All Aboard to the Future

10/10/2012 9:15 am EST


High-speed rail is the new fashionable project among nations, and even car-focused cultures in the US and the Gulf States are getting on board, writes David Black of The National.

The trains now standing at platforms all over the world are from the future. They are fast, green and "very flagship"-and almost everybody, everywhere wants them.

Although there is no universal speed definition for what makes a train "high speed," there is a general consensus that it must be able to hit 250kph (155mph), usually on new, custom-built tracks.

Right now, 14 countries boast trains that hit or beat that threshold. Within two years the number is expected to reach 24. As you can see, high-speed rail is taking off.

As air travel labors under the burdens of fuel costs, damaging emissions, and increasingly inconvenient and inefficient security checks, rail is starting to make more sense. These networks are opening up regions that were once uneconomic to new investment, according to the Worldwatch Institute, a sustainability think tank based in California.

High-speed rail's "green" credentials are also a major driver. A 2006 comparison of greenhouse-gas emissions, compiled by the Center for Neighborhood Technologies in the United States, found that high-speed rail lines in Europe and Japan released 30 to 70 grams of carbon dioxide per passenger kilometer, versus 150g for cars and 170g for airplanes.

"The rise in high-speed rail has been very rapid," says Michael Renner, a senior researcher at Worldwatch. "In just three years between January 2008 and January 2011, the global operational fleet of high-speed trains grew from 1,737 train sets to 2,517.

"Two-thirds of this fleet is found in just five countries: France, China, Japan, Germany, and Spain. But by 2014, the global fleet is expected to total more than 3,700 units.

"And that level of demand has led to an explosive growth in track construction. Between 2009 and 2011, the total length of high-speed track jumped from 10,700km to nearly 17,000km. A further 8,000km is currently under construction, and some 17,700km are planned," he added.

It means 43,000km of track is expected to be in use by 2015.

By track length, the high-speed leaders are China, Japan, Spain, France, and Germany. Turkey has ambitious plans to reach 2,424km and surpass the length of Germany's network.

Italy and Portugal intend to reach track lengths of more than 1,000km, and even the car-centric US is trying to join the high-speed revolution, with proposed routes in California, Florida, and between the major cities of the Northeast.

In Germany, Italy, and Japan, fast trains travel at 300kph; in Spain, 310kph; and they reach 320kph in France, which holds the world speed record for high-speed rail after one of its TGV units hit 574.8kph on a test run.

As to what has spurred the rail renaissance, the travel industry is in no doubt.

"With trains often travelling at 300kph or more, Europe is rapidly joining up as a single network. On routes like London-Paris or Milan-Rome, we now sell many more rail than air tickets at HRG, and the numbers are growing all the time," says Stewart Harvey, the group commercial director at the business travel agency, HRG.

"As to why there is such a rail frenzy in Europe and Asia, the answer isn't hard to find. Trains are greener, faster from city center to city center, more comfortable, and more productive. Travelers can avoid those time-hungry transfers to out-of-town airports that are followed by long security queues and walks to the departure gate.

"Then, once on board, they can work in quiet surroundings for a couple of hours or more at a stretch-something that is very hard to manage on a short-haul flight," he says.

"In fact, business travelers are becoming such big fans of rail that at HRG we have seen a noticeable trend for them to accept longer journey times. Travelers know they will get more work done, so they will now willingly accept up to four hours, whereas a few years ago the limit of acceptance was closer to three hours."

Today, France's TGV systems, launched in 1981, account for 62% of European high-speed rail travel and has carried more than 2 billion passengers to date.

Spain committed to heavy-rail investments in the late 1980s. The country now has the largest high-speed rail construction program in Europe, and its network recently surpassed France's in length. Its track length rose from just 470km in 2002 to about 2,000km at present.

Spain's plans now call for 10,000km by 2020 as part of a drive to invest and build its way out of recession, a move that would allow 90% of Spaniards to live within 50km of a high-speed train station.

China has set a goal of building nearly 12,000km of high-speed rail lines by 2020. The Hefei-Fuzhou line, slated for completion in 2014, typifies the scale of China's ambition. This 806km, US$16.9bn (Dh62.07bn) project is part of the larger Beijing-Fuzhou route, and will reduce the travel time between Hefei and Fuzhou from 14 hours to just four.

Even a fatal high-speed train crash in eastern Zhejiang province last year, which killed at least 38 people and injured 192, has not cooled China's love affair with bullet trains.

The Saudi Railway Organization's Haramain high-speed rail project is set to run to a length of 450km between the holy cities of Medina and Mecca, greatly increasing passenger capacity between the two hubs of pilgrimage and religious tourism.

The line, which is now moving into its second phase of construction, is scheduled for completion in 2014. The project will be served by five passenger stations, one each in Mecca and Medina, as well as two stations in Jeddah and one at King Abdulaziz International Airport in Jeddah.

In the UAE, passenger rail looks destined for a more sedate pace. The six GCC countries have agreed to share an anticipated $25bn cost to build a Gulf railway.

The UAE has already taken its first steps with the establishment of Etihad Rail, responsible for building about 1,200km of track. But initial passenger services are envisaged to run at only 200kph when the network opens, scheduled for 2018.
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