High Speed Rail – Reflections on an International Transport Revolution
- Date delivered:
- 21 May 2009
Our highways are clogged with traffic. Our airports are choked with increased loads. We are at the mercy of fluctuating oil prices. We pump too many greenhouse gases into the air. What we need is a smart transportation system equal to the needs of the 21st century. A system that reduces travel times and increases mobility. A system that reduces destructive emissions and creates jobs. What we're talking about is a vision for high-speed rail.
Those words aren't mine. They are President Obama's, speaking to Congressional leaders in Washington on April 16th. If they signify, as he clearly intends them to do, the start of a high-speed rail revolution in the US, then they will be of huge significance – as well, perhaps, as a source of new ventures for Arup, to whom I pay tribute this evening as an inspiration in this field over many years.
This is how President Obama continued:
“High speed rail is not some fanciful pie-in-the-sky vision of the future. It is happening right now. The problem is it's been happening elsewhere, not here. In France, high-speed rail has pulled regions from isolation, ignited growth, remade quiet towns into thriving tourist destinations. In Spain a high-speed line between Madrid and Seville is so successful that more people travel between those cities by rail than by car and airplane combined. China, where services began just two years ago, may have more miles of high-speed rail services than any other country just five years from now. And Japan, the nation that unveiled the first high-speed rail system, is already at work building the next: a line that will connect Tokyo and Osaka at speeds of over 300 miles per hour. So it's being done. It's just not being done here.”
Well, it's not being done here either, apart from the 68 miles to the Channel Tunnel. And just as President Obama went on to say “there's no reason why we can't do this; this is America” – so too there is no reason why we can't do this; this is Britain, the country that invented the railways, and the country which, in High Speed One, already has a state-of-the-art high-speed line, even if it is only 68 miles long and doesn’t actually connect any of our major cities.
The question for us in Britain is not whether we can do high-speed rail, but whether we should do it. This question has been on my mind since I first went on a TGV in the mid-Eighties and on a bullet train in 1996. Before taking up my current job, my instinctive answer was the same as President Obama’s, that we should do it, at least for our principal inter-conurbation corridor from London northwards, because it clearly works as a rapid, reliable, high capacity, green form of transport, to set against the other options of building a whole new generation of motorways or doing nothing beyond extra short-haul aircraft and incremental improvements to an existing Victorian rail infrastructure.
Furthermore, my instinctive view as an historian is that high speed rail could be a revolutionary change, like the original railways of Stephenson and Brunel: not only a piece of new transport infrastructure, but a bold economic policy for jobs and growth, a bold industrial policy to drive high-tech engineering and innovation, and a bold nation-building policy to promote national unity and help overcome the north-south divide, one of our most debilitating legacies from the past.
But instinct only gets you so far in multi-billion pound investment decisions, however illustrious those with whom one agrees. As the minister responsible for the national rail and road networks, I decided on appointment last October to do something not altogether universal among politicians: to test my prejudices with a serious dose of the facts. So alongside my rail tour of Britain, I have visited all the countries mentioned by President Obama subtracting China but adding Italy and Germany, to study their high speed rail systems and future plans. It was only for a day or two each; my facts and impressions are inevitably partial. But Arup, by kindly suggesting that I might share my reflections today, obliges me to try to make sense of what I have learned. My text again is President Obama, April 16th: “I know that this vision has its critics. There are those who say high-speed rail is a fantasy – but its success around the world says otherwise.” Well, does it? Here goes, starting in Japan, the original pioneer of high-speed rail, or the Shinkansen as they call it.
At the entrance to Tokyo Central Station is a plaque which declares the Shinkansen “Product of the wisdom and effort of the Japanese people.” “As an indication of the unity of purpose and of the pride which the Japanese people feel for this achievement, this inscription …. can hardly be bettered”, writes Rod Smith of Imperial College in his excellent history of the Shinkansen.
Japan’s first railways had been built, to a narrower gauge than ours, by a British engineer in the 1870s. The line from Tokyo to Nagoya and Osaka is the country’s principal 350 mile rail artery, accounting in the 1950s for a quarter of the country’s rail traffic although only three per cent of the rail system by length. It was electrified in 1956, enhancing capacity and reducing the journey time to six and a half hours.
This is where Japanese railway modernisation might well have stopped for a generation – as it did, at electrification of principal inter-city lines, in most of Europe at the time. What happens generally seems pre-ordained after the event, and so it is both with Japan’s decision to develop the bullet train and our decision not to. Yet this is quite unhistorical, as Rod Smith explains. On the contrary, the phrase “railway downfall theory” was in vogue in 1950s Japan: the view that rail was an outdated technology which was set to follow horse carriages, canals and sailing ships, to be replaced by faster planes for the longest distances and by the far more flexible and individualistic car and truck for shorter distances.
This view was indeed widely held within Japanese National Railways itself. It was only the vision and leadership of a small group of talented managers and engineers, led by its president and chief engineer, which ordained otherwise. They essentially sidestepped projections about long-term rail decline, concentrating rather on the immediate capacity requirements of the densely populated and economically critical Tokyo to Osaka corridor, convincing the government that a patch-and-mend upgrade to the existing line was too cautious for this key route. This capacity argument, plus the availability of a low interest World Bank loan – jobs and regeneration being a good part of the case for high-speed rail, as for motorways, from the outset – led to the decision to construct a new passenger-only line for this route alone, to the standard international gauge, free from level crossings, with shallow curves and in-cab signalling allowing a consistently high line speed.
It took only five years to build the line, such was the prowess of the Japanese engineers who undertook it. Rod Smith also recalls that there were massive cost overruns – yes, they were there from the birth of high-speed rail. The aforementioned president of Japan Central Railways resigned to take responsibility as controversy raged about this new white elephant, and he did not even attend the opening of the line in 1964, the year of the Tokyo Olympics.
Whatever is the opposite of a white elephant, the Shinkansen soon became its exemplar. The hundred millionth passenger was recorded soon after construction started on the western extension of the line to Kobe and Okayama in 1966. Railway downfall theory was replaced by national veneration of the Shinkansen and in 1969 the government adopted a National Development Plan which included the construction of a Shinkansen network of 7,200km over the next generation. Barely a third of this has in fact been built, and no-one I met in Japan thought that the full plan was commercially viable or would be realised – yet this still represents nearly 2,500 km of high-speed line in service – more, still, than in any other country, with another 1,000km under construction or planned.
However, the key issue for the future of Japanese high speed rail is the original Tokyo to Osaka line itself, which is approaching saturation point. The latest generation bullet trains leave on the Nagoya/Osaka line from Tokyo Central – and from the nearby high-speed station of Shinagawa, opened in 2003 to spread the load – every four or five minutes with trainloads of up to 1,300 passengers; that is 12 trains an hour (309 per day), compared to two trains an hour in 1964. Japan Central Railways is proposing to build an entirely new Maglev line on the first Tokyo to Nagoya section of this route – third generation rail technology, capable of speeds of up to 500km, halving existing Shinkansen journey times. So great are the challenges – and route controversies – that it isn’t planned for completion until 2025, and there are sceptics including within the Japanese Transport Ministry. When I met the chairman of the Japan Central Railways and the deputy Transport Minister, they did not brook the possibility that it would not happen. I asked about the major risk factors that might prevent the Maglev project hitting its 2025 target; the response was a terse “none”, followed by a long deadening silence. Perhaps. But given the considerable uncertainties about Maglev, together with its very high initial cost, uncertain long-term maintenance costs, carbon emissions and lack of interoperability with the existing network, my discussions in Japan did not cause me to question our decision to rule it out for High Speed Two.
Some other observations on the Japanese experience:
- There is no freight on the Shinkansen. But then there is not much freight on Japanese railways at large. I was told this was because of high sea freight volumes, peculiar to Japan. Yet I note that France, which also bars freight from its high-speed lines, also has notably lower overall rail freight volumes than, for example, neighbouring Germany which has mixed use of most high-speed lines. How far this is cause and effect, and how far the ineluctable force of geography and history, would I think repay further study before we commit ourselves to a freight policy on High Speed Two.
- The whole Shinkansen network closes between midnight and 6am for engineering work; no engineering work is done during the day. When I asked the chief operating officer of Japan Central Railways whether the Shinkansen was ever closed during the day even for major engineering work, he looked startled. “Closed? Do you mean shut with no trains running?” I nodded. “Ah, no, we wouldn’t do that. We did do it once about 30 years ago for a morning, but there were such complaints that we have found ways of avoiding this since.” Iain Coucher was standing right next to me. .
- The distances between the major cities on the Shinkansen are not greatly different to major inter-conurbation distances in Britain. The view that high speed rail only succeeds over longer distances is an incorrect generalisation from France. Tokyo to Nagoya is a little further than London to Manchester; Tokyo to Osaka is less than London to Glasgow and Edinburgh.
- It is not true that everything the Shinkansen touches has turned to gold. This was the case for Tokyo to Nagoya, Osaka, Okayama and Hakata, Japan’s dominant economic corridor accounting for about 40 per cent of the population and more than half its GDP. Towns and cities between these cities have also benefited significantly from Shinkansen stations, including Yokohama, 20 miles south-west of Tokyo, where the huge developed area around the new Shinkansen station which we surveyed from the top of a five star hotel and retail complex was twenty years ago open countryside. But new lines to the far less populated far north and south of Honshu island have been less successful either in traffic or – so far – regeneration. We even heard complaints that tourists no longer stay overnight at Niigata in the northern snow country, now they can get from Tokyo and back in a day.
- The Shinkansen is not just a major city to city service: there are also stops at many towns en route – questioning another piece of conventional wisdom about high-speed lines, that they only work if there are no intermediate stops. In Japan, trains leapfrog each other to provide a combination of non-stop and stopping high-speed services. For example, on the Tokyo-Osaka line there are three different types of service: the Nozomi which stop at only the major stations and take two and a half hours; the Hikari, which stop at selected stations; and the Kodama which stop at all 17 stations on the route. The fast trains leap-frog the slower ones at intermediate stations, accomplished with a precision – without loss of time on the Nozomi service – which was incredible to behold as I did the journey in the cab. It was also notable that the Nozomi trains rarely reach their top speeds but instead generally travel at between 250 and 270 km/hr giving them a good deal of resilience to help achieve the near perfect punctuality performance. In fairness I should add that Iain Coucher was standing next to me then too, and pointed out to me that the 309 Shinkansen a day between Tokyo and Osaka is not dissimilar in number to our Chiltern Line (318 services a day) and C2C operation (352 services a day), which have similar operational characteristics (largely exclusive use of a two-track railway) and are two of our best performing railways, often achieving a 100% level in any one day.
- Japan has not neglected its local or city rail services as the price of developing the Shinkansen. I found the state of the Tokyo metro, and the scale, quality and apparent cost-effectiveness of investment in new and upgraded metro lines, as much an inspiration as the Shinkansen.
However, the most striking impression made on me by Japan was the sheer dominance of rail within the country’s transport system at large, thanks to the Shinkansen. The country in Europe with the largest rail share of the rail:road market is Switzerland, where rail holds about 15 per cent. In Japan the equivalent figure is a massive 37 per cent. [Show slide 1]. As you can see from this slide, rail reaches 50 per cent of all journeys above 200 miles, and then captures the lion’s share of the market until airlines take a larger share over 600 miles – ie. a greater distance than between any major city in Britain. Motorway tolling is one factor: all Japanese motorways are tolled, at the equivalent of about £60 for a car between London and Glasgow. But then, we were told that there are no daytime roadworks on Japanese motorways, and the infrastructure and service stations are superb. That’s another story.
Now to France, which 17 years after the launch of the bullet train introduced its first TGV service, between Paris and Lyon, in 1981.
The genesis and development of the TGV was in key respects similar to that of the Shinkansen. In both cases, the driving forces were national engineering prowess and capacity constraints on the principal inter-conurbation corridor – Paris-Lyon being that corridor in France – with a decision taken to build an entirely new line, exclusively for passengers, rather than attempting a significant upgrade of the existing line.
As in Japan, the initial success and popularity of the first line – which cut the journey time for the 264 miles from Paris to Lyon to under two hours – soon afterwards led to the decision to develop an entire national network. The TGV overnight became a symbol of French national pride and modernity; my friend Alastair Campbell was guest lecturer last week on a TGV as part of SNCF’s annual week-long national festival “J’aime le train” which features lectures by celebrities in TGV restaurant cars on what rail means to them, not an event I am thinking of introducing here in Britain despite my recent travels. As early as 1983 SNCF published a strategic plan for four further lines to be built by 2000 – extending the Sud-Est line from Lyon to Marseille, and new lines from Paris to Lille in the north, Alsace in the east and Le Mans going west. All four of the planned lines are now in operation as the creation of a national TGV network became a cross-party priority for successive French governments. The French Prime Minister, Francois Fillon, recently described the TGV as one of the two infrastructural transformations of modern France; the other being energy independence through the French nuclear programme.
France now has a high-speed network of nearly 2,000 km (again, almost as large as Japan’s), much of it without business cases as strong as the original line but with strong political and public momentum driving successive lines forward. Four lines are currently being built simultaneously totaling about 400 route miles (ie about London to Edinburgh), all due to be completed by 2015. President Sarkozy accelerated the high-speed programme as a central plank of his fiscal stimulus plan in December. He told a press conference: “It is certain we are not wrong doing this. Mobility is a need and the boss of SNCF, who is here, won’t disagree.” He didn’t.
On the contrary Guillaume Pepy, the said boss of SNCF, when he was standing next to me at a recent rail conference in London, said that one of the biggest mistakes of French high-speed planning was not to build the Paris-Lyon line as a four track railway from the outset because – like Tokyo to Osaka – it is now nearing saturation point and planning is underway for a second line between the two conurbations. But France is not toying with Maglev.
As the French high-speed network is built out and interconnects with those of neighbouring countries, the long-dreamed-of “Trans-European Networks” are becoming a reality. The line from Paris to Lille and the Channel Tunnel will soon link through, via Brussels, into the new Dutch high-speed line up to Rotterdam and Amsterdam, giving a Paris-Amsterdam journey time of two hours. The Sud-Est line has extensions under construction or planned south-east from Marseille along the Cote d’Azur to Nice and ultimately into Italy, south to Montpelier and – through a 17 mile tunnel under the Pyrenees – to Barcelona, and east from Lyon to Turin and into the north Italian high speed network, via a 32 mile tunnel under the Alps, these two tunnels being engineering feats to match the Channel Tunnel.
As TGV popularity soared, so did the willingness of French local and regional authorities to help pay for it. Only two per cent of the cost of the Paris to Lille line was paid by local authorities; by contrast, for the current Le Mans to Rennes line out to Brittany the proportion is 39% and it is high for the other current projects. Business cases and traffic projections for new lines appear to be of variable quality – as in all the countries we are discussing today – but it is notable that the willingness of the French central and local governments to pay for extensions to the network gets greater not lesser over time. As for the regeneration impact, Lille is seen as a particular success story, particularly the district between Lille Europe, the new high speed station, and Lille Flandres, the old main station, now a strong services district in what was a declining manufacturing city. A similar story is told of Lyon (where there has been substantial development near the new Part-Dieu TGV station), and Le Mans and Reims, now less than an hour from Paris by TGV.
Having pointed up key similarities to Japan, here are some key differences.
- The classic French network is standard gauge. The TGV network has been built to be entirely interoperable with it – not just in principle but very much in practice: a majority of the route mileage of TGVs is on the classic networks as TGVs run off the high-speed lines to destinations beyond, often for very long distances as with the TGVs from Paris to Bordeaux and Hendaye which run on old lines all the way south-west from Tours (and very slowly by the time they reach my annual holiday destination of Saint-Jean-de-Luz, one stop on from Biarritz). Interoperability applies in other European high-speed countries too, notably Germany and in Spain too where it involves a special gauge-changing procedure because of the wider gauge on the old Spanish network. It is the practice we are about to adopt with the Kent services on High Speed One, as trains run off the high-speed line onto existing lines at Ashford and Ebbsfleet to Canterbury, Folkestone and Ramsgate. The Continental experience suggests we are right to continue this practice with High Speed Two so that the benefit of high speed services can be extended to towns and cities across the north as a new line is built out. It would, for example, be possible to achieve a three and a half hour journey time from London to Glasgow with a high speed line extending to the north-west and trains continuing on the west coast main line beyond. Continental experience shows that you can run high speed services far beyond the limits of the high speed lines.
- Another fundamental difference between France and Japan is the location of stations and the resulting service pattern. [Show Slide 2] As this slide shows, outside Paris and the Ile-de-France, there are currently only 18 TGV stations for the entire 1,900km French network. There are no stops for medium or even many large towns: the  stops are mostly cities plus a few parkway stations such as Haute-Picardie (midway between Amiens and St-Quentin) and Lorraine (midway between Metz and Nancy), these having a mixed record as rail hubs. Reflecting on the French and Japanese extremes in this respect, it is clear to me that it is politics and economics, not engineering, which determines the number of stations. It is not the case, as some suggest, that high-speed rail requires there to be few stations and only city-to-city-services. Intermediate stations are, if suitably engineered, entirely consistent with the highest speed end-to-end running.
Now to Italy, which in fact beat the French to high-speed rail by three years, opening the first section of the Rome to Florence line in 1978. Thirty years later, this has been extended north and south to a line nearly complete from Milan to Naples via Bologna, Florence and Rome. The last major section, from Florence to Bologna, is to open later this year, including an astonishing nearly 50 miles of tunnel – nine long tunnels in all – to get the line through the Apennines, halving the Florence-Bologna journey time from 60 to 30 minutes and reducing Rome-Milan to the magic three hours likely to take the lion’s share of traffic from the airlines.
A north-west to north-east line is also at various stages of operation, planning and construction, aiming to link Turin, Milan, Verona, Venice and Trieste by 2016. Also under construction or planned are lines north from Bologna to Verona, south from Naples to Messina and Palermo, and from Naples north-east to Foggia and Bari, although it should be said that there were varying degrees of enthusiasm expressed to me by north Italian politicians as to the cost:benefit of lines in the south.
The Italians demonstrated the greatest feats of engineering of any I saw, but also in some respects a lesser performance in terms of punctuality, speed and traffic. Two economics professors set out to me in Naples a vision of a single metropolitan zone between Rome and Naples as the objective of the high-speed line. Yet there are only about 15 trains a day from Rome to Naples, and my Saturday morning journey on the line was notable for the absence of many other passengers or trains, as well as the fact that the train had two drivers, sat in Naples station for nearly three hours before returning to Rome; and the end to end journey time of one hour 15 mins is an average speed of only 5mph faster than the best end-to-end Virgin journey time from London to Glasgow. High speed lines and trains do not alone a high volume, high-speed service make. There was also only limited use of the Internet for advance ticket sales.
However, nothing beats Italian flair for marketing and branding. The best single presentation of the entire case for high-speed rail in five minutes I encountered in my travels was a Ferrovie dello Stato DVD, shown to us in the company’s monumental inter-war Rome headquarters, which I thought you would like to see too …. [show DVD]
There you have it, everything that high-speed rail stands for: not just a new train but “a new transport system that transforms the way that Italians live and travel,” green, fast, high capacity, city-centre to city-centre, taking on the plane and the car as never before. And all of it, you will have noted, the achievement of “Italian men and companies.”
One other key point: from 2011 there will be a competitor service to Trenitalia on the Milan to Rome line. A recent Boston Consulting Group study, based on a pan-European survey of 13,000 longer-distance travellers in 13 countries, found that more than 30% of passengers would like to switch modes and in some countries the proportion is as high as 65%. The study notes: “Considering the size of the market this presents a huge opportunity for alternative providers and an enormous threat to the incumbent”, particularly as by 2020 passengers will be able to travel faster from origin to destination by high-speed train than plane on nearly half of Europe’s busiest air routes. However, the BCG analysts found that a higher proportion of rail passengers (48 per cent) were considering switching to another mode, or rated other modes as preferable, than was the case with either car or air users and “participants in our study rated airlines as more innovative, dynamic and elegant than rail operators.”. They put this down to the lack of on-rail competition which has resulted in “little customer segmentation or service differentiation”, as in the airline industry before deregulation.
Perhaps so, and the competing Rome-Milan services will be an early test. However, from my travels I would also highlight one significant general weakness of the European high-speed rail experience, which chimes with my dominant impression from my British rail tour too – the problem of stations. The high-speed trains I travelled on were universally good or outstanding, the German ICEs and their equivalents on the Madrid-Barcelona route being especially spacious and comfortable. But the stations they served were very variable, and too often – even for business travellers – a pretty dismal, even squalid experience little changed from 25 years ago when I experienced them as a student backpacker. There are some spectacular new stations, the 3bn Euro new Berlin Hauptbahnhof prime among them, and also some superbly modernised old stations, Roma Termini being prime among these, thanks to the franchising of the station to a private station manager, GrandiStazioni, which increased the commercial surface sixfold in the process. But Gare du Nord is no St Pancras, and don’t try getting a coffee at Naples Termini – either in the station or, worse, in the neighbourhood around. And when you come to leave Naples station, the metro is (to put it mildly) down at heel even once you have found it. There are plenty of European shades of Birmingham New Street and Southampton Central, for readers of my recent British rail tour blog.
The location of city-centre stations is, of course, their greatest advantage for those with city-centre business – but also often their greatest disadvantage in terms of fast, convenient access and egress by car and public transport and taxis too for those with further to go. In this they are often at a disadvantage to airports, which, ironically, are now increasingly linked by fast rail services as well as taxis and large car parks. Cycling storage and facilities are often pretty non-existent in European main stations. The connectivity of high-speed stations is clearly a central issue for the next stage of the high-speed rail revolution. To quote the conclusion of the BCG study: “operators that can provide the most seamless door-to-door journey across multiple modes, usually by working with other companies, will have an obvious advantage.”
Now to Spain, which entered the high-speed era in 1992 with the opening of the Madrid-Seville line and is now the most ambitious country in Europe in the rate of growth of its high-speed network.
Having just completed the Madrid to Barcelona line, Spain now has 1,600km of high speed line in operation, with another 2,200 under construction and 1,700km planned.
A key construction project is the line north from Barcelona into the French Sud-Est line, which I mentioned earlier. This line is of particular significance for European high-speed rail policy for reasons other than its 17 mile tunnel and the link between the Spanish and French networks which it brings. An intense debate is taking place between the Spanish, Catalan and French authorities as to whether the line will carry freight or be passenger only. The Catalan transport minister told me he was pressing strongly for it to be a mixed freight and passenger line, to take lorries off the route north and boost the economic dividend from the line. For the line to carry mixed traffic, however, requires not only a departure from French high-speed practice: it also has a major bearing on the engineering of the line, as it would need shallower gradients, and therefore also on its cost north of the French border, to which, politely, the French have suggested that the Spanish and/or Catalan governments might wish to contribute if they want the much costlier option. Here again the freight issue is rearing its head fairly starkly.
However, the most remarkable feature of Spanish high-speed rail is the sheer scale and rapidity of its development, in a country without an especially strong prior railway tradition. There is a debate about whether the lines were built in the right order. It was clearly a political decision by Philipe Gonzales to build the first line from Madrid to his home town of Seville – the deal is said to have been that Barcelona got the 1992 Olympics in return. But Barcelona now has its line too, and the Spanish government in 2005 published a national high-speed plan with a target of 10,000km of high-speed line by 2020 connecting all the nation’s provincial capitals, accounting for 90% of the population [show slide 3]. It estimates that the cost will be met from allocating 1.5% of GDP to national infrastructure until 2020, which it projects – with additional revenue from concessions – to give a cumulative investment budget of 250bn Euros of which half – yes, half – will go to rail. Spain will be spending 10bn Euros on rail infrastructure investment this year alone, 6bn of it on new high-speed lines. These figures are simply mind-boggling: Network Rail’s has a £10bn budget for capacity enhancement for the next five years. The Spanish Transport Minister told me: “A high-speed fever has taken over the country,” perhaps the most expensive fever in Spanish history.
However, the Spanish are delighted with the results. They are particularly pleased by the initial success of the Madrid to Barcelona line, which only opened last February, with a fastest journey time of 2 hours 38 minutes for the 386 miles, about to come down further to 2 hours 15 minutes. When the service started a few months ago rail had only 16% of the combined train and air market; now [show slide 4] it has 48 per cent, and they expect this to rise to 70% or higher before long, which accords with the experience on similar lines such as London to Paris and Brussels. The load factor on these AVE services is also a high 65%.
Finally to Germany.
Although Deutsche Bahn has marketed the ICE brand strongly, the Germans have done less than any of the other four countries I visited to brand high-speed lines as the backbone of a new transport network and vision. This perhaps reflects the quality of their existing network. They stress the integration of high-speed lines with existing lines, and for some secondary corridors, including Hamburg-Berlin and Bremen-Cologne, they have gone instead for a systematic upgrade of the existing line for higher speed and higher capacity running. Deutsche Bahn also expresses its objective as to reduce average journey times to a certain desirable level in each corridor, rather than to achieve the lowest journey times.
That said, the scale of German high-speed projects is still considerable – 378km are under construction in addition to the 1,300km already open – and it includes most of the nation’s primary economic corridors, including Cologne-Frankfurt-Stuttgart-Munich and Hamburg-Hannover-Nuremberg-Munich. The greatest success has been the 110 mile Frankfurt to Cologne line, with a journey time of just over an hour. This includes the development of Frankfurt airport as a new high-speed hub on the line which has had the effect of virtually eliminating flights between Frankfurt and Cologne. Some 16% of all Frankfurt airport passengers now come to and from the airport by ICE from destinations across Germany. This experience needs to be studied carefully as High Speed Two assesses options for serving Heathrow.
I could go on. As John Stuart Mill said: “On all great matters there is more to be said.” But you would probably rather I didn’t say it now, so let me now stand back and draw some conclusions.
First, I am more than ever convinced that a north-south high-speed rail line in Britain is now just a matter of dates. As I have seen in country after country, an international high-speed rail revolution is taking place. The issue for us in Britain is not whether we follow suit, but when and how. A huge amount is at stake in the “when and how”, which is why in January we established High Speed Two both to assess the case for such a line – the transport case, the environmental case and the business case – and also (within certain parameters) to recommend route options.
Second, even the limited scope of this lecture is enough to demonstrate that there is not one high-speed model which we can lift off the shelf and implement. The more you learn about high-speed rail, the more alive you become to the range of choices in each major aspect of the project. It is very important that policy-makers in Britain can call on a serious body of expertise in the detail of other countries’ practice and plans in everything from funding and engineering to station design, location and spacing, and arrangements for freight, rolling stock and interoperability with the existing network. I am not aware of there being such a single body of expertise at the moment: there certainly isn’t one in government, and nor does there appear to be one in a university or in the private sector. But we need one. It needs to encompass the costing and financing of high-speed projects: I am struck by the wildly divergent costs presented to me for high-speed projects of apparently broadly similar scope, which doesn’t look to me to be purely a matter of engineering requirements. Given our experience with High Speed One, cost control is a key issue High Speed Two.
Third, other countries have developed high speed rail networks for a variety of reasons – some quantifiable, some not – and never for just one reason. Often, capacity constraints on a major existing inter-city route has driven the development of a first high-speed line – as with the original Tokyo to Osaka and Paris to Lyon lines – but thereafter wider regeneration, environmental and political arguments take hold, not least the desire of unconnected regions, cities and towns to gain high-speed connectivity. In Britain we are very much at the first – and, in terms of a business case, the most straightforward – stage of this evolution. High Speed Two is concentrating first on the capacity requirements of our principal inter-urban corridor, London to the West Midlands, the busiest inter-city line in the country and already near saturation even with the recent £9bn upgrade. It is looking then at options for extending a line beyond to the other major conurbations of the north-west, west Yorkshire, the north-east and central Scotland.
Fourth, high-speed rail enables countries to escape from the constraints which geography and technology imposed on the first generation of rail infrastructure, and it is essential that its full potential is exploited in this regard. We still think of the Channel Tunnel as a wholly exceptional engineering feat which one wouldn’t think of repeating. Yet most other major European countries are undertaking equivalents of the Channel Tunnel to overcome historic transport impediments as part of their high-speed networks. There is no reason to be imprisoned in our thinking of future rail corridors by the fact, for example, that the Victorians built the west coast and east coast main lines and didn’t go across the Pennines, which separate the two largest conurbations in the country after Greater London.
Fifth, the environmental argument for high-speed is generally accepted in the other European countries I visited. Rail is a relatively energy efficient means of transport, contributing only around 2% of the UK’s domestic transport carbon dioxide emissions. A high-speed line will expand capacity in a transport mode that is generally more energy efficient than short haul air and long distance road journeys. The task for High Speed Two is to assess the positive impact of this potential modal shift, against the negative impacts of newly generated journeys and a straight transfer from existing trains, understanding load factors and the sources of electricity generation. Intuitively, you would expect high speed rail to provide positive environmental benefits, and it is this robust assessment that we need to support the overall business case for high speed rail and its contribution to carbon reduction.
Finally, in every country I visited, there is a high degree of political unity behind high-speed rail, and it is has generally been driven forward by cross-party consensus. In particular, while “national” parties support high-speed rail partly for overtly nation-building reasons, regional – even separatist – parties also tend to support it to boost the potential of their regions to prosper unaided. It will be decades before we know who turns out ultimately to be right. Meanwhile this rare potential for political popularity and consensus, on such a major infrastructure policy, is there to be forged and seized by transport modernisers. And that includes a fair few here tonight.
(This speech represented existing departmental policy but the words may not have been the same as those used by the Minister.)
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