Opinion, by Eduardo Athayde

RIO DE JANEIRO, BRAZIL – While awaiting for the Brazilian high-speed rail (HSR) between the mega-cities of Rio and São Paulo, it’s interesting to overview what is happening worldwide.

HSR surges around the world, and the number of countries running these trains is expected to nearly double over the next few years, according to new research by the Worldwatch Institute. By 2014, high-speed trains will be operating in nearly 24 countries, including China, France, Italy, Japan, Spain, and the United States, up from only fourteen countries today.

“The rise in HSR has been very rapid,” said Worldwatch Senior Researcher Michael Renner, who conducted the research. “In just three years, between January 2008 and January 2011, the operational fleet grew from 1,737 high-speed train sets worldwide to 2,517. Two-thirds of this fleet is found in just five countries: France, China, Japan, Germany, and Spain. By 2014, the global fleet is expected to total more than 3,700 units.”

Not only is HSR reliable, but it also can be more friendly than cars or airplanes. A 2006 comparison of greenhouse gas emissions by travel mode, released by the Center for Neighborhood Technologies, found that HSR lines in Europe and Japan released between thirty to seventy grams of carbon dioxide per passenger-kilometer, versus 150 grams for automobiles and 170 grams for airplanes.

Although there is no universal speed definition for HSR, the threshold is typically set at 250 kilometers per hour on new tracks and 200 kilometers per hour on existing, upgraded tracks. The length of HSR tracks worldwide is undergoing explosive growth in order to meet increasing demand. Between 2009 and 2011, the total length of operational track has grown from some 10,700 km to nearly 17,000 km.

Another 8,000 km is currently under construction, and some 17,700 km more is planned, for a combined total of close to 43,000 km. That is equivalent to about four percent of all rail lines–passenger and freight– in the world today.

By track length, the current high-speed leaders are China (China is investing about $100 billion annually in railway construction. The share of the country’s railway infrastructure investment allocated to HSR has risen from less than ten percent in 2005 to a stunning sixty percent in 2010), Japan, Spain, France, and Germany.

Other countries are joining the high-speed league as well. Turkey has ambitious plans to reach 2,424 km and surpass the length of Germany’s network. Italy, Portugal, and the United States all hope to reach track lengths of more than 1,000 km. Another fifteen countries have plans for shorter networks.

But in Europe, France continues to account for about half of all European high-speed rail travel. HSR reached an astounding 62 percent of the country’s passenger rail travel volume in 2008, up from just 23 percent in 1990, thanks to affordable ticket prices, an impressive network, and reliability. And in Japan, the Shinkansen trains are known for their exceedingly high degree of reliability.

JR Central, the largest of the Japanese rail operating companies, reports that the average delay per high-speed train throughout a year is just half a minute. On all routes in Japan, rail has captured a 75 percent market share.

The Brazilian HSR projects have the advantage of using and adapting data from all the experimented global rail travel operators.

Eduardo Athayde is the director of WWI-Worldwatch Institute in Brazil. Email: eduathayde@gmail.com


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