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The state of high-speed rail, August 2009
August 7, 2009 7:12 PM   Subscribe

The Guardian ran a series of articles looking at the state of high-speed rail travel today. France intends to double its length of track over the next decade, and China is planning a massive rail-building programme, including a high-speed line which will halve the travel time between Beijing and Shanghai to 4 hours. In Germany, domestic air travel is rapidly going extinct, and Spain's network has made day trips between Madrid and Barcelona a possibility. The USA, which has long neglected its rail network, is planning up to 10 high-speed lines. Meanwhile, Britain's only high-speed line goes to France, but there is talk of a 250mph line from London to Birmingham and beyond, possibly by the early 2020s. Meanwhile, the CEO of France's rail operator, SNCF, weighs in on what the UK should do.
posted by acb (49 comments total) 7 users marked this as a favorite

 
Sweet. And all my government wants to do is MOAR ROADS 8(.
posted by rodgerd at 7:17 PM on August 7, 2009


Based on numbers in the CIA World Fact book, average population density:

China: 139.5 people per sq km
Germany: 230.6 people per sq km
France: 98 people per sq km
US: 31.3 people per sq km

...one of these things is not like the others, one of these things doesn't belong...

Rail makes more sense when the population density is higher.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 7:22 PM on August 7, 2009


The San Antonio - Dallas, or at least the San Antonio - Austin stretch of the Texas part of that US plan has been in the "let's talk about talking about starting to think about talking about thinking about starting a high-speed rail line" since the 1970's at least. In Texas, we have the added problem of public transportation seeming to be one step away from Stalinism to a fair plurality of the population, which really does not speed the process, or the debate about the process.

I'm relatively certain that even if I live a longer than average life, I will not see it built.
posted by Devils Rancher at 7:26 PM on August 7, 2009


Chocolate Pickle--

You're averaging the Eastern seaboard with Wyoming? Really?
posted by effugas at 7:28 PM on August 7, 2009 [8 favorites]


...one of these things is not like the others, one of these things doesn't belong...

Rail makes more sense when the population density is higher.
(1) That hardly implies that it doesn't make sense below the density of France.

(2) The overall density of the USA hardly tells the whole story; about a fifth of the land area is the virtually unpopulated state of Alaska, and of the remaining four-fifths, half is way more densely populated than the other half.
posted by Flunkie at 7:30 PM on August 7, 2009 [3 favorites]


Awesome stuff. I'm still waiting for the California High-Speed Rail.
posted by Xere at 7:32 PM on August 7, 2009


Canada: 3 people per sq km

But we ca still dream. CN/UA Turbo train (19700.
posted by shoesfullofdust at 7:39 PM on August 7, 2009


You're averaging the Eastern seaboard with Wyoming? Really?

I'm also averaging Beijing with the Gobi Desert.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 7:39 PM on August 7, 2009


erm, 1970)
posted by shoesfullofdust at 7:40 PM on August 7, 2009


Well, maybe not the Gobi (most of which is in Mongolia). But all countries are unevenly settled and the majority of China's population is in its eastern quarter.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 7:41 PM on August 7, 2009


I'm also averaging Beijing with the Gobi Desert.

I'm using a meaningless statistic but it's ok because it's consistently meaningless.

If you compare the urban concentration in China with the Urban concentration in France with the Urban concentration in the US, in special if you compare the metropolis and corresponding corridors, I doubt Boston-Washington is much different than Shanghai-Beijing or Berlin-Frankfurt-Munich.
posted by qvantamon at 7:45 PM on August 7, 2009 [3 favorites]


Rail makes more sense when the population density is higher.

Well, not strictly. Rail makes more sense when there are sufficiently large and densely populated areas in fairly close proximity, regardless of the overall population density of the country. The US has lots of cities, and these are all potentials for high-speed rail connections. It's the distances between the cities which is the decider. More than, say 1000km, and flying becomes very attractive in terms of journey times. But the existing high-speed corridor in the US is workable, and so are several others. Nobody is likely to catch a train from New Orleans to Portland though (either of them), as the distances are just too massive.

The UK is weird and standoutish because it has a very small area, with plenty of large cities (over 500k), and a population which isn't averse to using public transport. The Guardian's articles make it clear that the reason the UK has so far failed to build a great deal of coverage in high-speed rail due to problems first with underinvestment and now a fragmented system. I think all three mainstream parties are now committed to building some kind of high-speed rail system, and the only difference is which method of planning and funding they prefer. Labour seems to be a staged bit-by-bit rollout, where I think the Conservatives would prefer a larger but fare more market-funded build. I actually trust the Conservatives to deliver on their promise, weirdly, because they paid for the electrification of the ECML some years ago.

Expect any high-speed rail to take a long time to materialize though, as high-speed lines have to be entirely new builds and alignments, and thrashing out a route might take some time and wrangling. Even the main station in Birmingham might have to be rebuilt or relocated, as it is quite congested. My main worry though is that just a few days before this high-speed announcement there was another pertaining to a new electrification program, which is also desperately needed in the UK. I don't how these two are going to interact, but I would hate to see one put on hold for the benefit of the other.
posted by Sova at 7:47 PM on August 7, 2009


C. Pickle, we had a grand and extensive passenger rail network in a much less dense US, 150 years ago. That was before we had electric lights, telephones or indoor toilets. They did it all with coal, steam and telegraphs. I think that with our current technology, we could at least match, if not surpass, the achievements of our Victorian ancestors.
posted by octothorpe at 8:01 PM on August 7, 2009 [8 favorites]


Chiming in on the China thing, I really, really don't see high-speed working between, say, Urumqi and Beijing, but a Beijing-Tianjin-Shanghai-Hangzhou-Shenzhen network or something like that on the eastern seaboard would be a huge, huge benefit right now.

Now that said, outside of the regular network, normal rail travel between cities in China is very good. Where I'm going today, outside of Beijing, isn't really anywhere important, but the fact that it's well-served by bus and train make it a lot more feasible to get there without driving. That's something that I'm almost endlessly thankful for. Within 2 days, I can get to the most remote locations anywhere at all in this country, for under $100.

Don't ignore the simple benefits of sheer penetration when considering what to build. High-speed is great, but if, when you get there, you're stranded at the train station, it's not much help.
posted by saysthis at 8:01 PM on August 7, 2009



Rail makes more sense when the population density is higher.


Whaa? China is oceans of rural areas intermixed with hundreds of megalopolises. Sounds like exactly where you would need rail.
posted by absalom at 8:02 PM on August 7, 2009


The California high speed rail system promises a two hour, forty minute trip from San Francisco to Los Angeles, operating at up to 220 MPH (and ultimately 250 MPH), with a total system cost of upwards of $45 billion for around 800 system miles. Voters last November (in the heat of a financial panic) passed prop 1A by 52.6% which authorized about $10 billion in bonds for the project. The first phase is currently scheduled to open for revenue service in 2020.
posted by Rhomboid at 8:12 PM on August 7, 2009


Rail makes more sense when the population density is higher.

Like between most blue county islands, yes. Flyover country can keep your pickups still.

I regularly rode between Tokyo and Nagoya for a while, the express takes under 3 hours, costs $100.

It's a 200 mile drive so that would be the same time by interstate and cost the same going by the IRS per mile rate. But taking the train is much better than driving for 1 or 2 people. For families, not so much.

SJ to LA is around 350 miles and is being planned to take well under 3 hours by super-duper express through Fresno.

An hour from Fresno to SJ would be be a game changer as far as commuting goes.
posted by @troy at 8:24 PM on August 7, 2009


I think that with our current technology, we could at least match, if not surpass, the achievements of our Victorian ancestors.

It is a point that flying is a superior mode for greater than say 500 miles. This is the 3rd largest country by area, and we don't call it "flyover country" for nothing.

Travelling 500MPH at 38,000 feet is a lot safer than 500MPH at ground level, and the required infrastructure investment is localized to airports not every ground mile.

Everything is predicated on cheap oil becoming scarce but it's not a non-zero probability that the boffins will figure out energy-equivalent substitutes for Jet-A to keep the hydrocarbon party going.
posted by @troy at 8:33 PM on August 7, 2009


That was before we had electric lights, telephones or indoor toilets.

Or airplanes.
posted by smackfu at 8:39 PM on August 7, 2009 [1 favorite]


This map doesn't make a lot of sense to me. OK, so skip Wyoming, Nebraska, etc. But what about Denver and SLC? Why is Oklahoma on there at all? There's really lots of demand for high speed rail in Tulsa?
posted by desjardins at 9:01 PM on August 7, 2009


As a non-driver, I sure as hell hopes this works out for the US so I can stay here and I won't be forced to expatriate.
posted by melissam at 9:04 PM on August 7, 2009


Aren't trains in Europe more expensive than flying? Someone earlier mentioned high-speed rail in Texas. That has been and will continue to be killed by the Southwest Airlines lobby.
posted by madh at 9:07 PM on August 7, 2009


desjardins: most of these corridors were defined by Congress in the early 1990s, and can't be changed except by another act of Congress.
posted by armage at 9:10 PM on August 7, 2009


Also, the definition of "high speed rail" used by the DOT does not mean TGV or Shinkansen-level service at 200+ mph. Rather, HSR includes anything with a top speed of 90+ mph or more (PDF).
posted by armage at 9:14 PM on August 7, 2009


Aren't trains in Europe more expensive than flying?

Well, it depends if whoever said that counts RyanAir. But I think budget airlines are probably an exception (being that the fares change so often, they're more for flexible travel.)

When I was doing a study abroad a few months ago in France, I could reliably get between Nantes and Paris (a 4 hour drive, down to a 2+ish hour train ride) for 27 euro. Granted, that's a student discount, but even without discount you could do that for 40-50 euro last minute. I don't think you could fly that cheaply as a general rule. Flying becomes better for long distances, obviously, but there's a lot to be said for train travel between nearby cities.

There's way less hassle about luggage and security and getting to and from airports (since stations are often in the middle of towns) and more flexibility because the trains can stop in small towns along the way, so you can get pretty much anywhere. Even if you fly to a far-away city, it's nice to have trains to get around that area afterwards.

I generally found the rail system there an extremely good way to travel. The day they put rail between Cleveland and Columbus is the day I and a lot of other Ohioans will be happy campers.
posted by Solon and Thanks at 9:43 PM on August 7, 2009


Rail makes more sense when the population density is higher.

Which is why the priority corridors in the US are primarily east of the Mississippi. It will never make sense -- in the same way -- to put even Shinkansen level service crossing the West, although it might happen if there were enough of a supporting network. But the proposals are for places where population density is higher, particularly in the 200-400 mile city-to-city sweet spot range. Lake County, Illinois, midway on a Milwaukee-Chicago route (already traveled by Amtrak with rising ridership), is 550 persons/km². Kenosha and Racine Counties in Wisconsin are over 200 persons/km².

Metafilter: I'm using a meaningless statistic but it's ok because it's consistently meaningless.

OK, so skip Wyoming, Nebraska, etc. But what about Denver and SLC? Why is Oklahoma on there at all? There's really lots of demand for high speed rail in Tulsa?

Well, those are very general corridors that were defined for political rather than, say, practical and economic purposes. I think it's a cinch that Denver and Salt Lake are on any sort of rail network, although as noted high speed is dubious at those distances. But Oklahoma is on there because, well, Oklahoma wants to be on there. They see Texas as their regional economic driver and want to be closely tied to it. And there's more economic activity there than you think: Tulsa, for example, is actually a busy inland seaport.
posted by dhartung at 11:07 PM on August 7, 2009


^ Denver to SLC doesn't really make much sense because its over 500 miles to go around the Rockies (~450 to go thru 'em) and both metros are rather isolated from other metros. Denver to KC is 600 miles!

Dallas to OK City is a 200 mile straight shot with easy track laying. Plus it helps get our anti-gummint Texican friends on board, literally, with the national programme.
posted by @troy at 11:52 PM on August 7, 2009


As long as it isn't part of that North American Corridor and they don't introduce the Amero. Make sure that HSR doesn't go anywhere near Mexico and red-blooded Oklahomans won't object.
posted by calwatch at 12:13 AM on August 8, 2009


High-speed? Ultraspeed!
posted by robself at 12:26 AM on August 8, 2009


I've taken the new Hexie ("Harmony" - groan) high speed trains to Tianjin and Qingdao from the new Beijing South Station this year - very nice and the experience can only get better once the local transport links are in place. Semi-seriously moving to lovely old coastal Qingdao for the better weather and cheap living now I could be in Beijing in a few hours without having to fly if I ever needed to meet a client or whatever.
posted by Abiezer at 12:33 AM on August 8, 2009


"Semi-seriously considering..." that should be.
posted by Abiezer at 12:34 AM on August 8, 2009


I find the idea of high speed rail to Birmingham, UK pretty funny however I find the idea of high speed rail from Birmingham pretty appealing.
posted by srboisvert at 3:28 AM on August 8, 2009 [2 favorites]


A high-speed line to the North would be fantastic, but I'm a little surprised that they're not talking about upgrading the London -> Cornwall lines first. Trains to the southwest already run far slower than to the midlands and north. Two trips I've taken recently:
London to Plymouth is about 200 miles and takes 3h20min.
London to Darlington is about 220 miles and takes 2h30min.
(London to Paris is about 300 miles and takes 2h15min)

I know there are far more people living to the north of London than to the southwest, but we shouldn't be ignoring them completely.
posted by metaBugs at 4:06 AM on August 8, 2009


In central and eastern Europe, there's the added challenge of changes of gauge - say from Berlin to the Baltic capitals - with hassle-filled changes and bogie-switching at border crossings with states that were part of the Soviet Union. Warsaw actually has a station called "Wilenski" - the adjective form of Vilnius - but you can't actually get to Vilnius anymore on a single train. Berlin to Warsaw is a similar distance as Warsaw to Vilnius, but the former takes six hours on a rather quick conventional train with a bar car and comfy seats far cheaper than flying (and door to door, only about an hour slower) while the latter is an 10-hour+ slog with a platform change at a tiny station near the border, without even a guy selling sandwiches on a trolley.

There is one - ONE - direct night bus. 11 hours. Driving yourself takes 7 hours, if there aren't any slow trucks on the two-lane road. There is no low-cost flight competition unless you want to fly via Riga on AirBaltic's one Warsaw-Riga flight, then connect to Vilnius.

Population density is low, granted, but there isn't even any same-train service between Tallinn, Vilnius, and Riga, each of which are the only real metropolitan centers in their countries, and on a bus, it's about an eight-hour ride from Tallinn to Vilnius via Riga. It's a perfect stretch for high speed rail - overwhelmingly rural and flat.

Are they second/third-tier cities? For the Baltic capitals - absolutely. But they are vitally important for the economies of three entire countries which have no same-gauge links with the rest of the European Union. And Warsaw is larger than Munich, Brussels, Amsterdam, or Hamburg. This is exactly what the EU Structural Fund's Cohesion fund is for - improving development in poorer areas of Europe, especially in the transport sector. The cost of a system would be far outweighed in the long run by the economic benefits it would bring. I hope better economic times in the future make this happen.

Look at what high-speed rail did for places like Seville and Lille: it played a huge role in improving their economic development by making them, literally, closer to places with jobs, tourists, and education. That kind of quantum leap is what many, many places in central and eastern Europe need.
posted by mdonley at 5:25 AM on August 8, 2009 [2 favorites]


I know there are far more people living to the north of London than to the southwest, but we shouldn't be ignoring them completely.

Mind you, high-speed rail is prohibitively expensive, and is the sort of thing that gets trotted out when an election is coming up, and often relegated to the too-hard basket afterward. So when high-speed rail does end up arriving, it will inevitably be rationed, and parcelled out to the most populous and economically active parts of the country by strict order of benefit-cost ratio, which means the (relatively) low-hanging fruit of the Midlands and the near North, and eventually a link to Scotland.
posted by acb at 6:12 AM on August 8, 2009


smackfu: "That was before we had electric lights, telephones or indoor toilets.

Or airplanes.
"

Well sure but as a resident of the far reaches of the northeast, I can say that flying between close-by cities sucks. If I wanted to visit my mom by plane, I'd fly from Pittsburgh International to Newark Liberty. Unless I wanted to pony up a lot more money, that's a one or two stop flight and takes at least 4.25 hours. Add in at least 1.5 hours on each side to deal with parking, security, luggage and car rental and now you're spending over seven hours to go 350 miles after paying around $500 dollars. I find it hard to think that high-speed rail can't do better than that.
posted by octothorpe at 6:19 AM on August 8, 2009


Based on numbers in the CIA World Fact book, average population density:

China: 139.5 people per sq km
Germany: 230.6 people per sq km
France: 98 people per sq km
US: 31.3 people per sq km

...one of these things is not like the others, one of these things doesn't belong...

Rail makes more sense when the population density is higher.


Actually it makes sense when there's a reason to make travel easier. I commute into NYC, normally by train, but had to drive last week. It's 37.2 miles from my door to work; every single trip home last week, at the height of rush hour, took more than 2 hours. It was hell and it was dumb.

And the commuter lines need upgrading. Usually the trains are packed and more than once, I've had to stand for nearly an hour because of lack of seats. We need trains and more of them. And imagine how many jobs might be created if we built better train lines.
posted by etaoin at 6:28 AM on August 8, 2009


That has been and will continue to be killed by the Southwest Airlines lobby.

Argh. See now, Southwest is a nice profitable airline, and I'm amazed that they haven't EVER had a downed plane with loss of life (they see added value in maintenance I suppose), but this pisses me off.

There was a time in the 1980's maybe when it was faster to fly to Houston or Dallas, but not any more. Speed limits have gone back up to 70 mph, airport security requires long waits and early arrival times, planes have poor on-time stats these days, and you've got to factor in getting to the airport, parking, etc. as well as obtaining transpo at your destination, whether rent car or taxi.

If two people were to get in cars at my house in Austin, and one was to leave driving for Dallas, and the other were to head to the airport for departure by plane, the person driving would beat them to any random destination in downtown Dallas by an hour, at least, and the person driving will have spent 1/5th the money.

Regional air travel between cities connected by interstates makes no sense at all. It seems like commuter trains, by comparison, would involve much less of the departure/arrival hassle, since they could deliver you to urban centers basically curbside, without the insane security procedures and waiting around for runways/weather/whatever that slows planes down.

*sigh*
posted by Devils Rancher at 7:12 AM on August 8, 2009


Here's a schedule of the Broadway Limited from 1938; at that time, it took eight hours to go from Pittsburgh to Newark, only slightly worse than plane travel now. And I could have taken a ten minute trolley ride to Pittsburgh's train station and then pick up a light rail from Newark's station right to my mom's town in NJ. Again, for nearby cities, train travel was either better or almost as good as plane travel generations ago. There's now way that high-speed rail won't be better.

I'd still want to fly to my in-laws in the Bay Area of California, which ironically only takes a little longer than the flight to Newark. But high-speed rail makes so much sense for the east coast and the great-lakes cities.
posted by octothorpe at 7:35 AM on August 8, 2009


Actually it makes sense when there's a reason to make travel easier.

Although I would argue this is due to population density, like he said. The drive takes so long because there are too many cars for the road, due to too many people wanting to go to NYC.

Add in at least 1.5 hours on each side to deal with parking, security, luggage and car rental and now you're spending over seven hours to go 350 miles after paying around $500 dollars. I find it hard to think that high-speed rail can't do better than that.

Heck, just driving your own car is way better. 350 miles is about one tank of gas. And you can take 4 people instead of just 1 for the same price. And you don't need to rent a car at the other end, or pay for airport parking.

This tends to be my issue with trains. I like trains. I'm in the Northeast corridor. But the only time I use Amtrak is to go to Washington DC (from Connecticut). Every other trip is either 8 hours plus, where planes are much faster, or is short enough that's it's faster and easier to drive.
posted by smackfu at 8:13 AM on August 8, 2009


Does linking cities, dense or otherwise, increase productivity or lower costs for international trade? I don't know why we're bothering just because it is assumed that someone traveling somewhere should be traveling there faster, or that we need to expand our residential radius. Spending the money on efficiently increasing urban density seems like a better plan. Think elevators, not trains.
posted by Brian B. at 12:26 PM on August 8, 2009


I'd love to see a high-speed no-stop rail between the Twin Cities and Chicago but I hate to think of the destruction to the cars on a Vikings/Bears weekend.
posted by Ber at 4:48 PM on August 8, 2009


Does linking cities, dense or otherwise, increase productivity or lower costs for international trade? I don't know why we're bothering just because it is assumed that someone traveling somewhere should be traveling there faster, or that we need to expand our residential radius.

I think economically, travelling is an inefficiency, and less inefficiency = better for the economy.
posted by NekulturnY at 5:39 AM on August 9, 2009


I know there are far more people living to the north of London than to the southwest, but we shouldn't be ignoring them completely.

I'm not sure that the decision makers really see a need to travel to Newcastle quickly. Getting to their country "cottages" in the West Country on the other hand is a matter of vital importance.

See Yes Minister:
Bernard Woolley: "This M40 is a very good road."
Jim Hacker: "So is the M4. I wonder why we got two really good roads to Oxford, before we got any to Southampton, Dover or Lowestoft or any of the ports?"
Bernard Woolley: "Nearly all our Permanent Secretaries went to Oxford, Minister. And most Oxford Colleges give very good dinners."
Jim Hacker: "And the Cabinet let them get away with it?"
Bernard Woolley: "Certainly not, they put their foot down. They said no motorway to take civil servants to dinners in Oxford, unless there was a motorway to take Cabinet Ministers hunting in the Shires. That's why when the M1 was built in the fifties it stopped in the middle of Leicestershire."

posted by atrazine at 6:26 AM on August 9, 2009


I think economically, travelling is an inefficiency, and less inefficiency = better for the economy.

Those railways are not more efficient than an economy car with two or more people, and less so factoring future efficient cars. And that's not counting the infrastructure, which will never make it efficient. It amounts to a subsidized luxury.
posted by Brian B. at 10:55 AM on August 9, 2009


Those railways are not more efficient than an economy car with two or more people, and less so factoring future efficient cars. And that's not counting the infrastructure, which will never make it efficient. It amounts to a subsidized luxury.

250mph economy cars?
posted by kersplunk at 3:56 PM on August 9, 2009


250mph economy cars?

Here's a crash course in economic efficiency. It should be obvious, however, that if the railway needs federal money to construct in selected areas for the transportation needs of a relative few, then it is a subsidy and requires detailed economic justification. I wager that it isn't there.
posted by Brian B. at 5:21 PM on August 9, 2009


But you do bring up a good point. Acela has gotten people in the US thinking high-speed = 100 mph. Which is honestly not that much faster than normal trains, and much of the gains are from stopping less, not from going faster. If we can really have 250 mph trains, that would be much faster than driving.
posted by smackfu at 7:28 AM on August 10, 2009


fwiw, i thought this was interesting and notable: Portland's Transport Research Guru Headed to Obama Administration

tyler cowen asks a good question...
High-speed rail in Texas? - "My question is simple: how could you take rail from Dallas to Houston and cope once you got there? ...is the vision that everyone takes the train and then rents a car on arrival?
ryan avent responds 1 | 2 | 3
posted by kliuless at 5:27 PM on August 18, 2009


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