Major construction work is expected to begin on the High Speed 2 (HS2) railway in the UK in 2018.
Much vaunted by the government and its supporters, the train link is intended to slash journey times and bolster rail capacity between London, Manchester and Leeds.
Construction costs for the project are estimated to be in the region of £56billion, with the first phase of the railway set to open in 2026; full completion is in the diary for 2033.
In November, five companies were also shortlisted to manufacture trains for the new line.
Siemens, Alstom, Hitachi Rail Europe, Bombardier Transportation and Spain’s Patentes Talgo have made the list of bidders for the contract, reported to be worth £2.75bn.
The groups have been invited to tender in early 2018, with contracts to be awarded in 2019.
However, appetite for the project remains mixed, with some voicing concerns the line may have a negative impact on surrounding wildlife and displace homeowners presently in its path.
With work now set to start on clearing the route, bridges and tunnels, such issues aren’t likely to dissipate in the coming months.
Biting the bullet: Other high-speed projects to begin around the world
Next year will see construction begin on several other high-speed projects across the globe, including India.
In September, Prime Minister Narendra Modi laid the foundation stone for a bullet-train line that will run from Ahmedabad to Mumbai, India’s financial hub.
Officials claim the new train will cut the 316-mile journey from its current length of eight hours, to just three, and will have a maximum speed of 217mph – more than twice the speed of India’s fastest service running today.
High politics are also at play. Japan – which is supplying its Shinkansen technology to the project – has agreed to fund more than four-fifths of the total cost ($19billion) through a 0.1% interest rate loan. The project will serve to strengthen the ties between the two countries as they look to head off Chinese influence.
India hopes to have the line ready by August 15 2022 – the 75th anniversary of Indian Independence.
According to Indian Railways, an engineering and basic infrastructure report will be ready in January 2018, with construction to begin henceforth.
“India will have to make a start in HSR at some point of time, and with railway investments in place already, this could be the right time to start,” says Indian rail expert Rajendra B Aklekar.
“There might be teething problems, but the earlier we begin, the better.”
Others aren’t so sure. Writing in an op-ed in The Hindu in October, D Raghunandan, director, Centre for Technology and Development, slammed the line as a vanity project, with “little or no justification on the grounds of economic viability or public service”.
Indonesia will also break ground on a high-speed project next year, which will link capital Jakarta to Bandung, the country’s second largest metropolitan area.
Work on the line had been scheduled to start earlier this year, but was held up by land issues. But with clearance now confirmed, construction can begin on the $5.1bn project – of which 75% is being stumped up by China.
Over in Russia, work is set to begin on the country’s first high-speed railway, which will link Moscow to Kazan.
The 770-km line will cost in the region of $22.4bn, with the bullet trains running at a top speed of 400km/hour, and slicing the travelling time from 14 hours to just 3.5.
The line is expected to be the first part of what could become a longer high-speed railway between Moscow and Beijing in the future, as Russia and China look to consolidate trading and diplomatic relations.
The end of a long wait: Crossrail to come to London in 2018
In December 2018, Londoners will be able to travel on the new Elizabeth line – the first section of Crossrail to come into operation.
The new line will open between Paddington and Abbey Wood, Liverpool Street to Shenfield, and Paddington Main Line to Heathrow Terminal 4.
The entire line will be completed in May the following year, says Crossrail, which will extend all the way to Reading.
But some analysts are unconvinced that the first part of the 13-mile stretch will be ready this time next year, despite the Crossrail mantra of “on budget, on time”.
“It’s a difficult call,” says one analyst, who requested anonymity. “There is some contingency in there but, hand on heart, I suspect that passenger ops through the tunnel will be 2019 instead.”
“The project was delayed in 2010 when the contracts were renegotiated to save money, so it it’s already running late in any case,” points out Richard Wellings, deputy research director and head of transport at the Institute of Economic Affairs.
Trying to get off the ground: Fresh hopes for Hyperloop
In the US, entrepreneur-cum-engineer Elon Musk has long beaten the drum for Hyperloop pods as a faster, safer and greener alternative to high-speed rail.
The technology – pods based on magnetic levitation – has even garnered support from NASA. Earlier this year, scientists at the agency’s Glenn Research Centre in Ohio gave their approval to Musk’s claims on the back of a series of examinations.
They concluded: “estimates of energy consumption, passenger throughput, and mission analyses all support Hyperloop as a faster and cheaper alternative to short-haul flights [of 250 to 500 miles].”
Such backing is sure to give participants plenty of hope ahead of the 2018 Hyperloop Pod competition – held by Musk’s SpaceX group – in which they will be charged with coming up with new Hyperloop designs and concepts.
“Since starting the competition in January of 2017, hundreds of applicants have applied and we are in the process now of reviewing preliminary designs for this year’s applicants,” says an individual closely associated with SpaceX.
“Applicants will be judged on speed. However, in this competition, participants must provide their own propulsion system.”
Another California-based group looking to commercialise the pod technology is Hyperloop One.
After research carried out by engineering firm AECOM earlier this year, the group has identified Texas as ripe for a Hyperloop rail connection, which it believes could be up and running by 2020, if it gets the right backing.
The route, running from Dallas to Houston – via Laredo – would ease congestion on some of the country’s busiest roads, claims Hyperloop One, and “keep the state at the forefront of economic growth innovation”.
However, it is unclear whether Hyperloop One has managed to raise any kind of funding for further studies into the route, or received support from the Governor of Texas. Hyperloop One could not be reached for comment.