As high-speed rail gathers speed on the European agenda, plans for a trans-European network seem to be on track. EU Infrastructure spoke to Michael Robson of EIM to find out how high-speed rail fits into the wider transport picture.
“There is the opportunity for the airlines to work with the railways and perhaps become providers of high-speed rail themselves”
Super fast trains have been zipping passengers around Europe for over two decades with an estimated 50 million passengers using high-speed services annually. However, as Europe expands the need for a pan-European rail network becomes more of a priority and high-speed rail figures prominently on the European Commission's radar.
Michael Robson, Secretary General of the European Infrastructure Managers, believes that the time is now right to invest in high-speed rail. In his keynote speech that he delivered at the Elmia Nordic Rail conference held in October in Jönköping, Sweden, he said: "The time is definitely right for high-speed rail for two simple reasons. Firstly, an increasing concern for the environment - and rising fuel costs - is prompting governments, consumers and business to look into more sustainable modes of transport. Secondly, the financial crisis is an opportunity for high-speed rail. Government stimulus packages have made funding available for investment in new sustainable infrastructure."
Many European countries are now taking full advantage of this opportunity. Those who already have a high-speed rail network are investing in upgrades and extensions, while others are starting to explore the advantages that building a high-speed network could bring. The potential exists to completely redraw the European transport map and create a continent where national boundaries are eroded by a pan-European network. This process is already gaining momentum.
"High-speed rail is a key player in the wider transport picture," says Robson. "Obviously as low-cost airlines have developed, we have reached a point where airports are having to build more runways. The UK is a classic example with Heathrow perhaps having to do this. With high-speed rail this can be traded off if networks are properly developed."
Robson cites some of the major airports in mainland Europe - Charles de Gaulle, Schipol, Zaventem and Frankfurt -which are linked with high-speed rail and play an integral role in moving passengers from the country to the central hubs of airports for intercontinental flights. This is something he sees as a vital role for high-speed rail in the future.
In this respect Robson highlights the fact the developing the high-speed network need not necessarily represent an outright rival to airlines. "I think it could be a threat, but I think it could be an opportunity for them. We could see a reduction in domestic flights and flights between European cities where there is a good high-speed rail network and existing examples of this are obviously London to Paris, London to Brussels and Brussels to Paris where flights have virtually disappeared because of high-speed rail," says Robson.
"But there is also the opportunity for the airlines to work with the railways and perhaps become providers of high-speed rail themselves," he explains. He believes that it is completely plausible that airlines such as Air France, Lufthansa and Virgin, who incidentally already has it's own rail network, could have their own fleet of high-speed trains on which they could transport passengers to their hub airports in one seamless journey using through-ticketing, which would allow passengers to book air and train tickets in one simple transaction. Robson suggests that the liberalisation of the passenger market, which is due to begin in January of next year, provides the perfect opportunity for new players to enter the market making the scenario above a reality.
However, there will of course be a certain amount of competition that will inevitably arise between high-speed rail and aviation, and there is already an alliance that is working to ensure seamless rail travel across Europe at a standard that can rival the airlines. Railteam's mission is to make high-speed rail travel more competitive by improving travel information, frequent traveller benefits and high-speed network connections.
For Robson it is evident that high-speed rail is already starting to offer some of the traditional incentives used by airlines. "There is already a Euro Star frequent traveller card. There is a Thalys frequent traveller card and Rail Team are looking to combine them into a single frequent traveller card," he explains. "There are also lounges for Euro Star customers and Deutsche Bahn in Germany has got lounges for first class customers, so those sort of things are developing. You can add on to that free car parking, and the fact that you can also now buy electronic rail tickets or you can buy them over the phone."
But for Robson the important thing is to make the journey seamless and to make passengers feel like a valued customer.
Whether high-speed rail becomes a true competitor or a partner to aviation, the geographical scope of the European network will have to be extended. The main priority as Robson sees it is to extend to the rest of Europe and in particular the new EU Member States, where much of current state funding is going on improving road transport networks and where air travel is very much on the rise.
One reason why extending the network is so important is political in part. In his keynote speech in Sweden, Robson said: "Territorial cohesion is a key plank of the European Union development policy. In a nutshell, it involves ensuring that all regions, especially peripheral ones, are able to reap the benefits of the internal market, and to ensure that all regions reach a certain level of economic development. High-speed rail has a significant contribution to make to this goal in sustainably opening up regions to make them more competitive while reducing congestion in other modes."
And there are regions where this has already proved to be successful. "Spain is probably the best example of where high-speed rail has really revolutionised transport within a country," says Robson. "Before there were not good road links or airports, but the high-speed network in Spain has really brought about social cohesion in the country and has developed mobility dramatically," he continues.
However, extending the network is one thing, but in order to establish a high-speed network that is truly pan-European, issues of interoperability must be solved to ensure that international services can connect across borders. Robson views interoperability as a challenge certainly, but he does not believe that this will necessarily hinder developments and points out that the Eurostar currently operates seamlessly across the infrastructure of three different countries and Thalys has no problems either.
"It is easier to ensure interoperability when you are building new lines, because we already have technical specifications for this. The difficulty comes when you are going to use parts of the old lines," he explains.
So if interoperability is not the greatest challenge in the eyes of Robson, what is? "I think the main challenge in some countries will be actually getting permission to build a high-speed line because while rail is seen as environmentally friendly, a lot of people don't want it built near their property. So, in the more densely populated countries, I think that could be an issue," he says.
"Whilst high-speed rail is environmentally friendly, the Achilles heel is sometimes said to be the noise, so we need to work hard at making both the infrastructure and the trains quieter to reduce the level of noise. A further challenge will be integrating high-speed networks into the centre of cities at a speed that still allows them to be high-speed."
However, if these challenges can be met and overcome, the benefits are multiple. High-speed rail provides smooth connections from city centre to city centre. For journeys of 150 - 400km, from door to door, high-speed rail is much faster than air as rail stations are more conveniently located than airports, there is less waiting time and fewer cumbersome security procedures. High-speed rail maintains this advantage over air for journeys up to 800km, after which point air travel is more time efficient. It also negates the need to build further regional airports or more runways.
High-speed rail also offers the advantage of its environmentally friendly credentials, says Robson. Being electrified, the network could make use of renewable energy forms. It also has a reasonable low environmental foot print in terms of land-use, using only a third of the land needed to build a motorway but moving far more people.
Robson also mentions the inherent advantages for business users. "There is the ability to have Wi-Fi access all the time that you are on the train, so that you can continue working. You can eat on the train and get newspapers or tea and coffee. Or, indeed, you can organise to have a meeting with your colleagues around a table so you can use the time productively. I think it's much more user friendly."
Speaking at the Elmia Nordic Rail conference held in Jönköping, Sweden from the 6-8 October, Michael Robson explained the state of play in Europe.
High-speed rail has long been popular in a number of western European countries and many pioneering developments took place on this continent. The French TGV, for example, was one of the world's first true high-speed rail systems. Jean Dupuy, the 'father of the TGV' was the recipient of one of the first European Railway Awards in 2007. Germany has also had a long-standing relationship with high-speed rail - its high-speed ICE service has been running since the early 1990s.
Spain is also a member of the high-speed rail club, having operated passenger services since the mid 1990s. These services have proved popular and competitive. In Spain, the AVE service, which reaches speeds of up to 300km/h has taken a huge share of the domestic air market, particularly on the Madrid-Barcelona route.
Portugal also operates fast Pendolino services on a number of lines and is planning to build a true high-speed line that will allow mixed traffic to travel up to 350km/h between Lisbon and Madrid.
Italy's high-speed network has grown since the first route between Florence and Rome was opened in 1978. A new high-speed network on the two main axes Milan-Bologna-Florence-Rome-Naples and Turin-Milan-Verona-Venice-Trieste is being built. Connections with neighbouring countries are also being built, although these will rely on conventional services for the moment.
The United Kingdom benefits from a high-speed rail link to the continent via the Eurostar. The domestic services will soon be able to take advantage of this high-speed line from the coast to London, while a serious debate is continuing about building a second high speed line linking London to the coast.
Belgium and the Netherlands are upgrading their networks to provide a high-speed service between Brussels and Amsterdam. The Netherlands is planning the construction of an "HSL-East" link between Amsterdam and the German border. Belgium has also recently opened new high-speed lines improving connections with Germany and the Netherlands.
Poland has received EU funding to build a "Y" shaped network, linking Warsaw with Łódź, with branch lines connecting to Wrocław and Poznań. The total cost of the project will be in the region of €6.9 billion. Work is also in progress to upgrade a number of existing lines to enable them to handle traffic travelling at speeds of 250kpm/h.
Romania is investigating the possibility of building a high-speed line to connect to the European network and is seeking European funding to support a feasibility study. This line would probably run from Bucharest to Budapest in Hungary and form part of a planned Paris-Constanta transport corridor.
In Scandinavia, there are not as yet any true high-speed services, though research is being undertaken into the feasibility of developing high-speed links in Sweden and many conventional lines in Sweden, Denmark and Norway have been upgraded to carry passengers at up to 180-200km/h.