High-speed rail is becoming increasingly important in infrastructure development across the globe. The economic and environmental benefits mean that cities on every continent are investing in high speed to combat congestion and commuter times.
1 – Housing costs
High-speed rail provides easy access to a wider housing market, making it possible to live further away and commute to major cities. This balances out house prices at a regional scale and creates jobs in local areas.
2 – Commuter congestion
All major metropolitan areas are faced with the problem of congestion during peak hours. Providing more public transport services between locations reduces the need to travel by car. Increased passenger capacity, commuter locations, and speed of travel all work to fix this issue.
3 – Green cities
Many cities are working towards decarbonization and reducing air pollution to improve public health and lessen the dangerous effects of climate change. High-speed rail not only reduces the amount of single-occupant cards but many high-speed trains are also powered by electricity.
We’ve pulled together 5 examples of high-speed projects from around the globe to discuss cost, benefit, and controversy.
Project 1 – California
The California High-Speed Rail [CHSR] project began in 2015 with plans to connect 8 of the largest cities in the state, from San Diego to San Francisco. It was scheduled for completion in 2029 and promised 100% electric trains along the route.
The project recently celebrated creating more than 3,000 jobs along the 119-mile Central Valley line, but the project has been plagued by issues. Originally estimated at a cost of US$33 billion, it has now risen to US$77 billion with projections as high as $US98 billion.
After calls for cancellation from the public and politicians alike the project has been scaled back and broken down into smaller parts. The development will now focus on completing the Central Valley line alone, between Merced and Bakersfield, by 2028. Whether the rest of the project will still be funded is unknown.
A state audit in November 2018 identified poor decision-making and contract management as the cause of delays and cost overruns. The CHSR Authority has vowed to be transparent moving forward and to hold contractors accountable to explain how money has been spent.
California high-speed rail network, source: Planetizen news
Project 2 – Australia
High-speed rail has yet to get off the ground in Australia but it has been debated as far back as the 1960s. Academics have calculated that over AUS$125 million has been spent on research.
The idea of an Australian high-speed line crops up before every election but so far no promises have been fulfilled. Now, there is a renewed push to make this dream a reality. Plans for a high-speed line between Sydney, Melbourne, and Brisbane are being revisited to address the extortionate cost of living and congestion in the major cities. In Sydney, in particular, a suburban house close to a train station could set you back almost AUS$ 3 million. A line offering faster routes into the city could rebalance the surrounding areas and uplift their value, whilst reducing car traffic.
For now, though, Australia has promised to upgrade existing lines and build isolated sections of the rack to high-speed standards, to reduce journey times and incorporate fast train travel into existing networks.
Project 3 – China
China is expanding its high-speed rail network by 3,200km starting this year and has just approved a new line between Chongqing and Kunming. This particular line has a budget of US$19.8 billion and a schedule spanning 6 years.
The expansion is China’s biggest-ever rail investment, totaling US$125 billion, and will establish the largest high-speed network in the world. This brings the country close to its target of delivering a 30,000km high-speed network covering 80% of its major cities by 2020.
However, there are concerns over the level of debt accumulated in order to reach these ambitious goals. Current high-speed services are operating at a loss and the next expansion risks a potential debt crisis.
It is believed that China’s long-term strategy is to continue expanding and grow out of debt - a high stakes bet on high-speed rail.
China’s high-speed rain network, Source: CNN
Project 4 – UK HS2
The UK scheme to build a high-speed line between London, Birmingham, and Manchester has been surrounded by controversy. The project is split into two parts: the London - Birmingham section scheduled for 2026 and the Birmingham - Manchester expansion due in 2033.
With the latest estimates suggesting a cost overrun of more than £22 billion and a delay of 7 years, PM Boris Johnson has launched an independent review of the project that could result in cancellation.
Despite being a critic of the scheme in the past, Johnson has claimed that he will not cancel the project even if the cost estimates break £100 billion. He has voiced his commitment to improving infrastructure, claiming that the review is intended to identify waste and areas for improvement.
Project 5 – Kuala Lumpur to Singapore
The Kuala Lumpur to Singapore line was formally approved in 2013 with a scheduled completion date of 2026. The line was to become the fastest mode of public transport between the two points, reducing travel time to just 90 minutes.
The project was originally estimated at a cost of US$11 billion, but this quickly ballooned to over US$17 billion. Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad previously spoke out about canceling the scheme but negotiations have ended with a different result.
Construction has been delayed until May 30, 2020, while a review is carried out to identify cost reduction options including design modifications and updated economic forecasts.
Despite its long-term economic benefits, the time and cost required to implement high-speed rail have caused a lot of uncertainty in the public and political eye. In order to regain favour, these big schemes need to review their costs and identify new ways to boost the efficiency of project delivery on a large scale.
In conclusion, high-speed rail is becoming an increasingly popular mode of transportation worldwide, offering many benefits including faster travel times, increased efficiency, reduced environmental impact, and improved connectivity. While high-speed rail systems require significant investments in infrastructure and technology, the long-term benefits are significant, and they can be an essential component of sustainable transportation systems.
Countries like China, Japan, France, and Spain have been at the forefront of developing and implementing high-speed rail systems, and many other countries are also investing in this mode of transportation. In the United States, high-speed rail has been slower to take off, but there are increasing calls for investment in this area to improve the country's transportation system and reduce carbon emissions.
However, high-speed rail is not without its challenges, including cost, technological limitations, and political opposition. These challenges require careful consideration and planning to ensure the success of high-speed rail projects.