Sustainable Transport: Is High-speed Rail Sustainable?
A Deep Dive into High-Speed Rail This blog aims to dissect the notion of high-speed rail being labelled as ‘sustainable’. We will critically examine schemes such as High Speed 2 (HS2) as a case study and extend our discussion to countries like Japan and France. The objective is to scrutinise whether high-speed rail truly embodies sustainability, both from an environmental perspective and an economic lens.
The concept of sustainability, as per the Cambridge dictionary, is described as “the quality of causing little or no damage to the environment and therefore able to continue for a long time” (Cambridge,1999, p.n/s).
The birth of high-speed rail
The birth of highspeed rail began in 1964 with the introduction of the Shinkansen line, a $377 million investment by Japan, which introduced the world to 200 km/h rail speeds. It was thought impossible, with European trains reaching only 160km/h. This groundbreaking development made rail travel relevant for a short period, cutting the travel time between Tokyo and Osaka by half. At its peak, the line could transport 23,000 passengers per hour. This helped to share wealth between the two cities and reduce congestion.
The rise of the personal automobile, which was more convenient than train travel and the economic viability of flying made rail less attractive as planes offered higher speeds and more travel options. Newspapers from around the globe started to mock the Shinkansen project, with the Belfast Telegraph in 1978 publishing an article stating there had been a 50% rise in ticket prices, a 5% reduction in passenger travel and a 12% reduction in freight transport (Belfast T,1978.p.10). These figures were also further reported in London News’ 1982 article on train systems abroad (London News, 1982, p. 39).
However, in 1975, the Japanese government reinvested in high-speed rail and created the network we know today, which is over 2000km long and has transported over 10 billion passengers. While many lines have become profitable, the issue of high ticket prices is of grave concern. Japan is repeating its past formula of investing to half travel times, except this time it will cost $64 billion. The International Railways Journal stated an increase of $13.7bn in construction costs was required due to economic changes brought on by COVID-19 (Smith,2021)
Why does the world want high-speed Rail?
Japan is a crucial example of the exceptionally high costs linked to High-Speed Rail and begs the question of whether it is worth it? The joint Transport Research Centre states the benefits are “lower travel time, higher comfort, more reliability, higher capacity and reduced congestion” (Garg,2020. p.13). Congestion is the most significant factor to discuss. By persuading the public to swap their car for the train, the environmental benefits can be substantial, especially if the electricity for the tracks comes from renewable and sustainable sources. High-speed Rail can be sustainable if it reduces higher polluting modes of transport like planes and cars. TGV project in France is an excellent example of this by offering high-speed city connection and allowing for the ban of 2.5-hour internal flights in May of 2023, helping to reduce France’s carbon footprint.
The Shortcomings of High-speed Rail
Not all high-speed rail projects are a success. California’s planned network hopes to reduce the congestion issues in LA, where the TomTom index states it takes 14.5 minutes to travel 10km, whereas in neighbouring San Diego, it takes 8. It also hopes to reduce the use of internal flights. Currently, the scheme is plagued with cost overruns, environmental concerns and political disputes, all seemingly commonplace factors when discussing high-speed rail.
Take the recent cancellation of HS2 as a critical example of the unstable nature of high-speed rail. Its inception came from a similar justification as California’s. The ageing, unreliable rail network dates back to the Victorian period, and the need for better transport links into London due to the high congestion rates, with the TomTom index rating it the 12th worst city in the world for congestion in 2022. The idea behind the project’s inception was justifiable. Still, unlike Japan’s Rail network, the first phase of the scheme would only cover 140 miles, meaning much of the country missed out on the benefits. The following phases would see it reach Manchester but missed out on the Northeast of England, further adding to the debate about the north-south divide. The project also ran £67bn over budget due to poor cost planning.
High-speed rail can be highly successful in attracting the general population away from planes and cars, helping to reduce congestion and CO2. That factor alone does not, however, mean it is environmentally sustainable.HS2 planned on destroying ancient woodlands and consumed 20M tonnes of concrete, and caused a concrete shortage in the UK, according to the New Civil Engineering Trust. It can be economically sustainable if a country can afford the upfront cost, which economic powerhouses like Japan, France, and America can. However, even nations as wealthy as the UK struggled to do so, meaning the argument for financial sustainability is brought further into question. Instead, we should look to upgrade and renew what we have before thinking about creating from scratch, as that will always be more sustainable both environmentally and economically.
List of Images
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