Germany's Allianz pro Schiene (Alliance for Rail) advocacy group regularly calculates the per-capita investment in rail infrastructure in key European countries. The latest figures, for 2012 (adapted with English text; compare to the 2010 figures here):
What's obvious is that Spain dropped to last place due to austerity (having reduced spending by two-thirds in two years). What's less obvious is what the Eurozone's supposed model economy and beneficiary of its self-imposed crisis is doing in second-to-last place. And it's neither one-off nor is there a recent relative improvement:
Actually, the comparison would be even worse if you consider that projects are generally on time and budget in Switzerland and Austria, but significant cost and implementation time inflation is quite common for projects both large and small in Germany.
The difference between Germany and its Alpine neighbours isn't just the level of financing. The cost over-runs are mainly explained by delays, which in turn are in a large part down to postponements. The latter are only possible because most public financing is meted out from annual budgets: instead of giving projects separate multi-year budgets, even if there is a prior financing agreement, the scheduling can change at any time, and then projects compete for the squeezed annual budget. Which, in the case of the federal government, is for all transport, and priorities are quite different than in the Alpine neighbours. Look at rail investment as percentage of road investment:
In France, a contradictory re-alignment of rail infrastructure investment policy trudges on in incoherent fashion, but things seem to look better than a year ago.
Upon taking office in 2012, the Ayrault government announced its intention to stop building new TGV lines in the future and focus on improvements to the conventional network instead, and started to move accordingly last year. Given that there was no promise to sustain overall rail spending, what's more the projects chosen for a cull included conventional line electrifications and freight corridors, this was but a thinly veiled austerian attempt to curb spending in general. Worse, during the term of the current government, the effect of the cull would have been contrary to the stated goal and only marginally in line with the austerity goal: the next few years will see the completion of four TGV lines already in the works, the further lines hit by the cull would have started construction only after that, while the also culled electrification and freight corridor projects were slated to start earlier.
A few months later, in September 2013, French state-owned rail infrastructure manager RFF presented a 15 billion, six-year plan called GPMR (Grand Plan for the Modernisation of the Network), emphasizing a new focus on improvements to the existing network. However, it doesn't look so good upon closer view. First, this is not a government spending commitment, but an infrastructure manager wish list. While the 15 billion total sounds impressive, it translates to 2.5 billion a year, which is not all that much for this big an economy, and contrasts with the 3.4 billion RFF spent in both 2011 and 2012. Moreover, looking at the projects map, it appears that the plan mostly includes existing or indeed already on-going modernisation programmes (the tradition of re-packaging existing projects with a new emphasis started under Sarkozy already). The electrification and freight corridor projects didn't re-appear, but the government supported the extension of the truck piggy-back network.
Still, the multi-year scope is significant, and should the government commit itself to the spending, and should this result in an actual acceleration of upgrade and modernisation programmes, it will be a good thing – in fact, it will have proved that you can very well increase spending on conventional projects independently of high-speed projects. Meanwhile, for the sole TGV project not dropped, last October, a government representative announced the alignment and a concrete schedule (from Bordeaux, Toulouse would be reached by 2024, Dax by 2027, and the Spanish border before 2032). While all of that is beyond the current government's term, at least planning won't stop.
Another recurring silliness in rail infrastructure investment policy is public-private partnerships (PPPs). On this front, supposed model country Belgium is turning back to public investment. PPP projects in Belgium, with the Diabolo project (the completion of the Brussels airport link) as prime example, received much praise for construction on time and budget. However, the complexity and size of the effort needed to ensure such an outcome on the part of the supervising authorities took away the appetite for a repeat exercise:
"These have been very successful projects, both on time and on budget, but they were very complex, they took a long time to set up, and they need to be managed and monitored by a dedicated team," says Smeets. "We want to test both projects in operation and see how they perform in the longer term, but it's clear that PPPs can't be a regular business for Infrabel because they consume a lot of time and resources. PPPs have limits and they are complicated politically because they affect governments 10 to 30 years into the future."
In contrast to austerian Europe, in China, massive rail spending continues. With the addition of several thousand kilometres of new lines last year, total network length reached 100,000 km. December saw the opening of altogether almost 2,500 km of new lines for higher speeds and capacity; though this time most of them were medium-speed, and a few of those started with only slow conventional trains. Two important gaps were plugged (the link between the Manchurian network and the rest near Beijing, and the last section of the line along the south-eastern coast near Hong Kong), Wuhan opened an "intercity" railway, and the rest are extensions to the west. (Back in September, two more lines were added: a cut-off for Dalian in the north and Nanchang–Fuzhou in the south.)
Map of China's elevated-speed network, as of February 2014. Legend:
- Line thickness = top speed (with pre-Wenzhou/design speed in parentheses):
- thick: 300(350) km/h
- medium: 200(250) km/h
- thin: 160(200) km/h
- Color = construction status:
- green: upgraded conventional line in service
- blue: new line in service
- purple: opened in September or December 2013
- red: under construction
- grey: planned
This year the rail construction budget is 630 billion yuan (75 billion), about the same as last year and well past the combined EU spending even before the crisis: fuelled by the success of the longest lines completed recently (Beijing–Guangzhou: almost 100 million in its first year, Harbin–Dalian: 65,000 a day on average in its first year), demand for new lines doesn't abate. Some of the last projects that have been blocked after the previous railway minister's arrest for graft and the Wenzhou disaster were re-approved and may start this year (including the three out of Beijing still in grey on the map). Some additional medium-speed lines have started construction or have been approved (near Fuzhou, north of Shanghai, and south from Chengdu; compare to July 2013 map).
One of the newly opened lines, the Lichuan–Chongqing extension of the Huhanrong PDL along the Yangtze river (which, in spite of the PDL name, is also for freight), is worth a few more words. Chongqing is the biggest city in the wider region of Sichuan, which is separated from the rest of China by high mountains on all sides. Before the rail boom of the 2000s, China's most expensive and difficult rail project was the Chengdu–Kunming line (built 1958–1970), a line connecting Sichuan to the south and the world's most superstructure-heavy mountain line in the 20th century (about 450 km of tunnels and bridges). In the present rail boom, due to uneven terrain, weak soil, high population density and straighter alignments, most new lines for even medium speeds are mostly in tunnels and on bridges. However, the first new line into Sichuan, the Yichang–Chongqing section of the Huhanrong PDL (which parallels the Three Gorges Dam), stood out again, as the next one deemed the most difficult yet: the bridges are high viaducts and the tunnels are deep in complex karst mountains (again totalling over 400 km).
Above: A CRH2A train on an October 2013 test run along the now opened Lichuan–Chongqing section crosses the Caijiagou Railway Viaduct, which is claimed to have the highest pylons for a railway viaduct in the world. Photo from CNS
Below: the Yichang Railway Bridge over the Yangtze river (on the Yichang–Lichuan section, completed in 2010). Photo from HighestBridges.com
If you look at the map again, you'll notice that six more other lines into Sichuan are in construction, some of these across even more challenging terrain, including the second Chengdu–Kunming line (one of the two which started construction in December). Kunming and Guiyang are in two smaller basins in the mountains, and four additional in-construction lines starting from those cities can be counted as super-long mountain railways in karst. The scale of this undertaking is sheer unimaginable – at least when viewed from the West in the 2010s. What we have instead in Europe (not to mention the USA) is learned helplessness and a sense of techno-cultural superiority that is well past its sell-by date.
Also in December, in ten cities across China, altogether 255 km of new metro lines and extensions have been opened. (Excluding Hong Kong, there are now 18 cities with operating metros in China.) While the networks of both Shanghai and Beijing now comfortably exceed those of long-time leaders New York and London (only lagging behind Seoul) and overtook long-time leader Moscow in ridership last year, they would still need to at least double to actually reduce car traffic and thus smog.
The technologically most interesting addition is the first line in Zhengzhou. On this line, Huawei deployed a broadband mobile communications network which shall pioneer world-wide the use of 4G technology (specifically: LTE) for signalling & train control, too. If successful, this will be no small feat, so let me explain why.
On most modern urban rail lines, there are 2-3 different communications networks for different tasks. 4G mobiles have a high enough bandwidth to carry everything from train dispatcher communication through condition monitoring, CCTV and delay information to internet, including streaming video for passengers. However, in the present practice of multiple networks, a separate network for signalling & train control was also supported by safety philosophy: it ensures the absolute priority of safety-relevant communication, that is, an emergency order to brake will not be delayed because the antennas are busy relaying a video from YouTube. The Zhengzhou metro will now have to prove that Huawei's LTE is stable enough in itself and can always speedily deliver train control messages.
Fortunately, it appears that this trial will be conducted with more care than the disastrous attempt to fast-track the development and introduction of cutting-edge train control on the PDLs: initially, the LTE system will be tested only for other communication while train control will use a conventional system, then train control communication will be duplicated over LTE (thus an LTE failure won't affect the trains), and the conventional system will be shut down only if LTE proves itself.
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