February 16, 2008
High-Speed Rail Revolution in the Making
By Briginshaw, David
THE normally select world of high-speed rail, where construction of new lines has been limited to a small, but slowly-growing, club of generally rich or powerful countries, has been turned upside down this month with major developments on three continents and more to come. Argentina has shocked the world by deciding to build the first high-speed railway in the Americas. Nuovo Trasporto Viaggiatori (NTV) in Italy looks set to be the world's first open-access high- speed rail operator. China has unveiled its first 300km/h train and started to award contracts for its huge Beijing-Shanghai high-speed project.
These events look set to have a profound impact on the future development of highspeed rail and give it a major boost. They could also pave the way for a major revival in intercity rail travel in parts of the world that haven't seen long-distance passenger trains for decades.
The most crucial hurdle to overcome for any major infrastructure project is gaining political support. Win it and doors swing open to planning approval and funding, but fail to obtain it and the task is a great deal harder if not impossible.
Argentina's newly-elected president, Mrs Christina Kirchner, is determined to make a substantial mark on her country in the form of major projects, including highSpeed rail and a planned 28km electrified railway tunnel through the Andes to Chile to create a new rail link between the Atlantic and the Pacific.
While the tunnel is competing for approval with a highway scheme in Buenos Aires, the high-speed rail project has cleared the first hurdles with the signing of an agreement between Argentina and France, and the decision to appoint the Alstom-led Veloxia consortium to build the line.
Up to now, Argentina has been one of only a handful of South American countries that have struggled to keep a skeleton long- distance passenger service alive on a predominantly freight network. Introduction of high-speed trains between Buenos Aires, Rosario, and Cordoba will revolutionise rail travel in Argentina and be a big boost to the economy. Bids are already in for a second line, from Buenos Aires to the coastal resort of Mar del Plata, paving the way for a highspeed network.
Brazil, which has abandoned virtually all longdistance passenger trains, is already planning a network of intercity passenger routes plus a high-speed line between Sao Paulo and Rio de Janeiro. The potential for passenger rail is much greater in Brazil than Argentina, because it has a larger population and a stronger economy, although the topography is far more challenging.
Even in North America, there are the first glimmers of change in this road-dominated continent. A new Congressbacked study urges the development of intercity passenger rail in the United States, and a high-speed rail study has been commissioned in Canada for the WindsorToronto-Montreal-Quebec corridor.
A different rail revolution is about to start in Europe with the opening up of the passenger network to competition in 2010.
NTV is the first serious attempt to take advantage of this. NTV has powerful backers including Mr Luca Cordero di Montezemolo, who is president of fiat, Ferrari, and the Federation of Italian Industry (Confindustria).
Italy is a challenging market to launch a private high-speed service because train fares are very low, Trenitalia already has a strong presence in the market, and there is strong competition from low-cost airlines. But if NTV succeeds in Italy, others will follow in stronger markets such as Germany and France.
In Asia, China has been putting a tremendous and increasing effort into developing its long-distance passenger services. A series of so-called speed-ups have cut journey times substantially. Construction of a huge highspeed network is underway, and as I write this work is about to start on the massive Beijing-Shanghai project.
China has also unveiled its first home-produced 300km/h train (below) - 250km/h trains in the CRH series are already in service. Increasing technical expertise in all spheres of high-speed rail will make China a force to be reckoned with in the rapidly expanding high-speed rail market.
While prospects for an extension to the Shanghai maglev line are fading fast due to escalating costs, noise fears, and lack of government backing for the technology, JR Central in Japan is pushing ahead bravely with its maglev dream: to build a line from Tokyo to Nagoya to relieve congestion on the Tokaido Shinkansen. This is despite the government refusing to back the project financially and JR Central's share price tumbling 15% in two days because of concerns over rising debt. Nerves of steel are required to get maglev off the ground, as JR Central is quickly discovering.
The next high-speed rail news will come from Russia, Morocco and Saudi Arabia, where plans for new lines are at an advanced stage of preparation. When these projects get the green light, high-speed rail will be well on the way to becoming a global phenomenon.
The most crucial hurdle to overcome for any major infrastructure project is gaining political support.
Copyright Simmons-Boardman Publishing Corporation Feb 2008
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