High-speed rail: A global revolution
Japan’s Shiki-shima train, with its opulent carriages and exquisite craftsmanship, wowed the world’s media during its maiden journey earlier this spring. Its futuristic design belies its limited engineering prowess, however.
This slow-going behemoth, with a top speed of just 113km/h, represents a journey back in time. Which, in truth, is where the British rail sector finds itself. Britain’s trains are more than 20 years old on average, according to the regulator, the Office of Rail and Road, hence they are both shabbier and slower than the diesel-electric Shiki-shimas.
In Britain, the average speed is only 105km/h, with mainline trains reaching 209km/h. The HS1 Eurostar trains do 299km/h, and eventually the HS2 trains might be quicker. Foreign rivals are swifter, more advanced, and more ambitious.
High-speed rail “is not a new phenomenon,” observes Richard Abadie, London-based global leader of capital projects and infrastructure at the consultancy PwC. Moreover, there have been many technological advances since it first emerged in Japan in the mid-1960s. In recent years, the development has literally gone off the rails with the world’s fastest train in service, the Shanghai Maglev, actually levitating above the tracks, surfing on a magnetic field at 431km/h.
By comparison, Europe’s fastest train, the AVG Italo, reached a whopping 574km/h during testing in 2007. Its maximum operational speed is just 360km/h, however, which illustrates the truism that trains are built not merely to beat records, but to solve real-world problems.
High-speed rail has been doing exactly that for decades in many parts of Europe and Asia. Fast and reliable rail links between cities are often more efficient than planes, and they reduce traffic congestion to boot, so they are helping to drive economic growth, according to Abadie. At the same time, he cautions, developing high-speed rail can be costly and complicated, both in terms of engineering and construction phasing, as well as with regards to financing and land acquisitions.
These challenges are perhaps even greater for futuristic solutions such as Hyperloops, where levitating carriages shoot through low-pressure transit tubes at 1,127km/h. Not that this has done much to curb anyone’s ambitions, most visibly fronted by Tesla and SpaceX founder Elon Musk, who has described the concept as “a cross between a Concorde, a railgun and an air hockey table”.
Less spectacular developments in conventional high-speed rail are likely to have a more immediate impact, however, and here too the ambitions are great.
Japanese, European and Canadian engineering companies are increasingly applying their expertise beyond their own borders, investing billions of dollars in high-speed rail in North America, the Middle East, South Africa, India and elsewhere, and in parallel we are seeing a rapid electrification of locomotives.
But no one is more ambitious than China’s state-owned CRRC, which is planning to extend its advanced high-speed rail network all the way to Europe. “They want to revive the ancient Silk Road trading routes,” says Shyam Raman, an analyst at market research firm Frost & Sullivan. Indeed, China wants to extend its high-speed rail network to a host of countries: Singapore, Laos, Vietnam and Malaysia, as well as Thailand and Kazakhstan, to name but a few.
China’s ambitions could soon see high-speed rail dominate freight movements between Asia and Europe, being not only quicker and cheaper than ships, but safer and more sustainable too.
It’s time for Britain to catch up – but, as IMechE’s new president Carolyn Griffiths says, for that to happen, the UK first has to have the necessary, dedicated high-speed rail infrastructure. “Our country is quite congested, and it’s only now that people are beginning to think about bespoke railway for high-speed trains,” she says.
At least the development of HS2, which is gathering momentum, should be a step in the right direction.