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

Episode 4 - When will it see the light of day?

And so we’ve reached the end of our series on the Very, Very High-Speed. As with the flying car, in our previous series, now it’s time to sum up everything we’ve learned about this technology and when it might actually see the light of day. And we’re sorry to say, the guy writing this very article and those reading it – you – are unlikely to witness it in our lifetimes. And it seems our children won’t either. Let’s wind back a bit.

First, as we’ve already seen, there are two main scenarios in which the railways could speed up. The first would involve expanding national high-speed networks to create a wider European network allowing people to travel at more than 300 kilometres per hour from London to Bucharest or from Lisbon to Helsinki. As we set out in our previous pieces, this would involve, above all, establishing common rules between all countries across the continent in the financial, political, ecological and technical domains. It would require creating TGVs that function across borders, otherwise none of it would make any sense.

And given the European Union – which doesn’t even bring together all countries on the continent –  doesn’t have a coherent railway policy, it’s difficult to imagine that this could become a reality in the short to medium term. Worse still, members of the EU are currently struggling to find enough budget to maintain their railways. France, for example, which regularly boasts of the quality of its network, recently announced a 100 billion euro budget in February 2023. The only problem is it still doesn’t know where to find the money. And in any case, expanding high-speed lines isn’t among the priorities that have emerged as part of the project.

To understand when such lines might actually be built, we asked Patricia Pérennes, a transport economist at Trans-Missions, to make her prediction. “Clearly, if you start from the life expectancy of women in France (85.1 years in 2020, according to France’s Direction de la Recherche, de l’Evaluation et des Statistiques), I won’t see these really high-speed lines in my lifetime. It won’t happen before 2070, the date announced for the setting-up of the Commande Centralisée du Réseau. At this rate, we can’t see it happening before 2150”, she said before specifying that this was the earliest potential date. And that this is evidently subject to various factors that are different to predict at this point in time. In short, it’s a long, long way off.

The second scenario, meanwhile, would rely on the large-scale rollout of the Very, Very High-Speed through technologies like magnetic levitation of the Maglev sort or self-contained, propelled capsules like the Hyperloop, supposedly capable of travelling at speeds of more than 1,000 kilometres per hour. The former has the benefit of being something that is viable at the very small scale it has been rolled out so far. But what if it had to traverse incredibly arid or cold territory? What would happen if it broke down in the middle of nowhere? On top of the infrastructure we spoke about a fortnight ago, how many technicians and engineers would it take to provide a reliable service? As for the Hyperloop, things are rather simple at this stage: it’s a total fantasy. Worse still, experts see a complete sham and the delirium of a man who thinks he can revolutionise everything he touches.

As for this scenario, Patricia Pérennes suggests, with all the humour and lucidity of someone who knows they’re wading into perilous territory, somewhere in the region of 2300. “I’m not saying it’s impossible. This sort of project could see the light of day beforehand, in a very specific context, in a desert zone belonging to a state with loads of money to throw at it, like Qatar for example, or the UAE. But a large-scale deployment in Europe again seems pretty hard to envision in my lifetime”, she says.

As we’ve seen, it’s unlikely we’ll see people travelling in a big glass tube from Paris to Rome or San Francisco to Los Angeles. And the same goes for an extensive network of high-speed lines in Europe. At least as long as we’re kicking around on the planet. Yes, we know, reality can be pretty depressing sometimes. But here at Midnight Trains, we sincerely believe it’s better to find concrete solutions to decarbonise transport than clinging onto ridiculous fantasies. What’s more, we’ve collected a few key bits of data that will help you imagine what the world will look like when the most credible high-speed scenario will see the light of day.

When Europe will have a vast high-speed network in 2150:

  • The children of children born toward will be 70 years old
  • These people will probably still work, or work will no longer exist
  • If you’re 40 today, you’ll have been dead for 82 years if you’re a woman and 88 years if you’re a man
  • The next millennium will only be 850 years away
  • The global population will have reached 9.9 billion people, up from 7.88 billion today
  • The Earth’s average temperature will have increased by around 3C, according to current projections
  • No one will remember when it rained all the time in Brittany and the UK
  • Sea levels will have risen by at least one metre, according to optimistic projection, or as much as three metres, according to realistic ones
  • Diving enthusiasts will explore the submerged remains of Saint-Tropez and Nikki Beach

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