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Not the greatest of arguments

There may not be a nation in the world that needs high-speed trains more than Canada does. We\’re a big country, with long, boring highways between our lonely cities…

Large, sparesly populated, places are probably the last place you would want to build high speed railways.

11 thoughts on “Not the greatest of arguments”

  1. Not sure that’s true when you have large sparsely populated countries *that contain dense urban centres*. Like, say, France. Or Canada. Or Australia.

    Two reasons for this:
    1) HSRs are fast; most time delays and a large proportion of energy consumption are in speeding up and slowing down.

    2) Most of the build cost of an HSR is in planning shenanigans, compensation, tunnelling to avoid towns and beauty spots, etc. If most of the line goes through absolutely nothing, these costs are cut substantially (compared with the UK, where they’re high enough to ensure the whole project is only justifiable on the grounds of the capacity benefits to the suburban/inter-urban railway network).

    Tim adds: Depends upon the distances. Over 200 miles or so (the usual number given) planes are better.

  2. I think that 200 mile distance is a little on the short side, but otherwise I agree.

    Time is a better way of looking at it than distance, as the expression “high speed rail” can hide a variety of sins with respect to speed. Two hours or less, and train wins and captures the bulk of the market. Two to three hours, the train might win, depending on other circumstances (difficulty of getting to airport, congestion, etc). Over three hours and the bulk of the traffic (including all the premium traffic) for the city pair is going to fly.

    The fastest train journeys in the world average about 250km/h or so, although “High speed rail” normally means something like 220 km/m, so you are realistically talking maximum distances of 500km or a bit more.

    That 250km/h requires extra fast trains and assumes an all new track. In cases where the “fast rail” is a mixture of new track and upgraded old track (and many cases are), it’s a bit lower. All new track is much more expensive. What this means is that if your distances are close to that “Longest feasible distance” of 500km or possibly a bit more, then the whole thing becomes much more expensive. In Canada, a line from Montreal to Toronto would be about 550km. You could build a high speed rail line there with a reasonable journey time, but for the reasons above it would be very expensive. For this distance, you need really big cities to justify such a line, and Toronto and Montreal aren’t big enough. (Try Beijing / Shanghai or Tokyo / Osaka or something like that).

    High speed rail works better where you have a major city every few hundred kilometres at the most. You can run long distance trains, and these will capture most of the traffic on all the one to two hour city pairs along the route. They will also capture that portion of the traffic that prefers not to fly or who is not worried about timings on the longer routes. Try Marseilles/Lyon/Paris/Lille/Brussels/Antwerp/Rotterdam/Amsterdam as an example, or Seville/Cordoba/Madrid/Zaragoza/Barcelona.

    That’s the idea, but these cities are still probably not big enough to ever make back the capital cost. This stuff only really works in high density corridors. Japan, sure. Coastal China, once again sure. Paris to Benelux and the Ruhr, sure (although all the cross border issues have ensured this is one of the later bits to be built in Europe). A few other places in Asia, sure. The Boston-Washington corridor, sure. (It’s interesting how close to having a good high speed line on that route the Americans are already without much of a top down plan- the various railway owners have simply been upgrading their track on a piece by piece basis). Some other places in Asia, yes, but probably not as many as you think. (A high speed line has been built between Seoul and Busan with a two hour and 40 minute journey time – ridership numbers are very disappointing on that one). Undoubtedly they will make sense in parts of India and Brazil when those places are a bit richer, but they need to build good road networks first.

    Places like Canada and Australia are non-starters.

    Sorry, I have gone on a bit.

  3. And despite what I said, I was not trying to that Beijing to Shanghai was a good candidate for a point to point fast rail service – they are much too far apart for that – merely that you need really big cities to justify one

  4. Problems with HSR across large, sparsely populated countries are not restricted to the infrastructure costs and delays, both of which are considerable.

    Exactly how long to build this railway? What cost? What traffic? What revenue? Are you sure of all of this?

    Unless you can absolutely guarantee that there will be significant passenger demand on this route for the next 30-40 years, dont build a railway. Unles a train is full it costs more than plane flight (in monetary and eco-terms) hence the 200-ish mile upper limit. Rail capacity comes in big lumps (trains) and a small change in demand can create massive new costs or losses by forcing empty-ish trains onto the route.

    Short haul air travel is far more flexible, it only runs when there are passengers, otherwise you dont fly and dont waste money/fuel. As demand changes the number of flights can change much more flexibly, and there is no lower profitablity limit unlike a railway – have one flight a week if that’s all you can justify, rail can’t do this without state subsidy. Once you’ve built an airport, it connects you to many places, a railway only goes to one destination, it’s a very costly way to solve the problem of long-ish distance travel.

    Given the long distances, rugged countryside, long planning horizons and unpredictable passenger demand etc there are no good reasons why you would do this in Canada.

  5. Kas, erm, which thread are you reading? Fucktard.


    When phase 2 is complete, LGV Est will average over 270km/h between Paris and Strasbourg (1h50 to cover 500km).

    3 hours is generally taken by transport modellers as the point where rail gains significant share from short-haul aviation, which is over 800km at current LGV Est speeds, never mind what might be achievable in 10 years’ time.

    But the main point is that you’re missing peak oil. HSR is a 40-year project, obviously – and in 40 years time, oil is likely to be a scarce and extremely expensive resource. That’s not Greenpeace-y bollocks, it’s a mainstream view used by oil companies and banks in their investment planning.

    HSR runs off coal (if you’re not worried about AGW), or off nuclear/solar/magic beans (if you are). Aeroplanes run off kerosene, and given the extent to which they need a highly concentrated energy source, will be much harder than other self-propelled vehicles to switch to non-oil-based fuels.

    Given all that – obviously, a transcontinental HSL in Canada wouldn’t work. But Montreal and Toronto both have metro populations around the 4m mark, which has been enough in most of the successful European links. It’s also only only 550km from Toronto to NYC, which could be an interesting link too.

    I also disagree about Australia, having read various Australian HSR studies. Again, a link to Perth or Darwin would be crazy – but Sydney to Melbourne is 900km (with Canberra conveniently located 1/3 of the way along the route, which helps get government funding) and is the third-busiest air corridor in the world. And of course, Australia has very little oil but is pretty much made of coal and uranium…

  6. There are two areas in Canada that come closest to making sense for a HSR:
    1) The Windsor to Toronto corridor (would need to split it though for London and Hamilton) possibly extended to Montreal.
    2) Lethbridge, Calgary, Red Deer and Edmonton. – Do this one well and you could link both airports as well.

    John B – Slightly off on your areas there – for perspective, France is smaller than the province of Alberta (which itself is only 7% of Canada) yet France has 20x the population.

  7. Steve – good point on Calgary/Edmonton (although they might be a bit small – c1m each IIRC, albeit fast-growing). I’m assuming you missed my later comment – agreed that transcontinental would be bonkers.

  8. So Much For Subtlety

    I am mainly only curious as to why this was classified under “trivia” when the category of “idiotarian” was just begging.

    If Canada had big enough large cities maybe they could make a high speed rail link pay. Really big large cities. With a lot of Greenies.

  9. Peak Oil is simply not true. The amount of petroleum that can be extracted from various sources given a long term oil price of (say) $100 is simply so vast that it is barely worth thinking about. Shales, tar sands, all that stuff come into play at that level. It may be that productions levels of oil that can be extracted at low cost will go into decline reasonably soon (from the perspective of political stability, that might not even be such a bad thing) but the amount of oil which is out there and can be extracted at higher prices is much greater.

    Australia has truly immense amounts of natural gas: to such an extent that in the last five years Australia has basically become a petroleum economy. (Projects in development in Australia added together mean that Australia will have significantly greater gas production in 2020 than the present production of Qatar, now the world’s largest producer). Not oil per se, but just as good.

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