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Politik über alles

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Hallerbachtalbruecke by chriusha, (Creative Commons 3.0)
Picture: Hallerbachtal bridge of the high-speed rail line Cologne–Frankfurt near Neustadt (Wied); Rhineland-Palatinate, Germany

Both Jim Steer’s Greengauge 21 and David Begg’s Commission for Integrated Transport have acknowledged that the benefits of high speed rail over short distances are ‘limited’. For example, in its 2009 high speed rail factsheet, the CfIT stated that

The most practical rail routes which allow trains to compete most effectively with cars and planes are on journeys of between 180 and 360 miles

In the HS2WM project, the only two cities connected by the dedicated high speed track are London and Birmingham, about 175 kilometres apart. And with a rural station (Bickenhill) miles from the area it purports to serve, HS2WM seems a good fit for the ‘little advantage’ scenario described in the CfIT’s High-speed rail: international comparisons:

for journeys of less than about 150km, high speed rail offers little advantage over conventional rail and may, depending on the location of stations, be less convenient for most passengers

However, Mr Steer has gone on to contradict his earlier pronouncements – with the Greengauge 21 website applauding the largely empty sub-150 km HS1 service operated by Southeastern. Likewise, Mr Begg’s Campaign for High Speed Rail has recently claimed that the ‘best’ high speed line is the short distance Frankfurt to Cologne Neubaustrecke (NBS):

those who claim that the UK is too small to support a high-speed rail network should look at the evidence – the best high-speed line runs from Frankfurt-Cologne, about the same distance from London-Birmingham.

It’s worth checking out whether the NBS Köln–Rhein/Main is the success that Mr Begg claims it to be. Some background is given in the German OMEGA team’s New ICE Cologne–Rhine/Main line report and the article in the German Wikipedia. More than forty years ago, West Germany’s state railway, Deutsche Bundesbahn (DB), was drawing up plans for a new railway linking Cologne and Frankfurt. These cities were already connected by three railways, including two twin track electric lines following the banks of the Rhine that carried a high volume of domestic local and long distance passenger traffic (as well as hefty international passenger and freight traffic). But trains following the Rhine valley could not reach very high speeds.

DB’s new line plans were eventually formalised as the 1973 Neubaustrecke Köln – Groß-Gerau, a route designed for mixed traffic (passenger and freight trains) having a maximum incline of 1.25 to 2 percent. Environmental and economic concerns stymied progress, and by the mid 1980s, even a magnetic levitation line was briefly under consideration as an alternative. The maglev option was discarded, but by the time construction got underway in 1995, the now-Deutsche Bahn Neubaustrecke Köln-Rhein/Main had a new name, a new 177-kilometre route, a different purpose, and a different specification (as a purely passenger railway). As with HS2 in Britain, the NBSKRM was shaped by politics rather than transport considerations. Major cities such as Bonn, Mainz, and Wiesbaden were by-passed by the NBS, but the much smaller towns of Montabaur and Limburg were able to get stations built on it.

The major part of the line was opened in 2002, but this did not include additional uncompleted works on the Cologne approaches, intended to permit a headline journey time of 58 minutes from Frankfurt. The maximum incline of 4 percent made NBSKRM the steepest high speed line in the world. Only very high power trains could use it, so in practice ‘interoperability’ was restricted to ICE3 rolling stock.

On the other hand, the minimum radius of 3320 metres and maximum speed of 300 km/h were specified so that it would be possible to follow an existing transport corridor, so as to “concentrate environmental impact”. Nevertheless, construction involved extensive tunnels and viaducts, and slab track, bringing costs over 6 billion euro (circa £4 to £5.5 billion, depending on the exchange rate used) and the resulting disruption and inconvenience affected other transport links, such as the A3 autobahn.

Even with the lower 300 km/h line speed and the existing approaches in Cologne, NBSKRM provided a ‘headline’ cut in journey time from 135 to 70 minutes (a much larger journey time saving than the 82-minute to 49-minute HS2 saving between London and the West Midlands). With respect to door to door time savings, the situation is mixed. Compared with the planned HS2, the NBS has lower frequencies (meaning a longer embedded wait component), but the quality of its end connections, at least in Frankfurt and Cologne, could be viewed as being much better than the British equivalent.

The intermediate small town stations on the NBSKRM make no sense in economic terms, illustrating that, as in Britain, high speed rail in Germany is largely driven by political considerations. With HS1, the political momentum was for providing (nonsensical) domestic stops (e.g., Ebbsfleet) as justification for using public funds to build it. With HS2, a different political impetus is at work, focused on (nonsensical) headline speed. So no HS1-style intermediate stations, and no NBS-style following of existing transport corridors (e.g. the M40, or the Great Central route through Woodford and Rugby).

Germany did not have a Beeching style mass closure of railways, so the very inefficient utilisation of the NBSKRM does not manifest itself in capacity shortages. There are three other lines in place between Frankfurt and Cologne.

NBSKRM and HS2WM compared

NBSKRM features

  • linespeed 300 km/h – a speed expressly rejected in the British government’s HS2 scheme, whose ‘business case’ was said to be critically dependent on a minimum speed of 350 km/h
  • follows an existing transport corridor – an idea rejected in the British government’s HS2 scheme, because of the ‘business case’ speed dependency
  • integrated with other public transport, high quality end connections
  • no provision for freight services
  • intermediate stations in small towns
  • more than 50% improvement in headline journey time between endpoints (on completion)
  • serves existing rail termini in urban areas (Frankfurt Hauptbahnhof and Cologne Hauptbahnhof), no large scale urban reconstruction needed.