Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Looking at High-Speed Rail academically

If only to suggest that this blog is not dedicated exclusively to anti-HSR ranting, here is an academic article from a senior researcher at Oxford University, UK. The first paragraphs suggest the academic nature of the publication in which the article is presented.

Except for China, which is breaking new ground the way the US Transcontinental Railroad did in the late 19th century, HSR (or HST, as the Brits call it), is based on existing rail systems already in place, dominating people-transit. Europe and Japan come to mind.

China, we should understand, is different than Europe or Japan. They are in the throes of their Industrial Revolution, 21st century style. We had ours in the 19th and early 20th centuries. They also have a population of over one billion people. They are a highly centralized, dictatorial economy which is determined to move a major portion of its population inland. The HSR is only one of several technological transit solutions to solve their problem. And, now they are facing over-construction of that modality.

As I've said many times, for Europe and Japan, HSR is the icing on the rail cake. We have no cake in the US. (Amtrak is a vestigial dried-out cracker; not a cake!) Shouldn't a functional and high-demand rail network come first? Isn't building HSR like building a penthouse without a skyscraper under it?

The US leads in rail freight transport, a highly profitable industry. As our various transit modalities evolved, we drifted away from the declining-profit passenger rail network that once dominated the US landscape. Out of that decline, Amtrak was created as a highly subsidized equivalent of the extensive passenger rail network once operated by the freight carriers (sort of like a loss-leader). (Personal disclosure: I rode a train from upstate New York to San Antonio, Texas in 1952, so I could start Air Force basic training. The trip took four days.)

Today, perhaps out of a nationalistic 'penis' envy, we have an Administration driven to enter a race with other countries to acquire the glamour and panache of high-speed rail. We hear mindless phrases like, 'catching up,' and 'not being left behind.'

It's being touted in modality competitive terms, intending to drain people out of their cars and air travel. What we aren't told is who is doing the HSR riding around the world, and it certainly isn't the vast base of the working classes; it's the elite who can afford the high-priced tickets to ride in premium luxury.

Let me add one more thought. The persistent arguments, made by Ray LaHood and others, that the point of the HSR project in California is for jobs and economic development, has been amply discredited by William Grindley and Alan Enthoven's Finance paper. As Givoni puts it at the end of his paper here, "Overall, HST development must be based on accessibility and not on economic considerations;" Accessibility, which translates into "ridership" for the California project, tells us -- based on the data we now have -- that there is no legitimate basis for pursuing this project any further. ========================================================



The Transportation Research Board's Committee on Intercity Passenger Rail (AR010) is concerned with research that will lead to better planning and implementation of intercity rail passenger systems, with particular emphasis on the full range of high-speed systems and new technology. Research will include demand analysis, financial considerations, economic effects (such as user and social benefits), and public-private partnerships and should address impacts on other rail operations and the environment, coordination with other modes, rail-highway interfaces, corridor versus system concerns, technology assessment, and implementation strategies.

Intercity Rail Passenger Systems Update is published intermittently by the Transportation Research Board to disseminate information about current research and development in intercity rail passenger systems. Matthew J. Melzer, editor; Anthony D. Perl, Chair, TRB Committee on Intercity Passenger Rail; Elaine King, TRB staff officer. Any findings and conclusions are those of the authors and not of TRB. Submit news items to Elaine King, Transportation Research Board, 500 Fifth Street, NW, Washington, DC 20001, telephone 202-334-3208, or email eking@nas.edu. www.TRB.org

FALL 2010


Moshe Givoni moshe.givoni@ouce.ox.ac.uk

Moshe Givoni is Senior Researcher, Transport Studies Unit, University of Oxford, England.

High-speed train (HST) development is gaining speed across the developed world-most noticeably in China; at a comparatively miniature scale, in England, the birthplace of the railways; and in the United States. With the lingering economic recession, HST is considered an important component in long term economic growth and in the shift to a “green,” or environmentally friendly, economy. With eyes on Europe, the United States is beginning to think seriously about passenger rail transport.

Is this good news from a transport policy perspective? What will this mean for the development of the intercity transport system, the contribution of transport to economic development, social exclusion, and the environment? What difference can it make to the dominance of the automobile, city sprawl, and the oft-used term sustainability? It depends: first, on the objectives for transport policy and how these align with the development of HST, and second, on the kinds of HST being built.

A look to Europe can provide some potentially important lessons and guiding principles. The most important statistic-often forgotten when talking about European railways-is the use of rail. In all 27 countries of the European Union, rail transported 384 billion passenger km in 2006. This large number accounted for no more than 6 percent of the total passenger km transported, however. HSR transported 23 percent of those passenger km, up from 16 percent only 6 years earlier. If only the countries that actually operate HST are considered, the share is much higher. Still, on major transport corridors such as London-Paris and Amsterdam-Brussels, rail-HST in particular-fully dominates the market.

Mode substitution is often the main rationale for developing HST, especially substitution for air transport. Real substitution only occurs when, for example, a flight is taken off the runway and the service is provided by rail. This does not happen often in Europe. It happens only on relatively short routes of 300-400 km or when passengers are traveling to a city rather than an airport to catch a long-haul flight. When such mode substitution does happen, however, others take their place in the airplane. In practice, most substitution takes place from conventional rail to high-speed rail, with adverse implications for the former in terms of demand and investments.

Opting for HST over conventional rail means service to fewer cities and stations and more expensive service from which fewer people can benefit. Even with HST, aircraft and cars are the preferred or only option for too many people. The most important and challenging elements in the design and possible benefits of a new HST line or system are the number and locations of stations.

Each additional station increases the service accessibility but reduces average speed-the only speed that counts. These two factors, service accessibility and average speed, will be crucial for travelers in determining which mode to use.

Fewer stops mean a faster rail journey but an overall longer access, or egress journey. The access journey preferably should be planned based on local urban public transport; thus, such a system needs to be fully integrated into the HSR station. Since one of HST's advantages is its location at the city center-where automobile access is problematic-such public transport feeder services are crucial.

Otherwise, a car trip to an airport at the city's edge is far more attractive, as is simply driving for the whole trip. For the large, dispersed cities of the United States, this presents a real challenge in the effort to plan a successful HST network.

And what about the environment? HST is greener than air travel-but it does not always lead to environmental benefits. These depend on how green the electricity used is, the extent of real mode substitution, and the extent to which HST generates additional travel. In Europe, the additional travel generated by HST often is more than 25 percent.

Whether HST development can be considered positive depends on the guiding policy objective and on how HST will be integrated with the rest of the transport network-airports and public urban transport. Last, and least, it depends on the maximum train speed. Overall, HST development must be based on accessibility and not on economic considerations; if the former are addressed properly, the latter might follow. Consideration of all of the above issues must be taken at the earliest possible stages of planning.