BYLINE: Philippe Roumeguère

Director GeneralInternational Union of Railways

MORE THAN three decades have passed since Japan’s pioneering bullet trains carried their first passengers. Over 5·5 billion people have since ridden the trains whose performance surpassed the previous limits of conventional railway technology. Around 700 million people have experienced high speed rail travel in France, Germany, Spain, Italy and Sweden since the early 1980s. Today, high speed spearheads the railways’ panoply of services, with the public responding enthusiastically to the unparalleled combination of speed, safety, comfort and reliability.

High speed trains have proved a brilliant competitor against the airlines and the private car, and they have been a dynamic force in restoring the rail mode to the forefront of the transport scene. As an example, the Paris - Brussels Thalys services launched in June 1996 had carried 5 million passengers by February this year, and by the year end rail’s market share in this corridor will probably reach 60%.

Rather than being limited to a few prestigious routes, Europe’s high speed trains serve an ever growing number of destinations, ranging beyond the 2600 km of dedicated high speed lines to cities on a network stretching to around 12000 km. Today’s fares appeal to all sectors of the market, and in Western Europe high speed services carry around 14% of all rail travellers. In terms of passenger-km, the percentage rises to 40 or 50 in countries where the high speed network is well developed. High speed rail is also becoming a reality in the USA, South Korea, Taiwan and Australia, and plans are well advanced in China.

In the future stronger partnerships will form between railways and their suppliers, and even between suppliers who are competitors. Co-operation will bring compatibility between different technologies and more economies of scale, allowing suppliers to market their products at acceptable prices.

High speed rail has energy-saving and environmental benefits that must be recognised by politicians and transport planners. Married with advanced train control techniques, high speed trains offer an extremely effective alternative to transport modes threatened by gridlock, whether on the ground or in the air.

The UIC is working in many ways to make high speed rail even more attractive, especially in terms of interoperability and compatibility of train control systems. In many instances it will be the only answer to the transport problems of the 21st century. That is why the crucial question of funding new lines must be answered. Given what is at stake, the risk of inaction is not acceptable, and transport politicians must be made aware of the consequences for future generations of their decisions - or hesitations.

The third Eurailspeed congress, being held in Berlin on October 28-30, is the event where delegates will be able to tackle realistically the technological and commercial evolution of high speed rail, the expectations of their customers, economic and political issues, and ways of funding future developments. o