Sustainability advocate Kris De Decker argues that “high-speed trains are killing the European railway network.” A native of the Netherlands who currently lives in Spain, De Decker is irked that the replacement of conventional trains with high-speed trains has greatly increased the costs of rail travel, thus encouraging people to drive or fly.
De Decker offers numerous examples of routes where conventional trains were replaced by high-speed trains whose fares are much higher. In some cases, the high-speed trains really aren’t significantly faster than the conventional trains, yet typical fares might be three times as high. In other cases, daylight high-speed trains have replaced overnight trains that were slower but didn’t require any business time and cost less than the high-speed trains even with sleeping accommodations.
He also notes that low-cost air service is often far less expensive than the high-speed trains. “You can fly back and forth between Barcelona and Amsterdam with a low-cost airline for €100 if you book one to two weeks in advance, and for about €200 if you buy the ticket on the day of departure,” he says. “That’s compared to €580 for what the journey would cost you if you would take the high speed train.” He adds that, “Flying has become so cheap in Europe that it’s now cheaper to live in Barcelona and commute by plane each day, than to live and work in London.”
As in the United States, rail fares used to be lower than air fares. Now, the reverse is true. “Rich and poor have simply swapped travel modes: the masses are now travelling by plane, while the elite take the train.” While De Decker admits that high-speed trains have eaten into the airlines’ shares of a few short-haul markets, the construction of new high-speed rail lines has not slowed the growth of European air travel, which has been steady at about 3.5 percent per year.
De Decker is not a fan of air travel, which he considers unsustainable, but he points out that high-speed rail isn’t (by his definition) sustainable either as it uses more energy and emits more pollution per passenger mile than conventional trains.
While De Decker suggests that high-speed rail makes train travel more expensive and thus discourages ridership, he doesn’t support this with ridership data. The Antiplanner doesn’t have access to European ridership data by route, but the European Union publishes data showing rail’s share of ground travel by country from 1990 to 2011.
The numbers show that trains in Spain–which opened its first high-speed rail line in 1992 and today has Europe’s most extensive high-speed rail network–carried 6.9 percent of travel in 1990 but only 5.5 percent in 2011. Rail’s share has also declined in Italy (the first European country to build high-speed rail) from 6.9 percent to 5.1 percent. This supports De Decker’s claims. On the other hand, rail’s share in France grew from 9.3 to 10.3 percent, while in Germany it grew from 6.9 to 8.1 percent. While these numbers don’t support De Decker’s thesis, it is possible that, when air travel is included, rail’s share declined in these countries as well.
Several countries have seen rail’s share grow without building expensive, high-speed trails. Sweden’s fastest trains go 200 kph, or just under the 125-mph threshold most use for true high-speed rail, yet it has seen rail’s share grow from 6.5 to 9.5 percent. The EU doesn’t have data for Switzerland’s entirely conventional rail network before 2000, but since 2000 rail’s share of Helvetia travel has grown from 13.7 to 17.5 percent (meaning Swiss rail has the highest share of rail travel of any developed country in the world). These numbers back up De Decker’s contention that countries don’t have to spend heavily on high-speed trains to boost rail travel.
Britain has only one high-speed train, going from London to the Channel Tunnel without any other stops in the country. That country’s increase in rail’s share from 5.0 to 7.5 percent is due to privatization, not high-speed trains. On the other hand, Greece, whose costly rail system is partly responsible for that country’s fiscal problems, has seen rail’s share of travel from 2.9 percent to a pathetic 0.8 percent–almost U.S. levels.
De Decker’s stories confirm some notions that the Antiplanner has held for some time. While De Decker views issues as questions of technology, the Antiplanner sees them as questions of institutional design. A system that relies on tax subsidies appropriated by politicians will lead to one that favors unions (as in Greece) or rail contractors (as in Spain) over transportation users. A system that relies more on user fees (as in Britain) will be more responsive to users and will choose technologies that are affordable rather than national monuments.