Further Development of the European High Speed Rail Network

Further Development of the European High Speed Rail Network


Frank Zschoche, Civity Management Consultants, Dr Heiner Bente, Civity Management Consultants, Martin Schilling, Civity Management Consultants


Design speeds for many planned EU high speed corridors have not yet been determined. System economic analysis is used in the study to assess development options and to identify conditions where each is preferable.


The European Union has ambitious plans for furthering the development of higher speed rail in Europe. However, given tight budgets for infrastructure investment, a solid economic case needs to be made to warrant investment. Full system economic analysis can support policymakers make this decision. Such an analysis should integrate corridor characteristics and corridor-specific demand, as well as an assessment of major direct and socioeconomic costs and benefits that result from the project.

The choice to develop a corridor either through Very High Speed (“VHS”, 300 km/h), Medium High Speed (“MHS”, 250-280 km/h) or a conventional upgrade (“CUP”, 200-220 km/h) depends on a complex array of operational, infrastructural and market parameters. Base demand and elasticity of demand are key contributors to determining a preferred alternative, as are infrastructure costs and corridor characteristics. In healthy demand and elasticity scenarios, VHS is often the superior option while in other scenarios CUP may have a better benefit-cost ratio. In favourable cases, benefit-cost ratios for all options are as high as 2.0 to 3.0. In more modest demand and elasticity scenarios, VHS and CUP benefit-cost ratios tend to be similar but with proportionally lower values. Because of the complex array of parameters, each potential rail corridor must be analysed individually to assess which option is optimal.
Favourable conditions for VHS exist in scenarios with healthy passenger demand, long stretches of uninterrupted travel (high “speed yield”) and high travel time elasticity of demand. If capacity constraints are an issue, both VHS and MHS can help alleviate future congestion. On congested networks, the construction of a new corridor also frees up conventional lines for other uses. Construction of a MHS system with design speeds of 250 - 280 km/h is often not an optimal choice from a benefit-cost perspective. It often has a lower benefit-cost ratio since infrastructure costs are approximately the same as VHS while demand is lower. In a few exceptional cases where a high speed yield cannot be achieved (as a result of specific alignment constraints, short distances between stops) this option may be preferable. Upgrading conventional lines to speeds of 200 - 220 km/h makes sense in a variety of scenarios, primarily because of the potentially relatively low additional cost of infrastructure. However, in practice, upgrading expenditures can sometimes significantly exceed a normal cost level (assumed in the demonstrator model), nearing costs for construction of MHS/VHS. This can happen when upgrading takes place in densely populated urban areas or when more fundamental changes in the alignment and equipment of a corridor are required. Absolute benefits generated by CUP will not usually be at the levels of VHS or MHS. However, in situations where high speed rail designs cannot deliver superior speed yields, catchment areas are modest and no additional capacity is required, CUP is fit for purpose and capable of achieving better benefit-cost ratios.

Two corridors Amsterdam – Warsaw and Riga – Warsaw were analysed with regard to VHS, MHS and CUP suitability. In both cases, the CUP option shows the highest benefit-cost ratio, while VHS had the highest absolute surplus benefit (total benefits – total costs). These corridors would generate significant user benefits as a result of travel time savings. These benefits are complemented by higher commercial revenues as a result of increased demand on the routes.

In summary, the full system economic account comparing the three higher speed options VHS, MHS and CUP reveals that scenarios exist where each option is the optimal one. The future decisions facing policymakers and railways with respect to financing higher speed rail investment projects will require such analyses to select the optimal design speed on a corridor-specific level. Certain corridors may be ideal for VHS while for some corridors a conventional upgrade will suffice. When looking beyond the benefit-cost perspective, other factors, including capacity concerns, citizen mobility and environ-mental impacts also help make the case for each of the options. For the pressing issue of freight and passenger rail network saturation specifically, it may be a wise decision to allocate capacity to higher speeds on the European network.


Association for European Transport