Season 2 - (Very, Very) high-speed trains

Episode 2 - Can we create the necessary infrastructure?

As we saw last week, speed is a fundamental component of the railways. Throughout history, trains have just kept getting faster and faster, allowing companies to increase the number of trains and passengers that can use the network. Still today, despite the TGV for example being able to travel at 320 kilometres/hour, many want the railways to get even faster.

This very modern quest for the Very, Very High Speed comes in all sorts of shapes and sizes: Maglev, Hyperloop, Space Train and so on. But while the latter was scuppered by the French justice system after its two main bosses were sent to prison in January 2023, the other two have inspired several copycat initiatives in Europe and further afield. As we touched on last week, they both face the same problem. They will entail the construction of a massive amount of infrastructure if they are to stand the chance of really revolutionising passenger transport.

Clearly, such systems would cost an exorbitant amount per kilometre – much higher than typical railway or even high-speed networks. Patricia Pérennes, a transport economist at Trans-Missions, told Midnight Trains, that the absolute minimum, in ideal conditions – the renovation of a normal-speed, flat and non-electrified network – would be around 1 and 2 million euros per kilometre. Thus, in 2008, revamping the line between Carcassonne and Castelnaudary cost 1.4 million euros per kilometre, compared with 1 million euro for the one linking Pau and Oloron. As for high speed, we’re talking even more exorbitant costs: every kilometres on the Paris-Lyon LGB cost 5.5 million euros, compared with 15.7 for the LGV Grand-Est, 17.5 for the LGV Rhin-Rhône and 19,7 for the LGV Méditerranée. “Such variation exists for several reasons like the evolution of standards, the slope present on the line and the value of the land through which it travels. Having a line pass through the Morvan and the vineyard territory around Bordeaux can’t be compared. That’s one of the reasons why the LGV Paris-Lyon was built first, because it linked France’s two main cities in good conditions”, explains Patricia Pérennes.

At a time when most European governments are more concerned with maintaining their existing railways than opening new lines, it seems unlikely that a big new high-speed European network will see the light of day in the short or medium term. But it remains a lot more plausible than the construction of a Maglev or Hyperloop line. “The huge advantage of the TGV compared with the technology is that it could leave the high-speed railway and use traditional lines to reach city centres. Which is something the other kinds of technology couldn’t do because of their infrastructure. Travellers would have to switch modes of transport, leaving the Hyperloop at Massy-Palaiseau and finishing their journey on the RER D”, adds Pérennes, who doesn’t think it would be possible to build the Elon Musk’s big self-contained tunnels that would have to run all the way to the Gare de Lyon in Paris or the Gare Saint-Charles in Marseille. And we can only agree.

And then there’s the environmental question. “Building a high-speed line isn’t the same as building a small line that winds through the trees. It has to be straight and would involve destroying nature, levelling the landscape and laying down concrete. That’s not to detract from the fact that trains are more environmentally sound than cars and planes, but you have to consider the ecological impact relative to the populations the trains would serve”, says Patricia Pérennes. She adds: “It’s thought today that less well-off people like to take coaches, even if the journeys are much longer than by train or plane. If it simply comes down to making trips easier for business travellers or allowing people to have weekends away in Marseille or Toulouse, that’s pretty questionable”. An analysis which sums up the key issues for potential Maglev and Hyperloop lines, and poses another fundamental question: what if we learned to take our time again, rather than keep on speeding things up?

This question is all the more important because, as you’ll have understood by the end of this article, constructing such infrastructure isn’t really in keeping with the times. Patricia Pérennes reckons proof of this is the confirmed date for the deployment of the CCR, the Commande Centralisée du Réseau, in France. Already in place in Belgium, this will mean 2,000 signalling controls being abolished by 2060-2070. That makes the Hyperloop’s tunnels look like a very distant prospect indeed.

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