High-speed rail in unlikely places
December 3, 2013 8:20 AM   Subscribe

High-speed rail projects may be struggling in California and facing increased opposition in the UK, but they have gotten a boost in two unlikely countries. In Iceland, a country which currently has no working railways, a plan to build a high-speed rail line from Keflavík airport to downtown Reykjavík, using either conventional HSR or maglev technology, is being explored. Meanwhile in Australia, the conservative federal government has committed to safeguarding a corridor for a Melbourne-Canberra-Sydney-Brisbane high-speed rail network, a project commenced by the previous Labor minority government after pressure from the Greens.

The Australian news is all the more surprising given the conservative Coalition's previous hostility to both passenger rail projects and to large government-funded infrastructure projects in general.
posted by acb (28 comments total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
I have trouble imagining that in a country as sparsely populated and as vast as Australia, high speed rail would ever make economic sense

Isn't that exactly the situation in which it makes the MOST sense? If you have certain population centers which are very far away from each other and there's nothing in between, wouldn't a 150mph train be a better option than a 70-80mph car, which you have to stop to refuel, eat, use the bathroom, etc, and can't read in?
posted by showbiz_liz at 8:39 AM on December 3, 2013 [7 favorites]

I think evidence suggests that the best use of HSR is to connect cities at medium distance - not suburbs to the central city and not long-hauls, either. That's because there are diminishing returns to shortening a trip, and the coolest thing about true high speed rail is that it essentially makes the city you live in even larger by connecting it to nearby cities.

In other words - right now, the trip from DC to Baltimore takes around 45 minutes without traffic. Not a bad drive by any means, but I can't just pop up to Fells Point or Little Italy or Lexington Market to get a bite to eat, and I can't work there (or live there and work here in DC) without significant planning and hassle. Standard HSR would shorten that trip to 15 minutes (or less, I think there's a maglev company promising to do it in 10, with 20 minute headways). This essentially makes DC and Baltimore the same city; the trains would come as frequently as my bus downtown and take just as long to arrive at their destination. And, of course, this has all sorts of positive externalities - Baltimore is cheaper (and cooler), so now people working in DC can live there; DC has a better labor market, so Baltimoreans can get jobs here.

So you end up getting a lot more bang for your buck than just the shortened trip.
posted by downing street memo at 8:49 AM on December 3, 2013 [7 favorites]

As far as Australia goes, I can see Sydney to Canberra making a lot of sense, to the point of running half-hourly double-decker trains between the two cities. Sydney-Melbourne could also make sense, especially if they hit the 3-hour journey time. If the train includes stops in regional cities like Albury, they could end up becoming commuter suburbs, much in the way that the TGV transformed various French towns into commuter suburbs of Paris. If the Sydney-Brisbane line stops in places like Newcastle, that could also be a boost.

How many people would opt to catch a 3-hour train from Sydney to Melbourne or vice versa over a 1-hour flight (plus travel to/from the airport and being there in time to clear security) is an open question; there would be some increased convenience to catching the train, though the relaxation of electronic device rules on flights might cut into that somewhat. Still, a train would probably be a more comfortable place to unfold a laptop and work on things.
posted by acb at 9:05 AM on December 3, 2013 [1 favorite]

committed to safeguarding a corridor

Current mental image: Police and SWAT in riot gear, batons and water cannons at the ready, lined up in a thin line between Melbourne and Brisbane.
posted by slater at 9:22 AM on December 3, 2013

Yeah, the Sydney-Canberra-Melbourne might actually work very well for HSR. Sydney, at least in my experience, had congested traffic (or hideously stupidly expensive trains - wtf?) to the airport, as well as long security lines and frequent delays. A 3-hour ride from city center (sorry, I mean centre) to city center is not bad at all.
posted by RedOrGreen at 9:22 AM on December 3, 2013

I think the Iceland link is taking the piss. Downtown is only a couple K from the airport. There's no way to link them with Maglev.
posted by Keith Talent at 9:32 AM on December 3, 2013

When I visited Iceland, it was a 45 minute bus ride from the airport to the bus terminal in Reykjavík (where you transfer to other buses to get to your final destination). It was a very pretty 45 minute ride - but I could totally see the benefit of (1) getting those shuttle busses off of the road; (2) cutting the trip time substantially.
posted by mikespez at 9:35 AM on December 3, 2013

Pretty dubious about the Iceland Maglev dreams
posted by Keith Talent at 9:36 AM on December 3, 2013

Also, a proportion of airport traffic in Keflavík is transatlantic passengers flying between North America and Europe on Icelandair. A fast, reliable rail link between Keflavík and Reykjavík would encourage some of those to get out of the airport and stimulate the local economy more. (I know that if I had a 4-hour stopover at Keflavík, I'd feel more comfortable about going to Reykjavík if the journey was 15-20 minutes by regular train than 45 minutes by bus.) Not to mention Iceland pushing Reykjavík as a conference venue, business hub and such.
posted by acb at 9:49 AM on December 3, 2013

In Canada, whenever high speed rail comes up, politicians balk at the incredible cost.

[...] you have to lay huge amounts of very expensive track to connect people. You're competing with air travel, which is faster over the very long distances, and car travel, which is a lot more flexible, so it can be a challenge to get people out of their cars.

That Coyne article ignores the massive subsidies car and air travel receive, combined with decades of infrastructure spending both public and private creating network lock-in. Just eliminating the direct subsidies to car travel by forcing all road construction, maintenance and policing paid out of gas tax, licensing fees, tolls, traffic fines and other user fees would go a long way to making rail more attractive, as well as freeing up some tax dollars to electrify track and make improvements.

Personally, I don't think rail faster than 150mph is a very good deal in terms of both energy efficiency and financial costs. Even those speeds would be a huge improvement over what we have now, especially when you have to wait on sidings 3 times between Toronto and Montreal while unit oil trains crawl by.

Forcing car and air travel users to bear the associated costs of pollution, both smog and CO2, would make rail even more attractive, though from a price perspective, the immediate winner would probably be diesel coaches. Though as Ontario decarbonizes its grid, electrified rail would eventually end up the most cost competitive option.

Finally, decades of minimum parking requirements for new developments have created a huge indirect subsidy to car travel and also an impediment to the kinds of density that favor non-car modes of travel. Simply removing those restrictions would encourage densification, as opposed to more greenfield development eating good farmland around every Canadian city. Losing a guaranteed free place to put your car anywhere you go, combined with places that are easier to get around by walking, transit or biking, would shift mode preference from cars to trains for travel between cities.
posted by [expletive deleted] at 9:58 AM on December 3, 2013 [3 favorites]

An essential and frequently overlooked key to making this work is to have good public transit systems in the cities that are being linked by high speed rail. If once you step onto the platform you are unable to reach your final destination without a car, then high speed rail does suffer by comparison to air travel.

But in parts of the world where cities have public transit infrastructure that is well-integrated, traveling between urban areas by high speed rail (up to say 700km distance) is extremely convenient, reliable and is often faster door-to-door than flying.
posted by theory at 10:51 AM on December 3, 2013

I think the Iceland link is taking the piss. Downtown is only a couple K from the airport. There's no way to link them with Maglev.

The proposed link, according to that article—Keflavik Int'l to Reykjavik Airport (domestic)—is about 50km by road. I'm entirely clueless as to the budget situation and other impediments to building a high-speed link between the two, but there is not currently a commercial Maglev line in the world that operates at that great a distance.
posted by mcoo at 11:23 AM on December 3, 2013

Some sort of reasonably fast train from Keflavik to the center of Reykjavik might make sense. But if the goal is to go at 150kph, then there's no need for anything fancy. Regular rolling stock should do the trick.

Also, given the high rates of car/suv ownership in Iceland, I think this would primarily be targeting layover tourists. As it is, the bus service was really quite smooth, efficient and painless (and had free wifi), so I'm doubtful this will go past a study.
posted by strangeloops at 11:37 AM on December 3, 2013

Isn't that exactly the situation in which it makes the MOST sense? If you have certain population centers which are very far away from each other and there's nothing in between, wouldn't a 150mph train be a better option than a 70-80mph car, which you have to stop to refuel, eat, use the bathroom, etc, and can't read in?

I don't know the distances involved in Melbourne-Canberra-Sydney-Brisbane, but it could make sense. I believe studies have shown HSR to be most effective at distances of about 200 to 600 miles. HSR isn't a replacement for commuter rail or long-haul flights. It's a replacement for short-haul flights and long-ish drives.
posted by breakin' the law at 11:46 AM on December 3, 2013 [1 favorite]

Isn't that exactly the situation in which it makes the MOST sense?

There was an article in the Fairfax papers the other day with a German engineer who'd worked in Germany, and was now working on the Aus plan. He was gushing with how Australia's population density was perfect for HSR, clumping as we do in major cities.

HSR also has the advantage of the shitfull state of airport access in Melbourne.
posted by pompomtom at 12:12 PM on December 3, 2013

I think the Iceland link is taking the piss. 

Iceland is investing heavily in tourism and if you have any amount of luggage then you need a cab and a cab from the airport to the capitol downtown is like a hundred plus.
posted by The Whelk at 12:32 PM on December 3, 2013

I'm not even sure high-speed rail between DC and Baltimore would be that useful. I mean MARC just announced that it's going to run on weekends. You can't have very many stops, so probably BWI, Camden, and Union Station. Might be better off having more frequent light rail to reduce waiting time.
posted by RobotVoodooPower at 12:41 PM on December 3, 2013

I mean MARC just announced that it's going to run on weekends. You can't have very many stops, so probably BWI, Camden, and Union Station.

You're right, it's not a massive hassle, but it's the difference between 45 minutes and 10 - very different psychological spaces. I think you're thinking of the Camden Line - the weekend line is the Penn. And anyway, MARC is about as slow as a car, and there are definitely more stops than 3- New Carrollton, Seabrook, Bowie, Odenton, BWI, Halethorpe, and West Baltimore all before you get to Penn Station.
posted by downing street memo at 1:34 PM on December 3, 2013

I'm very suspicious of a claim that a high-speed rail network is going to cause east-coast travel to "double to more than 355 million trips a year.

Well Tony Abbott has fucked the NBN well and good so instead of virtual room teleconferencing you'll need to physically go to another city.
posted by Talez at 2:02 PM on December 3, 2013

Just for context, it's around 600 miles or 11 hours drive to go Brisbane to Sydney, 180 miles or 3hrs from Sydney to Canberra, and about 550 miles and 9hrs drive from Sydney to Melbourne. Over 80% of Australia's population live in this corridor.
posted by Kerasia at 2:04 PM on December 3, 2013 [1 favorite]

You're not going to have any/many stops at 200 mph on a 40 mile route between DC and Camden Yards. Even if you stopped at BWI, you'd already be so close to Baltimore that you'd not have room to accelerate to full speed for the rest of the way. Thus turning a potential 12 minute trip into a 20 minute trip.
posted by RobotVoodooPower at 2:13 PM on December 3, 2013

They're talking about it in Texas, too. It would make a one day round trip between Dallas and Houston bearable.

Road most traveled: Study advocates high-speed rail on Texas highways

Texas High Speed Rail and Transportation Corporation

Texas Central Railway Company
posted by GPF at 3:50 PM on December 3, 2013

I would love it, but will be so, so suprised if we see any serious move towards this before 2050. Engineers can gush all they like, but the cost is freakishly expensive over the kinds of distances we're talking about - especially when you factor in the volume of travel. We just don't have the volume of travel for it, not even if trips were to double. Not even close. It will require a virtual megalopolis stretching from Brisbane to Sydney for it to become practicable.
posted by smoke at 4:07 PM on December 3, 2013

Sydney-Melbourne is the world's fifth busiest air route, and 3 of the other 4 already have high speed rail. It's busier than LA-SF or any other pair of US cities, and it should be much cheaper to build since the land in between is almost empty. Seems like an obvious thing to do especially given the country's recent economic growth spurt.
posted by miyabo at 9:22 PM on December 3, 2013

And by "ignore" you mean "specifically makes reference to and suggests the removal of"?

Sorry Dasein. You are absolutely right. He does do this in the last few sentences of the piece. I admit I stopped reading right before that, after Coyne's obnoxious appeal to the brave entrepreneurs doing it on their own. I'm aware that Canada, and North America in general, is currently seeing a renaissance of sorts in private freight rail, but to characterize this as a simple story of private industry freed from government intervention is absurd. Railroads have always been a blend of public and private, and without government land grants, financing and bailouts, the private freight rail currently doing so well would be nothing.

I'm not set against all subsidies of any kind. I would like us to subsidize the transportation infrastructure that we need, not the infrastructure that we don't. Coyne also doesn't address the other issues I raised regarding land use, climate change, development patterns and the indirect subsidy of minimum parking requirements, which some studies suggest may be the single largest subsidy to private car use. Certainly the impact it has on patterns of development are huge.

Though I often disagree with him, Coyne is one of the more thoughtful Canadian pundits of national prominence. I should have read the entire article before accusing him of arguing in bad faith.

That said, I think his dismissal of a roll for public spending on rail is the product of incorrect assumptions. It's not just today's direct subsidies that make trains an unpopular mode of travel, it's the combined effects of almost 70 years of subsidies both indirect and direct, combined with consequences of those subsidies on how Canadians live. The history of transportation infrastructure in Canada is a compelling argument for the necessity of robust public investment.
posted by [expletive deleted] at 9:39 PM on December 3, 2013

a project commenced by the previous Labor minority government after pressure from the Greens.

That's kinda strange, seen from here in Italy, where the Greens are among those most vociferously opposing our high-speed train link being built between Turin and Lyons in France.
posted by aqsakal at 11:51 PM on December 3, 2013

If they come up with a geothermal powered train with hot tub seats, glass roof and ambient Sigur Ros for the half hour trip from Keflavik I'm in!
posted by Jon Mitchell at 11:56 PM on December 3, 2013

Throw in free wifi and I'm in with you.
posted by dogwalker at 11:51 AM on December 4, 2013

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