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Rail infrastructure investment news

by DoDo Mon Mar 10th, 2014 at 06:36:14 AM EST

I haven't done a rail news blog in half a year, now here is a diary focusing on news on investment into rail infrastructure: in Germany (a European comparison), in France (new policy focus), in Belgium (no PPP) and in China (rail & metro network expansion, 4G mobiles).

Germany's Allianz pro Schiene (Alliance for Rail) advocacy group regularly calculates the per-capita investment in rail infrastructure in key European countries. The latest figures, for 2012 (adapted with English text; compare to the 2010 figures here):

What's obvious is that Spain dropped to last place due to austerity (having reduced spending by two-thirds in two years). What's less obvious is what the Eurozone's supposed model economy and beneficiary of its self-imposed crisis is doing in second-to-last place. And it's neither one-off nor is there a recent relative improvement:

Actually, the comparison would be even worse if you consider that projects are generally on time and budget in Switzerland and Austria, but significant cost and implementation time inflation is quite common for projects both large and small in Germany.

The difference between Germany and its Alpine neighbours isn't just the level of financing. The cost over-runs are mainly explained by delays, which in turn are in a large part down to postponements. The latter are only possible because most public financing is meted out from annual budgets: instead of giving projects separate multi-year budgets, even if there is a prior financing agreement, the scheduling can change at any time, and then projects compete for the squeezed annual budget. Which, in the case of the federal government, is for all transport, and priorities are quite different than in the Alpine neighbours. Look at rail investment as percentage of road investment:

In France, a contradictory re-alignment of rail infrastructure investment policy trudges on in incoherent fashion, but things seem to look better than a year ago.

Upon taking office in 2012, the Ayrault government announced its intention to stop building new TGV lines in the future and focus on improvements to the conventional network instead, and started to move accordingly last year. Given that there was no promise to sustain overall rail spending, what's more the projects chosen for a cull included conventional line electrifications and freight corridors, this was but a thinly veiled austerian attempt to curb spending in general. Worse, during the term of the current government, the effect of the cull would have been contrary to the stated goal and only marginally in line with the austerity goal: the next few years will see the completion of four TGV lines already in the works, the further lines hit by the cull would have started construction only after that, while the also culled electrification and freight corridor projects were slated to start earlier.

A few months later, in September 2013, French state-owned rail infrastructure manager RFF presented a €15 billion, six-year plan called GPMR (Grand Plan for the Modernisation of the Network), emphasizing a new focus on improvements to the existing network. However, it doesn't look so good upon closer view. First, this is not a government spending commitment, but an infrastructure manager wish list. While the €15 billion total sounds impressive, it translates to €2.5 billion a year, which is not all that much for this big an economy, and contrasts with the €3.4 billion RFF spent in both 2011 and 2012. Moreover, looking at the projects map, it appears that the plan mostly includes existing or indeed already on-going modernisation programmes (the tradition of re-packaging existing projects with a new emphasis started under Sarkozy already). The electrification and freight corridor projects didn't re-appear, but the government supported the extension of the truck piggy-back network.

Still, the multi-year scope is significant, and should the government commit itself to the spending, and should this result in an actual acceleration of upgrade and modernisation programmes, it will be a good thing – in fact, it will have proved that you can very well increase spending on conventional projects independently of high-speed projects. Meanwhile, for the sole TGV project not dropped, last October, a government representative announced the alignment and a concrete schedule (from Bordeaux, Toulouse would be reached by 2024, Dax by 2027, and the Spanish border before 2032). While all of that is beyond the current government's term, at least planning won't stop.

Another recurring silliness in rail infrastructure investment policy is public-private partnerships (PPPs). On this front, supposed model country Belgium is turning back to public investment. PPP projects in Belgium, with the Diabolo project (the completion of the Brussels airport link) as prime example, received much praise for construction on time and budget. However, the complexity and size of the effort needed to ensure such an outcome on the part of the supervising authorities took away the appetite for a repeat exercise:

"These have been very successful projects, both on time and on budget, but they were very complex, they took a long time to set up, and they need to be managed and monitored by a dedicated team," says Smeets. "We want to test both projects in operation and see how they perform in the longer term, but it's clear that PPPs can't be a regular business for Infrabel because they consume a lot of time and resources. PPPs have limits and they are complicated politically because they affect governments 10 to 30 years into the future."

In contrast to austerian Europe, in China, massive rail spending continues. With the addition of several thousand kilometres of new lines last year, total network length reached 100,000 km. December saw the opening of altogether almost 2,500 km of new lines for higher speeds and capacity; though this time most of them were medium-speed, and a few of those started with only slow conventional trains. Two important gaps were plugged (the link between the Manchurian network and the rest near Beijing, and the last section of the line along the south-eastern coast near Hong Kong), Wuhan opened an "intercity" railway, and the rest are extensions to the west. (Back in September, two more lines were added: a cut-off for Dalian in the north and Nanchang–Fuzhou in the south.)

Map of China's elevated-speed network, as of February 2014. Legend:

  • Line thickness = top speed (with pre-Wenzhou/design speed in parentheses):
    • thick: 300(350) km/h
    • medium: 200(250) km/h
    • thin: 160(200) km/h
  • Color = construction status:
    • green: upgraded conventional line in service
    • blue: new line in service
    • purple: opened in September or December 2013
    • red: under construction
    • grey: planned

This year the rail construction budget is 630 billion yuan (€75 billion), about the same as last year and well past the combined EU spending even before the crisis: fuelled by the success of the longest lines completed recently (Beijing–Guangzhou: almost 100 million in its first year, Harbin–Dalian: 65,000 a day on average in its first year), demand for new lines doesn't abate. Some of the last projects that have been blocked after the previous railway minister's arrest for graft and the Wenzhou disaster were re-approved and may start this year (including the three out of Beijing still in grey on the map). Some additional medium-speed lines have started construction or have been approved (near Fuzhou, north of Shanghai, and south from Chengdu; compare to July 2013 map).

One of the newly opened lines, the Lichuan–Chongqing extension of the Huhanrong PDL along the Yangtze river (which, in spite of the PDL name, is also for freight), is worth a few more words. Chongqing is the biggest city in the wider region of Sichuan, which is separated from the rest of China by high mountains on all sides. Before the rail boom of the 2000s, China's most expensive and difficult rail project was the Chengdu–Kunming line (built 1958–1970), a line connecting Sichuan to the south and the world's most superstructure-heavy mountain line in the 20th century (about 450 km of tunnels and bridges). In the present rail boom, due to uneven terrain, weak soil, high population density and straighter alignments, most new lines for even medium speeds are mostly in tunnels and on bridges. However, the first new line into Sichuan, the Yichang–Chongqing section of the Huhanrong PDL (which parallels the Three Gorges Dam), stood out again, as the next one deemed the most difficult yet: the bridges are high viaducts and the tunnels are deep in complex karst mountains (again totalling over 400 km).

Above: A CRH2A train on an October 2013 test run along the now opened Lichuan–Chongqing section crosses the Caijiagou Railway Viaduct, which is claimed to have the highest pylons for a railway viaduct in the world. Photo from CNS

Below: the Yichang Railway Bridge over the Yangtze river (on the Yichang–Lichuan section, completed in 2010). Photo from HighestBridges.com

If you look at the map again, you'll notice that six more other lines into Sichuan are in construction, some of these across even more challenging terrain, including the second Chengdu–Kunming line (one of the two which started construction in December). Kunming and Guiyang are in two smaller basins in the mountains, and four additional in-construction lines starting from those cities can be counted as super-long mountain railways in karst. The scale of this undertaking is sheer unimaginable – at least when viewed from the West in the 2010s. What we have instead in Europe (not to mention the USA) is learned helplessness and a sense of techno-cultural superiority that is well past its sell-by date.

Also in December, in ten cities across China, altogether 255 km of new metro lines and extensions have been opened. (Excluding Hong Kong, there are now 18 cities with operating metros in China.) While the networks of both Shanghai and Beijing now comfortably exceed those of long-time leaders New York and London (only lagging behind Seoul) and overtook long-time leader Moscow in ridership last year, they would still need to at least double to actually reduce car traffic and thus smog.

The technologically most interesting addition is the first line in Zhengzhou. On this line, Huawei deployed a broadband mobile communications network which shall pioneer world-wide the use of 4G technology (specifically: LTE) for signalling & train control, too. If successful, this will be no small feat, so let me explain why.

On most modern urban rail lines, there are 2-3 different communications networks for different tasks. 4G mobiles have a high enough bandwidth to carry everything from train dispatcher communication through condition monitoring, CCTV and delay information to internet, including streaming video for passengers. However, in the present practice of multiple networks, a separate network for signalling & train control was also supported by safety philosophy: it ensures the absolute priority of safety-relevant communication, that is, an emergency order to brake will not be delayed because the antennas are busy relaying a video from YouTube. The Zhengzhou metro will now have to prove that Huawei's LTE is stable enough in itself and can always speedily deliver train control messages.

Fortunately, it appears that this trial will be conducted with more care than the disastrous attempt to fast-track the development and introduction of cutting-edge train control on the PDLs: initially, the LTE system will be tested only for other communication while train control will use a conventional system, then train control communication will be duplicated over LTE (thus an LTE failure won't affect the trains), and the conventional system will be shut down only if LTE proves itself.

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Check the Train Blogging index page for a (hopefully) complete list of ET diaries and stories related to railways and trains.

Also in France, the investigation into last summer's train accident at Brétigny-sur-Ogre presented its conclusions in January, finding a cause less obvious and more worrying that what was surmised at first.

To recap, seven passengers of an express train died when a loose fishplate of a complex switch – held by just one of its four screws, with the other three broken – pivoted and got stuck in the way of the wheels. The root cause was a crack in the frog (the centrepiece of a switch), which put shear stress on the screws but wasn't detected by visual inspection because it was hidden by the very fishplate that caused the derailment. (Claims in Le Figaro about earlier detection of the crack have been based on a misinterpretation of an unrelated cable rupture.) As a consequence, visual inspection procedures will be re-worked, automated inspection trains will be introduced, and point renewal will be accelerated with a €300 million programme.

This got me thinking: visual or portable instrumental inspection of points is still pretty much the norm across Europe, the few inspection cars I'm aware of are not a decade old. So the example of the accident in France should be read as a warning elsewhere, too.

*Lunatic*, n.
One whose delusions are out of fashion.

by DoDo on Sat Mar 1st, 2014 at 06:34:40 AM EST
Amidst the stream of bad rail news out of Spain, there was one good news: the ticket price reform introduced last February resulted in a ridership growth for long-distance rail by 13.4%, for AVE high-speed trains even by 20.9%. As a consequence, on the Madrid–Barcelona relation (which I analysed in Puente AVE), rail solidified the dominance over air achieved last year and finally took a decisive lead with a market share of almost 60% (3.1 million vs. the airlines' 2.2 million in 2013).

*Lunatic*, n.
One whose delusions are out of fashion.
by DoDo on Sat Mar 1st, 2014 at 06:37:02 AM EST
[ Parent ]
And yet another government is forced by the facts to come to its senses regarding PPP:

ETCS tender launched for Madrid - Galicia HSL | International Railway Journal

SPANISH infrastructure manager Adif last week approved the tendering of a contract to design, install and maintain signaling and telecommunications equipment on the Madrid-Galicia high-speed rail line, with a total value of €640.8m.

...The package replaces a €905m public-private partnership contract issued two years ago. Despite its initial intention to call for private investment to equip the line in order to ease the financial burden on the state, the Spanish government subsequently decided to contract the works directly due to lower interest rates in the bond market and a lack of interest from the private sector.

*Lunatic*, n.
One whose delusions are out of fashion.
by DoDo on Wed Mar 5th, 2014 at 06:44:17 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Heh. And here is yet another (my emphasis at the end):

Trafikverket releases Swedish high-speed report | International Railway Journal

SWEDISH infrastructure manager Trafikverket published a new report on February 28 outlining potential options for a high-speed line linking Stockholm with Gothenburg and Malmö.

...The total cost of the network is estimated to be around SKr 125bn ($US 19.4bn) at 2008 prices, of which SKr 59bn would come from the state, SKr 43bn from track access charges, SKr 19bn from local and regional governments, and SKr 4bn from the European Union. The remaining SKr 19bn would cover the cost of private finance, and the report suggests costs could be reduced if the project is entirely publically-funded.

*Lunatic*, n.
One whose delusions are out of fashion.
by DoDo on Wed Mar 5th, 2014 at 06:47:53 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Meanwhile, in the brave new world of open access, the biggest new operator, Italy's NTV (which transported 6.2 million passengers in its first full year) is still struggling:

NTV launches cost cutting drive | International Railway Journal

Despite strong traffic growth last year, NTV says it does not expect to reach breakeven until 2016. In its original business plan breakeven was forecast for this year.

NTV has reached agreement with its five unions for each employee to take an extra 1.5 rest days per month for the next 12 months, which translates as a monthly pay cut of €25 per employee. However, the time can be used for training in order not to affect the quality of service to passengers, which NTV says is crucial for the success of the business.

In addition, the number of company directors is being reduced from 14 to nine, and top executives will take an average pay cut of 10%.

By 2016, Trenitalia (the passenger branch of state railways FS) will have put new trains in service, so I wouldn't be surprised if breakeven will be pushed further into the future (not to mention a bankruptcy).

*Lunatic*, n.
One whose delusions are out of fashion.

by DoDo on Mon Mar 10th, 2014 at 02:42:17 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Interesting: side-mounted pantograph.

Schengen is toast!
by epochepoque on Mon Mar 10th, 2014 at 06:29:21 PM EST
[ Parent ]

High-speed champion | International Railway Journal

"The problem with placing the pantograph on the roof is that it vibrates a lot when the train is operating at high-speed," Orellano says. "The carbody's flat plate roof effectively vibrates like a drum. In older high-speed trains power cars were situated at either end so no-one was sitting below the pantograph. But in today's trains passengers are seated throughout so this has become more of a problem and is something we wanted to address."

The solution adopted for the Frecciarossa 1000 is to mount the pantograph directly to the sidewall of the carbody with the stiffness of the carbody and the curvature of the sidewall working to reduce the vibrations and as a result noise. In addition when the pantograph is not being used it is stored flat, again minimising vibrations and any impact on aerodynamics.

The only picture I found, from the pantograph diagnostics supplier, unfortunately doesn't say much (no isolators and mounting points on the carbody shown):

At any rate, when it comes to the acoustic optimisation of pantographs, European manufacturers have a long way to go to catch up with Japanese counterparts:

(Series 500)

(Fastech360 prototype; also see noise test with/without noise screens)

(E5 series)

*Lunatic*, n.
One whose delusions are out of fashion.

by DoDo on Wed Mar 12th, 2014 at 02:50:18 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Excellent diary. Did you ever consider doing a guided tour of European (or Chinese) railways? I suppose it would be incredibly expensive unless an "inter-rail" type ticket could be purchased or negotiated. But I for one would love a rail based holiday as opposed to the more usual air based one - though from Ireland you don't have much choice!).

Index of Frank's Diaries
by Frank Schnittger (mail Frankschnittger at hot male dotty communists) on Mon Mar 3rd, 2014 at 03:49:04 PM EST
Heh, being the tour guide for a guided tour of railways, that would be a dream job for me :-)

BTW, my love for Chinese (mountain) railways started with an article in the March 1988 issue of National Geographic. I dug it out over the weekend because I remembered that the author also travelled on the Chengdu–Kunming line. I found the locations of two of the best photos on Google Maps, and it's quite impressive how the landscapes changed in 20-25 years (double-tracking & electrification, orderly level crossing & throngs of bikers gone, modern urban sprawl making its appearance, several new bridges nearby).

*Lunatic*, n.
One whose delusions are out of fashion.

by DoDo on Mon Mar 3rd, 2014 at 04:40:01 PM EST
[ Parent ]
You know, I'm pretty sure I did the Kunming-Chengdu line in 1985, but I'm hazy on the details. Reconstructing : We flew from Guangzhou to Kunming, and our next stop was Emei Shan. It must have been an overnight sleeper, about a 16 hour trip. I'm ashamed to say I can't remember anything much about the scenery... rather, the spectacular Emei Shan and Leshan Buddha must have chased it from my mind.

I remember we had intended to do Chengdu-Chongqing by train, but it was booked up for several days, so we flew. Our other major rail trips in China were Hangzhou-Beijing, then Beijing-Taiyuan-Xian-Beijing, then of course the trans-Siberian (by the Manchurian route).

We had sleeping berths for most of these (stacked three high). On a couple of occasions, when we hadn't managed to book sleepers, friendly railwaymen managed to find us berths reserved for staff. They were eager to speak English. We only did one overnight trip on wooden seats.

It is rightly acknowledged that people of faith have no monopoly of virtue - Queen Elizabeth II

by eurogreen on Tue Mar 4th, 2014 at 05:13:45 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Wow. How long was this entire trip in time (China plus USSR), and how came it to be?

I'm ashamed to say I can't remember anything much about the scenery...

Wasn't it dark outside just when the train was deep in the mountains?


That should have included some mountain scenery, too (but it was night trains, too, I guess).

*Lunatic*, n.
One whose delusions are out of fashion.

by DoDo on Tue Mar 4th, 2014 at 06:38:58 AM EST
[ Parent ]
well, the entire trip was March to June 1985, New Zealand to France. It was in fact when I emigrated, though that wasn't clear to me at the time.

Flight to Singapore. Bus and taxi in Malaysia. Train to Bangkok, flight to Hong Kong, flight to Japan (train, boat, hitch hiking). Back to HK, train to Guangzhou, then as described, then all the way down the river from Chongqing to Shanghai, etc. Seven weeks in China, then a week from Beijing to Moscow, then train again to (east) Berlin. Metro to "the west", then ride share to France.

This was before cheap air travel, and ignoring the side trips, our diversified transport from NZ to Europe was substantially cheaper than a direct flight.

It is rightly acknowledged that people of faith have no monopoly of virtue - Queen Elizabeth II

by eurogreen on Tue Mar 4th, 2014 at 08:37:14 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Sounds like the holiday travel of a lifetime! My longest-ever holiday trip was three weeks...

Would I have the money and free time, this would be my dream itinerary in China:

I picked only routes I know to be worth a day trip for the scenery. About a quarter of it is high-speed, the rest conventional lines. Other than major cities and archaeological sites, it could include detours to all of the Five Great Mountains, two of Buddhism's and three of Taoism's Four Sacred Mountains. I estimate that with the stops at the scenic sites, it would take me at least six weeks to complete... maybe when I'm retired :-)

*Lunatic*, n.
One whose delusions are out of fashion.

by DoDo on Tue Mar 4th, 2014 at 09:27:34 AM EST
[ Parent ]
This is sort-of off-topic, but Helmut Uttenthaler, who went by rail from Vienna to Pyongyang in 2008, returned to North Korea last year on a railfan-oriented guided tour and has started to write up the trip.

Part 1: Introduction

Part 2: Vienna - Beijing - Dandong

Part 3: "our special train"

There are lots of interesting photos, ranging from decrepid freight wagons to a mysterious unnumbered carriage in the charter train, which has tinted windows and might have been taken from Kim Jong Il's private train.

by Gag Halfrunt on Wed Mar 5th, 2014 at 11:38:47 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Many thanks for the links to the sequel! (And I see it was you who led me to the 2008 one.) The first couple of photos in the third diary, with the contrast between the booming Chinese border town and the desolate North Korean amusement park, are quite symbolic.

In the first diary, I find this strange animal – a Soviet M62 diesel-electric loco rebuilt as electric:

decrepid freight wagons

Huh, decrepit is an understatement... with this much corrosion, they should have wagons breaking apart mid-train!

*Lunatic*, n.
One whose delusions are out of fashion.

by DoDo on Wed Mar 5th, 2014 at 02:11:17 PM EST
[ Parent ]
They've also converted former Pyongyang Metro trains to overhead power for mainline use -- and ex-Pyongyang Metro, ex-Berlin U-Bahn trains too.

I see that Wikipedia now has a detailed list of North Korean locomotive types, with citations to a Japanese book about North Korean railways. The converted M62s are called the Kanghaenggun (Forced March) class.

by Gag Halfrunt on Wed Mar 5th, 2014 at 03:47:28 PM EST
[ Parent ]

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