Of Speed & Steel
In surprising travel markets around the world, high-speed rail is in high gear
In travel markets around the world, high-speed rail is in high gear, making it the travel industry’s most dynamic sector
Over the past five years, high-speed rail has been making serious inroads on short- and medium-haul travel routes in regions around the world, especially in Europe and Asia. As a result it’s becoming the travel industry’s most dynamic and fastestgrowing sector.
As business travelers spread out across the globe, they’re attracted to high-speed rail because of price, the ability to work en route, WiFi connectivity, arrivals and departures in city centers and the thought of avoiding airport check-in, security, passport control and boarding.
“If we look around Europe and at what the Chinese are doing around highspeed technologies, the rail technology innovation curve is still climbing very steeply,”says Aaron Gowell, CEO of SilverRail, a consolidator of passenger rail products.“In air travel, as a technology product, the plane is just about tapped out. Trains are getting faster and faster and faster and getting into jet-like speeds.”
Research has shown that if travel time is under four hours – whether it be Boston to NewYork, London to Paris or Madrid to Barcelona – the train will take away 50 percent of the share from the airlines.
“In Spain they opened up a rail line between Madrid and Barcelona a few years ago that was a six-hour trip and they popped in a high-speed line and it knocked the travel time to two hours,” Gowell says.“That train now has a market share of 70 percent. Speed, therefore, is the future of rail travel.”
Rails Around the Globe
In China, the development high-speed rail networks both in terms of length of track and speed of trains has outpaced the rest of the world by a large margin. The country has opened more than 5,780 miles of highspeed track in the last five years, including the recent launch of China’s BeijingGuangzhou line, the world’s longest high-speed line (1,428 miles), which cuts overland travel time between the two cities from 22 hours to only eight. Plans call for extending the network to 74,500 miles throughout the country by 2020.
Spain holds the honors for the most high-speed trackage in Europe – 1,656 miles, second in the world only to China. With the opening of the high-speed through service link between Madrid and Paris via Barcelona and Lyon scheduled for this spring, travelers will be able to get from London all the way to Madrid and beyond by high-speed train.
In France and Germany, direct connections between Frankfurt and Marseille via Strasboug, Mulhouse and Lyon have been launched by SNCF and Deutsche Bahn, respectively. Deutsche Bahn has also announced plans for direct links from London to Frankfurt via Brussels and Cologne, as well as connections to Amsterdam via Rotterdam.
“Deregulation is going to be the biggest change you see on a global basis and you’ll see trains crossing borders all over Europe in a way you haven’t seen before,”Gowell says.“The European Union basically said you have to separate your track from rail
carrier and anyone can rent time on a track.”The‘anyone’Gowell refers to are called train operating companies (TOCs), and while there are some skeptics who question whether that’s any way to run a railroad, the hoped-for effect would be to encourage competition by demonopolizing the system.
Meanwhile in Turkey, the Ankara– Istanbul line is expected to open by the end of September 2013, as part of a wider project connecting Ankara with Izmir and Bursa, and reaching Antalya, Erzincan, Kayseri and Sivas by 2023.
The neighboring nations of Singapore and Malaysia have announced plans to develop a high-speed rail service that will connect Kuala Lumpur and Singapore by 2020. The future link will cut ground time between the two capitals to 90 minutes, instead of the six-hour day trip or eighthour overnight trip on the KTMB (Malaysia Railway) or a four-hour bus ride.
In addition, around the world other high-speed rail projects are either already under construction or in discussion, including the first high-speed rail projects in India, Morocco and Thailand.
Connecting North America
In a bygone era, railroads were largely responsible for tying together the vast North American continent, politically and economically. But the propensity of Americans to want to cover ever-greater distances at ever-increasing speeds pushed the development air travel in the last century and left rail passenger service waving goodbye at the station.
With the advent of high-speed rail technology, however, and its proven success in Europe and Asia, the expectations for North America rail have blossomed. Amtrak’s record ridership numbers – more than 31.2 million passengers in FY2012, the highest since operations started in 1971 – has encouraged the railroad to pay more than lip service to advancing improvements in infrastructure, enhancing schedules and raising service levels.
A report issued by Amtrak last fall revealed the company’s ongoing plans to expand capacity along its busy Northeast Corridor (NEC) rail network. The report outlined an approach to accommodate more trains operating at faster speeds with significantly reduced trip-times and improved service reliability. It also addressed plans to develop 220 mph next generation high-speed rail.
“The NEC region is America’s economic powerhouse and is facing a severe crisis with an aging and congested multi-modal transportation network that routinely operates at or near capacity in key segments,”says Joe Boardman, Amtrak’s president and CEO.“For America to be globally competitive in the coming years, we must be equal to the challenge before us and make the necessary investments to design and implement the NEC improvements that will serve the region and the nation for the century ahead.”
Several major projects are already underway that will improve existing services and support the Amtrak NEC vision. Among them is $15 million toward the Gateway Program, a proposed highspeed rail corridor between Newark, NJ and Midtown Manhattan in NewYork. The initial amount is earmarked for developing the design and carrying out a preliminary environmental review.
Another $450 million in the Federal Railroad Administration’s budget would be used to improve service reliability for intercity and commuter trains, modernize the electrical system and boost top speeds from 135 mph to 160 mph along a 24-mile section of the NEC between Trenton and New Brunswick, NJ.
Other US high-speed rail corridors already in development or in the planning stages are the 110-mph line connecting St. Louis to Chicago – which will reduce travel times from five hours to closer to threeand-a-half – and the much-anticipated California high-speed rail, which has become something of a political football in the budget battles being waged in both Washington and Sacramento.
Canadian carrier Via Rail has dedicated significant resources over the past four years to increase the speed its trains are traveling on its busiest routes. Within a couple of years, passengers will be traveling at speeds close to 95 mph between the major metropolitan areas of Toronto, Ottawa and Montreal.
“We’re well aware that the global rail trend is towards the growth of high-speed rail and the benefits that come with it from a convenience and environmental standpoint. That’s why we are ensuring that our existing equipment can travel at it’s highest possible speeds,”says
Ryan Robutka,Via Rail’s senior manager, Americas.“We anticipate true high-speed rail to emerge in the US in the coming years and that could be the beginning of a North American high-speed rail system.”
As the speed of the trains has accelerated, so has the demand for train travel. And with that rise in demand, the advancements aren’t just on the rails; the technology of tickets is also making big strides into the Digital Age. However turning that system around and going global means overcoming history and a great deal of inertia.
“In July we launched electronic ticketing nationwide and it really broke with 50 years of rail tradition as it gave us what the airlines had for some time,”Matt Hardison, Amtrak’s chief marketing and sales officer, says.“The backbone of our new ticketing systems is mobile, and it’s designed to allow our conductors to have real-time access to our reservation system information so they can validate tickets on board. What this has done has fundamentally changed the experience and flexibility of rail for our customers.”
Ticketing varies by country, but in general there are three ways of obtaining passage aboard a train: (1) e-ticket (similar to air), (2) at the station counter with a booking reference (similar to picking up your boarding pass at an airport) and (3) paper.
“The distribution of rail in Europe is fragmented and local,”says Peter Ashworth, vice president of Carlson Wagonlit Travel’s traveler and transaction services, Europe, Middle-East and Africa. “Change is coming, albeit slowly. The European Union has decided that a system must be developed to hold all rail content. The expectation is that this will take years to accomplish.”
“For travelers, the most efficient booking process is online,”says David Coppens, senior vice president of performance solutions for BCD Travel.“In Europe, until rail providers consolidate their efforts to give the industry a single platform, some inefficiency in booking and ticketing will remain.”
“We anticipate true high-speed rail to emerge in the US in the coming years”
Seeking the Rosetta Stone
Many rail industry observers agree that, unlike the airlines, there may never be a single ticket that a traveler can purchase to allow travel through different stations in different countries.
Although the aviation business is fiercely competitive, the major airlines decided some 50-plus years ago that they could agree to share codes and create an air booking system that made sense for passengers and for the industry. Train travel never got that far, though; the technology and booking systems that railroad companies have deployed over the years are completely unique to their own operations and there are no systems that work together.
“What somebody has to do is build a master system that sits on top of all of these guys – sort of a Rosetta Stone for rail, so that it reinterprets the German system, the Italian system, the French system, all into a common set of languages and codes,”SilveRails’Gowell says.“The corporate traveler is incredibly frustrated by the travel tools that are being used.”
Several travel providers and consolidators have promising technology in the making, but it’s difficult to predict how long it will be until the end-user sees changes. In 2011, the European Commission launched the Telematics Applications for Passenger Services Technical Specifications for Interoperability – blessedly foreshortened to simply TAP TSI – that promises to“contribute to an interoperable and cost-efficient information exchange system for Europe,” according to the program’s Web site. The goal for TAP TSI is a compatible system that will provide high quality rail content and ticket issuing capabilities to passengers in a cost effective manner.
Phase One of the process, which includes developing a master plan, was completed in May 2012. The heavy lifting comes in the next step as the initiative starts to develop an actual working data exchange system.
“There is an initiative by the European Commission called TAP TSI, working toward European-wide standards for all types of railway industry interests,”says Coppens of BCD Travel.“It may grease the tracks so to speak, in the creation of an efficient exchange of information among rail suppliers.”
In the meantime, others are at work on the problem as well. Travel technology provider Amadeus features a rail management system that enables TOCs to manage their operations and to offer seats across multiple sales channels using its flexible booking and rail customer management system.
“What we are trying to do is make rail available in the systems being used by travel agents because today rail isn’t often visible,”says Tom Drexler, the company’s director of rail.“It’s tricky. We are building our own GDS (global distribution system) for rail starting in Europe with the top high-speed rail operators and we’ll be adding more networks in the coming months,”he adds.
SilverRail is developing a logic structure of standards for the rail industry, working with TOCs to provide access to any travel seller through a single connection. The project is about halfway through Europe right now and looks to be complete in the next two years.
“We have a master code database for every single rail station in the world so they all are on the same structure. And once you do that, you can start to journey-plan across the multiple rail lines that are out there,”Gowell says.“We have standardized the way the whole shopping process works, the booking process, so once you are in our system, they all work exactly the same way, whether you are looking at Amtrak, the German system or the one in the UK.” BT