Where are we on high-speed rail?

FI-Talking-Transportation-Jim-CameronIt’s time for a quick update on the good and not-so-good news about high-speed rail around the world:

China: The high-speed train between Beijing and Shanghai just passed the 100-million-passenger ridership mark after less than two years of operations. The sleek trains depart every 15 minutes carrying 1,000-plus passengers at 200-plus mph, covering the 819-mile distance (which is comparable to the distance between New York City and Atlanta) in four hours.

China also recently opened a new 1,400-mile-long high-speed line from Beijing to Guangzhou (which is comparable to New York City to Key West). The travel time for that is eight hours and it puts high-speed rail just 100 miles from Hong Kong.

USA: America’s fastest train, Acela, while a Tinkertoy compared to true high-speed rail in China and Europe, is becoming a victim of its own success. Acela has captured over 50% of the New York to D.C. and New York to Boston market with hourly departures but an average speed of only 75 mph. Trains are sold out (with 3.4 million passengers a year) and, at least on paper, highly profitable. But when Amtrak looked at adding an extra car to each train to capitalize on this popularity, it concluded it would be too expensive.

But Amtrak has been experimenting with increasing Acela’s speed from 125 to 160 mph on a few stretches of track in New Jersey and Rhode Island. Some $450 million in work will be needed, but the hope is the faster speeds could be achieved by 2017. Today Acela accounts for a quarter of all Amtrak revenues nationwide.

France: If it worked for the airlines, why not high-speed rail? France’s government-run railroad is about to launch a no-frills, discounted subsidiary branded “OuiGo.” Using rebuilt double-decker TGV equipment, the trains will be super cheap but with few amenities (think Southwest Airlines on rails).

All ticketing will be online. Extra bags will cost you $8 in advance, $65 if you wait until the last minute. There are no café or bar cars on the trains. A seat near an electric outlet is extra. You have to arrive 30 minutes before departure, and OuiGo uses only suburban, not downtown, stations (which is appealing to the car-centric suburbanites near Paris). But for a little hassle, you can get to Marseille on the Mediterranean in three hours for as little as $13.

Netherlands-Belgium: Not all high-speed rail in Europe is a smashing success. Witness Frya, the private rail service between Brussels and the Netherlands, which was in planning since 2004 that was to cut travel time by one-third using sleek new V250 trains ironically named “The Albatross” built in Italy.

While lowest bidder Ansaldo Breda had a great track record building trams and commuter trains, when its V250 finally ran this winter, ice buildup began ripping plates from beneath the trains, showing that Metro-North isn’t the only railroad with equipment problems in the winter. The V250 cars were declared unsafe and taken out of service while the lawyers go at it.



Jim Cameron has been a commuter for 22 years.  He is chairman of the Connecticut Metro-North/Shore Line East Rail Commuter Council, and a member of the Coastal Corridor TIA. You can reach him at [email protected] or trainweb.org/ct. For a full collection of “Talking Transportation” columns, see talkingtransportation.blogspot.com. 

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