Rail Series: Global Expansion

Here is another installment in our series of blog posts on rail developments.  Like the earlier posts in the series, this is drawn from our project with the Apollo Alliance that resulted in two reports published last month.

As global ridership on intercity rail and transit continues to grow, many systems around the world are being expanded or newly constructed. This has led to rising orders for rail vehicles and buses. It has also created an opportunity for countries that lead in this sector to benefit greatly from the manufacturing dollars and job creation this will bring.

Currently, some 400 light rail systems with more than 44,000 rail vehicles are in operation worldwide, another 60 systems or so are under construction, and more than 200 are in the planning stage. Europe has the highest density, with 170 systems and more than 7,900 miles of lines in operation and nearly 100 more in various stages of construction or planning. North America has 30 systems in operation and 10 under construction. But Asia and the Pacific is the region with the fastest growth.

Much of the current excitement is directed toward the expansion of high-speed intercity rail (HSR) lines. In 2009, HSR lines totaling some 6,650 miles were operational, including close to 1,490 miles in Japan and about 1,180 miles in France—the two early pioneers. In 2008, European Union members had a combined high-speed network of close to 3,600 miles. The same year, the world’s HSR fleet consisted of some 2,200 trainsets—1,500 in Western Europe and 650 in Asia (mostly in Japan).

These statistics will change rapidly as more countries jump into the fray. By 2015, the number of trainsets in operation worldwide is expected to rise by 70 percent, to 3,725. The front runners, in order of their track-building ambitions between now and 2025, are China, Spain, France, Japan, Turkey, Germany, Italy, Poland, Portugal, the United States, Sweden, Morocco, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Brazil, India, Iran, South Korea, Argentina, Belgium, the Netherlands, the United Kingdom, and Switzerland. (In the United States, Amtrak’s existing Acela service in the Northeast Corridor is nominally capable of high-speed service, but infrastructure limitations impose effective lower speeds.)

China is in the process of building the most extensive HSR system worldwide, with a total length of more than 15,000 miles. But the densest network is emerging in Spain, which has a goal of 6,200 miles by 2020. If China were to match Spain’s effort relative to land size, it would have to build 118,000 miles of lines; in proportion to population, it would have to build 180,000 miles.

Likewise, if the United States were to match Spain’s commitment, it would have to build 183,000 and 75,000 miles, respectively. This is many orders of magnitude larger than what is currently on the drawing boards. To get anywhere near the effort that countries like China and Spain are undertaking, the United States will need to make a sustained commitment and create a reliable and sustainable source of funding.

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