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The Latest from Never-Never-Land

Er, that would be… Europe, that magical place where infrastructure projects actually happen. Forgive me for the exaggeration, but I thought I’d bring this blog’s readers readers up-to-date on some mass transit improvements in the Old World that should make us over here in the ol’ U.S. of A. a bit jealous.

On the high speed rail front France, as we noted in an earlier post, has always been a strong competitor, with multiples lines running at speeds in excess of 300-kph (186-mph). This month, France’s National Assembly agreed to a major advancement of the high speed rail program with an environment-focused law called “Grenelle 1.” In the next twelve years, the Réseau Ferré de France (“Tracks of France;” the public owner of rail rights-of-way) will embark on a 2000-km (1250-m) effort to expand the high speed rail network. Planned lines will connect Tours and Bordeaux, Bordeaux and Toulouse, Paris and Clermont-Ferrand, Le Mans and Nantes, and Marseille and Nice. The already comprehensive network in the Gallic state will only get better.

The most interesting element of the law is that it will duplicate the existing Paris-Lyon line, already the best-used HSR line in the world outside of Japan. The current section, which opened in 1981, is at capacity, so the French will build a new line (through Clermont-Ferrand), that will allow a twenty-minute decrease in travel time on the corridor, to 1h40. This is the first example of two parallel HSR lines being built to serve the same markets, and demonstrates the powerful advantages and public approval of HSR technology.

France’s motivation may have been Spain, which is also building a giant network that will provide very fast travel speeds (350-kph; 218-mph) throughout the country and whose first very fast new line opened this year between Madrid and Barcelona. France’s new lines will be programmed for speeds of 360-kph (225-mph), speeds that the California High Speed Rail Authority is arguing can be achieved in the San Francisco-Los Angeles corridor. France’s adoption of the same estimated speed gives strong credence to California’s argument and implies that in fact these speeds can be achieved.

The French rail authority, SNCF, intends to decimate the airline industry in travel within France, and it has already done just that on several corridors. The agency points out that two-hour train trips take 90% of the market share; three-hour trips take 75%; and four-hour trips take 50%. If, as planned, the SNCF is able to push new-generation TGVs on the Paris-Toulouse corridor to 360-kph by the section’s 2014 opening, it will reduce travel time from 5h today to 3, meaning a large increase in market share for trains in the corridor. This surely won’t make Toulouse’s biggest employer, Airbus, very happy.

Meanwhile, in England, the Tory party, is proposing a massive ramping-up of that country’s rail system. The Tories, in opposition since 1997, are likely to win the next elections because of the massive unpopularity of the New Labour and its Prime Minister, Gordon Brown. A major element of this year’s Tory platform, which traditionally has been conservative, has been environmental protection. One of their main proposals is to scrap the idea for a third runway at London’s massively over-used Heathrow airport and use the money instead for an HSR line running from London’s St. Pancras Station up to Birmingham, Manchester, and Leeds. In the capital, trains would connect directly with the Eurostar network, which provides excellent connections to mainland Europe.

Labour, obsessed with the idea of expanding Heathrow, is likely to have trouble getting its way, with parties on the left and right opposed. Meanwhile, the British Airport Authority has stated repeatedly that it is in favor of both the rail link and airport expansion. Meanwhile, new Mayor of London Boris Johnson envisions replacing Heathrow entirely with a new airport built at sea, an idea that has come to fruition in Hong Kong.

But the Brits, undergoing a strong recession of their own, are unlikely to find the cash to pay for all of these projects. And with the Tories rising in power, it seems that HSR will be at the top of the list. Labour’s stubborn opposition to the idea that Englishmen will use trains like their neighbors in France and Germany denotes a fundamental misunderstanding. In every situation where HSR has been implemented, it has been greeted with success, reduced road and air travel, and fewer C02 emissions. To expect anything different in the U.K. is pure nonsense, and the Tories, who are admittedly all over the place when it comes to policy proposals seem to realize that. Expect faster travel within England in the next ten years.

In other news, Switzerland has opened a metro line in Lausanne, in the western (French-speaking) section of the country. This makes this town of only 125,000 by far the smallest city on earth with a true metro (the first line, M1, that opened in 1991 is more like a light rail line). M2, as it is called, runs on a 9 mile route that it serves in 18 minutes, connecting southern and northern “suburbs” with the town center and main train station. It cost 736 million Swiss Francs (about 630 million US$).

The metro runs much like Paris’ most recent line, the M14. It is automatic (no driver), runs on tires, and stations have guard doors that prevent people from falling (or jumping) on to the tracks. Though the opening day was marked with some problems, it says a lot that the Swiss were willing to invest so much money in a new transit line with a fully separated right-of-way (some in a tunnel) in such a small city. Clearly, the attitude that transit works and deserves funding predominates.

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