UK, Italy High-Speed Rail News

The United Kingdom has finished its massive £9 billion project to improve the West Coast Main Line track, which runs between London and Glasgow, via Birmingham and Manchester. Through the doubling of some track, the straightening of curves, and the updating of catenaries and tracks, the project allows 125-mph runs throughout the system, which in some areas is a dramatic improvement. While this is not high-speed rail in the continental sense, it will provide big advantages to riders. For instance, non-stop trains between London and Birmingham will run the trip in 1h12, 30 minutes faster than previously. The overall trip between the capital and Glasgow will now take 4h30 instead of 5h20 previously.

The quite extraordinary cost of the project is a bit of a disappointment: the reconstruction of the West Coast Main Line was originally supposed to cost only about £2 billion, but construction cost overruns and complete mismanagement by the previous private owners of the infrastructure, Railtrack, increased costs substantially.

But the UK’s effort on its West Coast demonstrates the potential we have in the United States to improve our own rail infrastructure through upgrades, rather than the construction of entirely new high-speed lines. Though 125-mph isn’t as fast as some trains in the world are capable of traveling, the improvement of track to allow such service – such as along the Amtrak routes running south of Washington, DC, or those extending from Chicago – would be a boon for intercity rail transport in the country. The investment costs were large, however, even for this not-quite-HSR service. Getting money for similar improvements is the real challenge we in the US face.

Italy’s new high-speed rail service between Milan and Bologna opened this weekend, serving as the fastest-link in Italy’s growing rail network. This line will allow trains to travel at up to 350-kph, cutting travel times between the two cities from 1h43 to 1h05. In a few months, once a few improvements have been made to the lines connecting Rome to Bologna, travel between those Milan and Rome will also be improved, cutting the trip from 4h30 to 3h. The service will initially be provided by Trenitalia, the national rail operator.

New trains, called Frecciarossa (literally, “red arrow”), are new versions of Italy’s existing ETR 500 type, which have been running on the country’s main lines since 1993. Here’s a news video of the new trains (in Italian). They will eventually make their way into France.

Interestingly, this is one of the first corridors that will be used by NTV, a private rail operator (owned 20% by France’s SNCF), once the Italian rail market is opened to competition in 2011. NTV will be the continent’s first private high-speed rail provider and will be the first test of whether an open rail market can function. NTV will be using Alstom’s new AGV vehicles, which will replace the TGV and which are currently undergoing testing on France’s LGV-Est Européen. There’s a fun video Alstom released of the trains that you might be interested in.

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