Expected delays: why high-speed rail projects fail around the world

Throughout history, railways have been a universal symbol of prosperity and innovation around the world.

From steam railroads traversing swaths of the American West in the 1800s to futuristic bullet trains in Japan, for centuries nations have invested heavily in building new rail lines to embrace modernity and connect various distant cities. As train travel becomes increasingly ubiquitous, with 463 million train journeys made in the UK in 2019-20, high-speed rail seems like the next logical step to making train travel faster, more efficient and greener… in theory.

The disappearance of various high-speed rail projects around the world has too often made the headlines.

Great Britain

In the UK, the infamous HS2 project linking London to Birmingham, Manchester and Leeds via a network of high-speed trains has become something of a political embarrassment. Completion of the line was recently pushed back to 2031 for the Birmingham branch and 2040 for the Manchester/Leeds branch, and the projected cost of the railway has nearly doubled from the original budget of £56bn at nearly £100billion due to a range of issues such as the undervaluation of the land that had to be purchased to build the railway, protests and asbestos. The cost and environmental impact of the program has had no shortage of naysayers, who now cite the pandemic and the likely normalization of working from home as another reason the project should be scrapped.

The rest of the world

HS2 is not the only rail project in the world to have run out of steam lately. California State’s plan to build a high-speed train between Los Angeles and San Francisco, first approved in 2008, was recently scaled back to a relatively short link between two towns in California’s less populated Central Valley. , rather than its more well-known coastal metropolises. In Brazil, similar high-speed link projects between Sao Paulo and Rio de Janeiro have been abandoned following a series of funding and regulatory problems. Singapore and Malaysia announced in March 2021 that a proposed high-speed rail link between Kuala Lumpur and Singapore had been scrapped after the Malaysian government decided it was cheaper for them to terminate the agreement between the countries. and pay compensation to Singapore rather than complete the project.

Projects in Taiwan and South Korea were initially successfully completed, only to be derailed in subsequent years due to poor usage and slow ticket sales. So far, countries have struggled to emulate the success of Japan and China, the only two countries to successfully deliver and maintain a national high-speed rail network.

Off the tracks

All construction projects carry risk, but why do high-speed projects in particular seem doomed?

The main factor in the failure of high-speed projects is the enormity of their budgets. Not only are initial figures for these railways often in the billions, but, as with HS2, unforeseen costs can quickly add up and double the budget before a train approaches the tracks. This situation is further exacerbated when many projects are funded by government grants, which may need to be reallocated at a later date if more pressing issues arise.

Even when the railways are operational, the cost of high-speed projects means they take a long time to generate a financial return. Ticket prices alone are not enough to break even, as the cost of a ticket would have to be astronomical to do so, making them unaffordable. Instead, projects must rely on other businesses such as advertising revenue to bolster their revenue, but even these revenue streams may not be enough to fill the financial void.

By contrast, air travel is now extremely accessible, with tickets to short-haul domestic and international destinations from the UK often costing less than a return train ticket from London to Manchester. High-speed train operators will struggle to lure potential travelers away from no-frills airlines that can get from A to B for a fraction of the price in a similar timeframe.

Finally, although high-speed trains need separate tracks to ensure their safety, existing railway infrastructure (such as central city stations) must be in reasonable condition to cope with the mechanical demands of high-speed rail. – another cost which can increase considerably if it is not correctly taken into account at the start.

Back on track?

Private financing may be the way to go. Despite the inevitable delays, the Indian government is still optimistic about the completion of its plans for the high-speed train between Mumbai and Ahmedabad, which is being funded by a £12.8 billion loan from a group of Japanese investors. with business interests in the region.

Alternatively, perhaps the future of transport does not lie in high-speed rail after all. One technology being developed (literally) is “Hyperloop”, which involves pods carrying passengers traveling at high speed through a vacuum tunnel. Several companies are developing the concept, with travel conglomerate Virgin planning to deploy it as a link between London Heathrow and Gatwick airports, cutting the journey from 45 miles to 4 minutes. At the current rate, high-speed rail runs the risk of being rendered obsolete by alternative technologies before it has been able to prove itself.

Given the myriad of issues plaguing high-speed rail, is Hyperloop just a pipe dream? Maybe, but then again, the Tube used to be too…

Jose P. Rogers