HSR in Europe

European experience

Print edition : October 13, 2017

A Eurostar train travels along the High Speed 1 line at the Eurotunnel entrance in Folkestone, U.K. Britain currently plans to build High Speed 2. Photo: Jason Alden/Bloomberg

Europe’s High Speed Rail networks are seen to be hugely driven by political motivations with economic rationale playing a secondary role.

EVER since Japan began running bullet train services between Tokyo and Osaka in 1964—just ahead of the Tokyo Olympics—more than halving the six-hour journey between the great urban centres, High Speed Rail (HSR) networks have become one of the infrastructure aspirations of governments across the world and, certainly, Europe, which has embraced them with zeal. Between 1985 and 2013, the European Union’s (E.U.) HSR network rose from 643 to 7,343 kilometres; it gained in speed, frequency and capacity too over this period.

HSR networks have been seen as fulfilling a number of objectives: introducing additional capacity to national transport systems by releasing capacity on conventional lines, and producing environmental benefits by steering travellers away from car and air travel. “Travel by HSR produces only one-third of the carbon emissions of car travel and one quarter of the emissions of an equivalent trip by air, taking into account the average loadings typically achieved on each mode,” estimated a 2010 report by the United Kingdom’s House of Commons Transport Committee. It argued that things would only improve as HSR became more efficient.

The push for HSR travel in Europe really began following the 1974 petrol crisis, when governments sought to provide a level of predictability for their energy needs. Italy launched the first HSR between Florence and Rome in 1977, which was swiftly followed by countries across Europe. Germany and Spain also have substantial high speed networks (the latter is Europe’s longest HSR network). Britain joined the club in 2003 with High Speed 1, which ran to the Channel Tunnel from central London, connecting Britain with continental Europe. Other E.U. nations with HSRs include Belgium, Portugal, Sweden, Austria, Poland, Finland and the Netherlands, while recent plans include a Chinese-funded project connecting Belgrade and Budapest. In France, there are nearly 2,650 km of Lignes a grande vitesse (LGV) on which the renowned TGV high speed intercity trains run. The most recent lines were launched earlier this summer—between Paris and Rennes, and Paris and Bordeaux.

It is hard to argue over the transformative impact that high speed trains have had in some cases: the French city of Lille, once hard hit by the collapse of domestic industries, has seen its fortunes transformed since becoming a hub for HSR networks across Europe, including from the U.K.

Costly projects

Still, the French case highlights the complexity of the challenge facing HSR. It is notable that aside from a forthcoming upgrade due to happen in the south of France later this year, their central government has no further plans to fund such networks, with SNCF, the state-owned railway firm which is heavily in debt, in no position to do so either.

While HSR networks are attractive in theory, they can be extremely costly projects at a time when central and local governments across Europe are under heavy pressure over spending, and justifying austerity regimes. This is certainly the case in France where the head of the armed forces, General Pierre de Villiers, quit following differences with President Emmanuel Macron over budget cuts. The two new lines involved an investment from SNCF of around 11.4 billion euros, at a time of limited public appetite for travel on high speed trains which are becoming increasingly expensive to use.

TGV has also been facing increasing competition from conventional but cheaper rail services, France’s long-distance bus services, low-cost air travel and car-based alternatives such as car sharing. The need to tackle this increasingly competitive environment was reflected by SNCF’s decision earlier this year to rebrand TGV as inOui (a rebrand that raised eyebrows at home), with plans to improve customer services, including ticketing and Wi-Fi.

The problems are not only confined to France. According to a European Commission report published in 2015, there is a huge range in cost per kilometre for HSRs in Europe, with the average being a whopping 17.5 million euros and the rate of return varying greatly. “Specialists tend to consider that the future HSR projects are unlikely to offer the same profits as those provided by early investments,” said the report.

A 2014 report by the French Court of Auditors provided a snapshot of the problems facing the network in France. It suggested that the expansion happened too fast and to too great an extent, with not all the points en route meeting the criteria for needing an HSR, including large population and high speed frequency. It also raised questions about the economic benefits of the system as it was run currently and noted that none of the lines that had been launched had yet met their targets in terms of passengers they carried.

Controversial in Britain

Such reservations have provided fuel to groups opposing extensions of HSR networks elsewhere, such as in Britain where the ongoing development of such infrastructure remains controversial. Britain, which has long been accused of falling behind the mainland in terms of development of high speed infrastructure, currently plans to build the second HSR, High Speed 2, a Y-shaped project linking London with Birmingham and the East Midlands as well as Leeds and Manchester in a two-stage project by 2033.

Costs for the project are estimated to be an eye-watering £56 billion (far higher than the 2010 estimates of £32.7 billion). The plans are seen by their endorsers as part of the solution to a combination of pressures, including rising consumer demand for travel between these densely populated regions, limits on capacity on existing routes, and Britain’s environmental commitments that recently led the government to pledge that it would ban the sale of new cars with conventional combustion engines from 2040.

A grassroots campaign, Stop HS2, which began before the project gained the necessary approvals, argues that the decision to proceed with the project was made in a “policy vacuum, without any assessment of what was best for Britain’s transport infrastructure”, and that the project lacked a business case, and could be environmentally detrimental including to natural areas. The group also questions whether connecting the north of England to the capital is really the way forward for the country, already concerned about the over-focus on London. The funds could be better spent connecting northern cities, feeding into the Northern Powerhouse the government has been pushing for. There is already much concern in Britain over the imbalance in spending on transport infrastructure between the north and the south: the think tank IPPR North recently found that infrastructure spending on the north was less than half that of London, with the difference amounting to around £59 billion over the past decade.

Others have expressed concerns too: a 2015 House of Lords report warned that when it came to “one of the most expensive infrastructure projects ever undertaken in the U.K.”, the government had “yet to make a convincing case for proceeding with the project” and that it was unclear that it was the most effective solution to Britain’s problems, arguing that overcrowding was less of an issue on long-distance trains than it was on commuter trains which the new project would not impact. Indeed, the French example would suggest the project could divert funds that might otherwise be spent on such work.

The parliamentary committee report called on the government to consider the fairness of the large subsidy that would be required for HS2 as many would derive no benefit.

Another think tank, the New Economics Foundation, pointed to this as an issue and suggested what the funds (at the time £33 billion) could be spent on. This includes major upgrades to two important north-south railways, and between cities and towns in the north and the Midlands that would give a lift to regional employment, and improving transit project funding in four cities in the Midlands and the north as well as cycling infrastructure in these regions.

“Spreading the capital across many diverse projects, in a way that is responsible to local as well as national needs could reap much wider economic social and environmental dividends,” it said.

Even a former Labour Cabinet Minister who had been involved in the decision to approve HS2 has expressed scepticism about the project, which he argued had been given the go-ahead based on “almost entirely speculative” estimates of what it would involve. Writing in Financial Times in 2013 on why he no longer supported the project, Peter Mandelson pointed to the reasons his party had pushed the policy while in government: on the “eve of a general election and keen to paint an upbeat view of the future… such publicly built infrastructure projects tend to provide so much of the answer to our short and long term economic and employment needs”.

Lord Mandelson’s comments point to perhaps the main problem with Europe’s HSR networks: the shape they take—including the stops along the line—is often hugely driven by political motivations, with economic rationale playing a secondary role. While feted as a means of solving many national crises—from economic, employment to logistical—they can often simply be a way of ensuring diversion away from less glamorous but nonetheless essential work.

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