Wednesday, 21 December 2011

Why Poland can still have high speed rail

From Portugal to Palo Alto, opponents of high speed rail development are dancing gleefully on the graves of projects that have either collapsed entirely, or appear to be in significant danger of doing so. That some of the more lofty ambitions promised by politicians have foundered is, in this economic climate, absolutely no surprise at all. Supporters of high speed rail need to recognise this altered reality, which should place greater focus on a smaller number of ‘priority projects’ where a large rail market is already amply evident.

As my own journal reported this month, Poland’s planned ‘Y Line’ to link Warsaw with Lodz, Wroclaw and Poznan has been put on ice, probably permanently, after it emerged that EU funding would not cover the likely out-turn cost. Like much of eastern Europe, Poland is heavily reliant on the EU for all its rail investment, as the country wrestles with meeting western concerns about ‘external costs’ and environmental benefits whilst recognising that, in the post-Communist era, the private car remains a symbol of individual freedom.

In short, Poland has ‘the wrong kind of modal shift’ – away from a cash-strapped state railway burdened with outdated infrastructure and rolling stock to cheaper road alternatives. What EU funding there is over the next few years (and surely the taps will be flowing more slowly in the near future) will be poured into salvaging the conventional network. Does this mean that the high speed project was a bad idea? Or that upgrading the existing main line network will be cheaper and easier? No it does not.

Already work is underway to modernise the route from the northern city of Gdansk to Warsaw, raising speeds by straightening the alignment and removing level crossings. It is a project that will last several years, and, alarmingly, it is by no means clear how large the potential market for rail might be at the end of it. A colleague travelled between the two cities in October, and described a journey that had doubled in duration from 3 h to 6 h. Needless to say, the train – which had no catering incidentally – was reported to be almost completely empty.

This tale clearly echoes the drawn-out saga of the West Coast Route Modernisation in the UK, during which business travellers between the northwest and London flocked to the airlines to avoid the mass disruption caused by engineering blockades, and the leisure market was crippled by weekend line closures lasting more than a decade. (And yes, that’s as short a definition of the term ‘incremental upgrade’ as you’ll find).

All the while, the low-cost coach operators hoover up passengers with cheap fares and competitive journey times. Stagecoach Group co-founder Brian Souter has set up his own bus operation in Poland branded Polski Bus, with fares starting at 1 zloty. In a much more price-sensitive market than those in western Europe, it is little surprise that rail is losing share, and that is a pretty disastrous position from which to launch a new-build high speed project.

So this must mean the whole idea is dead? Well, that’s what the spin of the high speed doom-mongers would have us believe. But Poland can, and hopefully will, have ‘high speed rail-lite’ by the end of the decade, if not before. The railway running south from Warsaw to Katowice and Krakow was built in the 1970s; known as the CMK or Central Fast Line, it is straight and flat (or so I recollect from a snowy and atmospheric ride along it in January 2005) and was always designed for 250 km/h operation, but limitations in rolling stock and cab signalling equipment have always thwarted this objective. With a fleet of Alstom Pendolino trains on the way and contracts already awarded for installation of ETCS Level 1 train control, operator PKP Intercity hopes that speeds can be raised progressively from 160 km/h today to 230 km/h by 2014, and studies are ongoing to see whether the 224 km line could handle true high speed services of 300 km/h.

Only when Poland has a couple of core inter-city routes where it is significantly faster and more comfortable to take the train than other modes will a market for long-distance rail travel reassert itself – and crucial to this renaissance will be the business travel segment.

In these tough economic times, it is becoming increasingly clear that new-build high speed lines will be most applicable to corridors where there is a large (probably very large) existing rail market, and where demand is still growing – two immediately obvious examples being the West Coast and East Coast main lines in the UK (both served by the planned High Speed Two) and the Northeast Corridor in the US, although doubtless many more exist in Asia.

But Poland’s CMK offers a novel shortcut to a more sustainable inter-city transport model, hopefully without scaring off the very customers rail needs through disruptive, cost-inefficient and long-running upgrades of existing lines.

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