High-Speed Rail: Wrong for Europe?

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.

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7 thoughts on “High-Speed Rail: Wrong for Europe?

  1. paul

    I agree with the Antiplanners statements above. However, I would to add that Britain’s privatization cost a very large amount of taxpayers money and is controversial as to how much this increased ridership in an economy that grew. I have heard that Sweden and the Netherlands rail privatization was cheaper with better results. Any privatization proposal should carefully consider case studies.

  2. Andrew

    Randall:

    Thank you for posting this enlightening article.

    What is now the High Speed Rail program in Europe started off admirably enough with a few modest goals. In France, it was to relieve congestion on existing tracks on the single heaviest route between suburban Paris and Lyons with a new line featuring speeds of 168 mph since the new tracks could be built to higher standards. In Germany, it was to build a new north south line between Hannover and Frankfurt/Wurzburg and an east-west line from Mannheim to Stuttgart for similar reasons – to by pass existing congestion on the heaviest sections of the north-south line from Hamburg to Munich and east-west from Cologne to Munich. These lines were originally engineered for 155 mph and included the operation of high speed freight trains. The final first line was the Chunnel itself, meant to eliminate the train-ferry from Dover to Calais.

    Of course the virtues of such limited ambitions were quickly overwhelmed by the vice of a new government program. Once the spending started, it proved impossible to stop finding new lines to construct so as to keep the engineering and construction companies and government managers busy. More and more marginal city pairs had to be connected into the growing network, with no real consideration of the impacts described in the article, and the rush of speed inevitably increased from modest speeds of around 160 mph that could reasonably be operated by equipment similar to existing first to 186, then 205 mph, and then 217 mph, with costs of both construction and operation rising exponentially, and equipment becoming specialized and inflexible.

    With the vast plans now shown for HSR in Europe, one wonders if the program will ever end, as more and more needs for new lines are constantly determined with little rational basis and even as much of the rail ridership stagnates.

    Its worth noting that the countries with the most significant growth in rail have the most modest programs, lower speeds and mostly involving line upgrades rather than new lines – Germany, Sweden, Switzerland, etc.

  3. gecko55

    The Swiss are nothing if not practical. They readily concede that the incremental benefits of higher speeds on some train routes isn’t justified by the added cost, even considering the high volumes on some routes (e.g., Zurich-Bern, Bern-Geneva). Besides, they’d rather spend the money punching holes through mountains to make the already excellent road network even better. Or subsidising farmers and rural communities for maintaining walking paths. Or upgrading the rolling stock on the urban tram lines. Or adding more bus service in areas between train lines. Or adding more signed bike routes and updating the signage on existing routes. Or developing a website for plotting walking, cycling or skating trips in all parts of the country. (It’s awesome. Check it out: http://www.schweizmobil.ch/en/schweizmobil.html)

    And taxes are quite reasonable, the federal debt is consistently low, and the country is routinely cited as one of the most competitive in the world.

    @A9999. No one would ever fly between Zurich and Geneva except to catch a connecting flight. Someone might fly between Basel and Geneva as they’re both served by EasyJet, and it would often be less expensive than the train. Although the travel times would be comparable.

  4. C. P. Zilliacus

    The Antiplanner wrote>

    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.

    Wonder if that’s just inter-city rail or includes regional/commuter rail as well?

    Sweden runs the X2000 trainsets, which looks like a TGV, but can only go as fast as the network allows, which is currently slightly over 200 k/h,

    In 2000, the bridge-tunnel connection from Sweden to Denmark was completed, which allows train service to run across between the two nations without a rail float to bring the trains across, resulting a significant improvement in scheduled travel times by rail and highway.

    Sweden also has the Arlanda Express train, which runs between Arlanda Airport and the downtown area of Stockholm.

    Passenger rail in Sweden is subject to some competition. Legacy carrier SJ (government-owned) has rights to run passenger trains on certain routes (including those that carry the heaviest passenger loads), but other operators can also provide service.

    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.

    But Switzerland has been spending money on new (and long railroad tunnels, including the Gotthard Base Tunnel).

  5. LazyReader

    I guess if the train industry wanted to compete better, they therefore should encourage the use of high speed plane. Supersonic flight. Only one commercial airplane operated at supersonic flight, that was the Concorde. But the economics of supersonic flight caught up with it’s famous prestige. With low passenger numbers following the 25 July 2000 crash, the slump in air travel following 11 September 2001, and rising maintenance costs. Although Concorde was technologically advanced when introduced in the 1970s, 30 years later its analogue cockpit was dated. There had been little commercial pressure to upgrade Concorde due to a lack of competing aircraft, unlike other airliners of the same era such as the Boeing 747 which could carry 3-4 times as many passengers and do so economically.

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