ‘one size fits all’

There is no standard definition for HSR but the term is generally accepted to require compliance with three distinct criteria:

  • track specially built or upgraded for high speed travel
  • a minimum design speed of 250kph on specially built lines (or 200kph on upgraded lines)
  • an integrated system of specially designed rolling stock and infrastructure to ensure complete compatibility, safety and quality of service (UIC)

Some of the specific technical issues relating to HSR include:

  • the aerodynamic design of the rolling stock
  • the minimum radius of horizontal curves
  • maximum gradient of the vertical alignment
  • the use of continuous welded rail to reduce track vibrations and misalignment

The appeal of HSR systems to the travelling public is obvious -  shorter, overall trip times and convenience when compared with existing modes of transport such as cars, buses and air travel.

Trains and planes

Although aircraft travel at higher speeds than HSR trains, the total journey time to the same destination can be much longer as airports are usually located away from urban areas.

When travelling by plane, there is typically the need to arrive sufficiently in advance of the flight time to allow for check-in, baggage handling and security checks. This process can sometimes be repeated at the destination as well. Aircraft departure/arrival may be delayed by runway congestion or the impact of bad weather – storms, fog, extreme winds, etc.

“While there is no definitive cut-off point of reference when comparing air travel and HSR, journeys less than around 700km are probably quicker by HSR than air,” adds Stuart.

With regard to road vehicles, HSR trains can accommodate a much greater number of passengers than cars or buses. The longer the journey, the better the time advantage of rail over road, when heading to the same destination. HSR can even be more attractive than vehicles on shorter journeys (less than 100km) if road routes are congested and the difficulty and cost of parking private cars is taken into account.

In addition to convenience, there is the comfort factor. Because there are no weight restrictions, train seats are generally more spacious and comfortable than on aircraft. Passengers can move freely around carriages, rather than being constrained to sitting down for long periods.

With the continuous welded track, noise and vibration are significantly reduced. Equally, HSR trains do not suffer from turbulence nor are they impacted by poorly maintained infrastructure.

Positives for the environment

Apart from the convenience and comfort, there are significant environmental benefits to the community from HSR.

Studies in the US have shown that rail travel is three times more energy efficient than highway travel and six times more than air travel. Because of economies of scale, HSR trains are significantly more fuel-efficient per passenger kilometre traveled than typical road vehicles.

“On the Eurostar, which primarily runs off the French nuclear powered electricity grid, emissions from travelling by train from London to Paris are 90% lower than by flying,” says Stuart.

But despite all these benefits, the cost of procuring and operating HSR systems remains very high.

Therefore, the decision of whether or not to develop HSR cannot be made based solely on transportation considerations and needs to be balanced against other development opportunities. In purely financial terms, HSR systems are rarely profitable and in almost every country where HSR operates the government pays a subsidy.

HSR lines have been successful in countries that have a number of large metropolitan centres, high per capita GDP and potential destinations between 100-500 km apart.

“Taking all of these factors into consideration, governments need to carefully consider whether the potential economic goals might be better achieved by investing funds in roads, airports or even upgrading existing rail infrastructure. In the end, the decision is not an easy one!” concludes Stuart.

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