European Rail Operations on the Fast Track

18 February 2008 (Last Updated February 18th, 2008 18:30)

Despite lagging behind innovators such as Japan for years, a European-wide high-speed network at last seems imminent. Neil Pulling reports on its progress.

European Rail Operations on the Fast Track

Raising speed has long been a feature of railway operations, initially to outpace rudimentary road travel for passengers and canals for freight – shorter journey times are a means of attracting attention and market share for competing companies. More than changes in motive power, what really sets modern high-speed operations apart from the first 150 years of railway history is that they have required the development of a new generation of infrastructure.

By the 1960s there were a handful of prestige electric loco-hauled services in Europe, such as the 'Capitole' in France and 'Rheingold' in Germany with sustained 200km/h (125mph) running. In 1977, the diesel-powered British High Speed Train (HST) began fleet service, contributing to speeds of 200km/h – which in mph form led to the successful 'Inter City 125' branding – becoming commonplace across Europe over lightly modified conventional tracks.

Although these attainments were impressive in the context of what had gone before, the reality was that Europe was many years behind Japan, the leader in high-speed rail traction.

THE SHINKANSEN APPROACH

Propelled into a radical rethink by the existing restrictive narrow gauge infrastructure, demographic projections and a long-term threat to economic growth, the outcomes were entirely new bullet trains and Shinkansen (new trunk lines) that became operational in October 1964.

"What made faster speeds possible in Japan on a day-in, day-out service was that the new railway was an integrated system of track, vehicles and signalling."

From that time, the rail benchmark was raised to 210km/h (130mph), the opening operational speed on Shinkansen. Though the speed was remarkable, the real significance lay in the fact that it was being sustained by
frequent, regular-interval, high-capacity trains for 500km over the New Tokaido Line between Tokyo and Osaka.

What made faster speeds possible in Japan on a day-in, day-out service with metronomic reliability was that the new railway was an integrated system of track, vehicles and signalling.

As exemplified by Japan, it is a passenger-only operation, untrammelled by compatibility with the existing system, unhindered by road crossings and freed of directly serving any but the largest communities.

It seemed that widespread speeds beyond 200km/h required building an entirely new and separate railway. However, this was not to entirely be the European way.

A EUROPEAN MODEL: GO ANYWHERE

France became associated with high-performance electric traction in 1955, recording 330.9km/h (205.6mph) with electric locomotives to take the world rail speed record. Ironically, after using gas turbine propulsion in early high-speed developments, France was eventually to create a model for European operations with the electric Train à Grande Vitesse (TGV).

The Paris-Lyons TGV service began in 1981, initially with only part of the route being dedicated Ligne à Grande Vitesse (LGV), a major departure from Japanese practice. Like its later German ICE counterpart, TGV was designed to be compatible with the country's existing rail infrastructure including track, signalling and stations.

Facilitating the creation of an LGV network in sections, this dual-route capability was to make the standards and branding (if not the speed) of the new train sets available across the country.

"As cross-border operation increased, so did installations of multi-system equipment."

It was soon to make possible regular services into neighbouring countries, a benevolent mobile colonialism that waved the national engineering flag.

A second difference was that France favoured power cars, one at each end of the passenger vehicle rake, as opposed to the electrical multiple unit (distributed power) formations of the bullet trains. Germany was to follow suit with ICE1, thereafter using one power car with the shorter ICE2 sets before adopting distributed power for ICE3/3M.

France had made limited use of power bogies under passenger coaches in early TGV, although their newest development, the AGV (automotrice à grande vitesse) is likely to mean that fully distributed power will feature in the next generation of motive power for the LGV.

With observation of lineside signals unreliable at high speed, bullet trains had to introduce in-cab signalling. French and German high-speed lines followed suit. However, operation over older lines meant that SNCF and DB trains also had to be fitted for operation with their respective country's signalling systems. As cross-border operation increased, so did installations of multi-system equipment, with sub-classes being created relative to the lines over which they would run.

WIDENING THE BENEFITS

With use of conventional infrastructure implicit in the European model, operators and manufacturers have explored ways of making high-speed trains more able to make the most of their performance when on the older routes. The application of tilt technology to maintain passenger comfort over curving alignments has been both a means of raising speeds without building a new railway (as with the UK West Coast Main Line) and the way that tilt-equipped trains can run faster than normal stock when
operating away from high-speed lines, as is widespread with ICE-T vehicles in Germany.

"The application of tilt technology to maintain passenger comfort over curving alignments has been a way of raising speeds without building a new railway."

One of the greatest by-products of high-speed rail is an increase in passenger safety. A notable exception was the disaster at Eschede, Niedersachsen, Germany, in 1998.

The failure of a wheel modification led to a 200km/h derailment on upgraded conventional track of an ICE1, causing 101 fatalities (around 35% of the complement).

This extreme tragedy apart, high-speed operations generally enjoy an extremely high safety record, even in the context of the favourable statistics of rail travel in general.

As passenger numbers have grown, notably on earliest-built routes that often displayed the strongest business case, measures to increase capacity have included increased frequencies, running in multiple to make better use of existing paths and the double-deck TGV Duplex.

OPPOSITION TO HIGH-SPEED RAIL

In spite of having 'greener' credentials than competing air travel, on several fronts high-speed rail has not been universally welcomed. Closely associated with national rail operators, the big price tag attached to new lines is a highly visible extraction from the taxpayer's pocket.

Perhaps mindful of such perceptions amongst the electorate and a feeling that expenditure goes further if spread across the existing network, the UK government did not include high-speed rail in its
shopping list up to 2014 as represented in the 2007 'Delivering a Sustainable Railway' White Paper.

Visual intrusions and demolition in urban or rural landscapes also attract opposition, although the tunnelling alternative substantially raises project costs. As lines have proliferated, the more the measures to alleviate environmental impact have grown.

"A paradox of instituting high-speed rail is that it can be detrimental to conventional services."

A common practice is 'bundling', whereby new lines are built nearby existing lines and/or motorways in order to keep aspects of pollution contained within an area already committed to transport modes. This is clearly exemplified by the KÖln-Frankfurt Neubaustrecke (NBS) in Germany and the NSL Zuid in the Netherlands.

Whether disturbing the masses in urban centres or shattering the peace of the countryside, noise is an unwelcome by-product of high-speed rail.

With retro-fitting on earlier lines or now more commonly installed from the outset, trackside noise screens limit the noise problem. Apart from the extra cost, these can make a trip along some lines a far from scenic experience and encourage graffiti vandalism.

A paradox of instituting high-speed rail is that it can be detrimental to conventional services. The opportunity cost of a new line may include foregoing upgrades or doing away with marginal services elsewhere on the system. More directly, as protests indicated when LGV Est opened in 2007, some communities effectively have their services downgraded by channelling trains onto the new line and away from city centre stations.

This resulted in them losing direct access to TGV services, with feeder services becoming a role for regional TER operators. Personal expense may also increase if rail passengers are effectively forced onto premium services, a point of contention between the Dutch and Belgian partners in the forthcoming new service between Amsterdam and Brussels.

A HIGH-SPEED CLUB?

As it is the norm in Europe for high-speed trains to operate over conventional routes, any notional 'club' of true high-speed operators is more to do with infrastructure than rolling stock. As befits Europe's pioneer in this field, France has the biggest network of dedicated high-speed rail, the latest built for operational speeds up to 350km/h (217mph).

"France has the biggest network of dedicated high-speed rail, the latest built for operational speeds up to 350km/h."

With both the earlier 1,500V dc and more recent 25kV ac embedded in the SNCF network, from the outset TGV sets have been dual voltage. Some variants (including Thalys and Eurostar) have incorporated 15kV ac for working into Germany and Switzerland, and 3,000V dc for Belgium.

As an interim measure prior to completion of the UK's High Speed 1 and a departure from the overhead supply norm, Eurostars were also fitted for 750V dc third rail collection on the UK's southern routes into London Waterloo.

In their various guises over 25 years, TGV services have made the operational speed of 300km/h (186mph) commonplace in Europe.

The second-largest national network, Germany's NBS, demonstrates two approaches to line construction. Early NBS such as Hannover-Würzburg maintain levels through tunnelling, bridges and embankments.

In contrast, the higher power-to-weight ratio of later ICE3 stock has allowed for newer NBS such as KÖln-Frankfurt to more closely follow the hilly landscape in order to contain construction costs. As opposed to 300–330km/h NBS, by heavy upgrading of existing alignments as per
KÖln-Düren, Germany has created the Ausbaustrecke category for up to 250km/h running speeds.

Other major players in terms of length are Italy, building new routes and upgrading earlier high-speed lines, and Spain. A relative newcomer to the field, Spain has embraced high-speed rail with vigour, unusually adopting both TGV and ICE-derived trains.

"Railteam's aims include raising awareness of the members' services, easing cross-border ticketing and improved information services."

As with Japan, Spain decided to create not only a new network, but also opted for the 'standard' 1,435mm gauge rather than extend from its main system of 1,668mm.

Construction is underway for Spanish and French operations to be
joined by a new Perpignan-Barcelona line inland from their Mediterranean border.

Significant, if relatively short links in the emerging European high-speed network have been added, or will shortly be added, in Belgium, the Netherlands, the UK and Switzerland.

Geographically distanced from the core of such a network, examples of similar operations include Norway and Finland, with other countries planning to join in the longer term.

RAILTEAM – MAKING SPEED A BRAND

The market for high-speed services is perhaps not fundamentally different from other rail in terms of market segmentation, for clear business and leisure use is apparent. Moreover, the two are evidently compatible. With commuting being time sensitive rather than distance sensitive (although cost remains relevant), domestic services have also developed high-frequency usage.

Adoption of TGV, Thalys and ICE by the business market has meant market share captured from short-haul, high-cost airline
operators travel. However, rail has lacked identity and cohesiveness as an international product.

"A true European network, as opposed to a proximate collection of systems, now appears a realistic prospect."

To address the issue, Railteam (strapline: 'High Speed Europe') was launched in July 2007. This is a co-operation between DB, SNCF, Eurostar, NS Hispeed, ÖBB (Austria), SBB (Switzerland) and SNCB (Belgium), and joint operations Thalys, Lyria and Alleo.

Although not all of the network would truly qualify as 'high speed', Railteam's aims include raising awareness of the members' services, easing cross-border ticketing and improved information services, both online and customer-facing services such as new multilingual help points at their main interchange hubs.

Owing much in character to groupings created by competing airlines like Star Alliance and One World, by deploying relationship marketing, trading under a common brand to offer more seamless travel, Railteam is confident that it can wrest more market share from air and road-based competitors.

LGV EST – A WAY FORWARD IN EUROPE?

After a catalogue of operational differences had been settled, the pre-eminent high-speed operators, SNCF and DB, launched services over the new LGV Est in 2007. For the first time their TGVs and ICEs were scheduled to run deep into each other's country using a common infrastructure. A true European network, as opposed to a proximate collection of systems, now appears a realistic prospect.

For the customer, tenure of the world speed record for a wheeled train (574.8km/h – 357mph: 3 April 2007) by a special TGV set is far less important than the line on which it was set: LGV Est, which also provides the world's highest average speed in regular service. That it can do so more safely than other forms of land travel adds even more promise for the future of European rail travel.