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High Speed Green: The New Age of the Train

As the height of summer arrives, we experience the full force of the everchanging climate – most closely on our public transport, also in a perpetual state of transformation.

Tay Bridge, Dundee City

As the Caledonian Sleeper (and predecessors) marks 150 years of continuous service, a renaissance in railway investment (customarily, financially, and environmentally) is creating sustainable infrastructure and opportunities to journey far beyond the end of the tracks.

Inside number nine of the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals is a focus on industry, innovation, and infrastructure. In this, the hottest month of the year, travel disruption caused by the adverse weather conditions of heat and precipitation also thrusts global warming back into the cultural zeitgeist as we can feel its effects most acutely.

Our Victorian era railway network wasn’t designed to cope with the amount of freight and passenger traffic that must share it today. It has been overtaken by a web of railway lines that have spread across Europe (largely rebuilt from scratch after World War Two), Asia and Africa, very high-speed in their digital as much as physical capacity of mass passenger transportation.

Despite the cost of trans-continental railway journeys being considerably more expensive than air travel, however, passenger numbers are climbing. Ease of access between the centre of capital cities (as opposed to the more isolated airport locations) present a more relaxing, and, therefore, pleasurable, experience of intercity travel as the holiday begins with the train itself. An expanding infrastructure of electrification has allowed trains to become faster and longer as well as quieter and greener, making more distant and/or complicated connections more achievable.

Midnight Express

Dunfermline City, Fife

A resurgence in sleeper trains in Europe join the Caledonian Sleeper (connecting London Euston with Glasgow Central, Edinburgh Waverley, Aberdeen, Inverness, and Fort William) and the Night Riviera (linking London Paddington and Penzance) which have been operating six nights per week in both directions in various forms on the West Coast and Great Western Main Lines, respectively, since the 1870s.

While continental European sleeper trains have been active for the past 30 years, under German state-owned enterprise Deutsche Bahn AG, they ceased operating these services in December 2016. In the same month, Austrian Federal Railways (ÖBB), Nightjet began and has since expanded to Belgium, France, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Poland, and Switzerland, with other train operating companies providing Nightjet Partner services to Croatia, Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland, Slovakia, and Slovenia, in the last four years alone.

London King's Cross, Camden

However, with every successful journey, there are always unfortunate cancellations. Eurostar has ended its direct London St Pancras to Disneyland Paris service (at least for now) due to the coronavirus pandemic and Brexit; the financial and bureaucratic difficulty of operating in the current political climate apparently proving to great, even for them.

Although a luxury operator whose carbon emissions will undoubtedly be higher per passenger than the regular commuter or business traveller, the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express (VSOE) has axed its British Pullman section (a separate luxury train, joining London Victoria to Folkestone) for the first time since it was resurrected in its current form 40 years ago.

Instead of travelling from Calais-Ville to Venizia Santa Lucia and vice versa, the VSOE will now depart from Paris Gare de l'Est as passengers’ coach transfers across the English Channel have been subject to delays at border control (again due to Brexit) interrupting the regularly scheduled timetable making the journey too unreliable.

Electric Dreams

Royal Border Bridge, Northumberland

In the United States, the California High-Speed Rail project is currently under construction – with projected completion in 10 years’ time – and will connect the roughly 800 miles between San Francisco and Los Angeles (in two hours and forty minutes) as well as San Diego at a very controversial cost of $128billion. In India, the first of eight approved high-speed rail corridors is also being built to bridge the circa 300 miles gap from Mumbai to Ahmedabad (in three hours) and will open in five years’ time.

Since the first high speed trains started running throughout China, its network is now the longest and most heavily used in the world, achieving 26,000 miles in only 20 years. Already making up two-thirds of the entire global high-speed infrastructure, this mileage is planned to almost double in the next 12 years alone, benefiting, obviously, from a communist regime untroubled by the democratic principles of debate and diversity (that tend to slow down high-speed endeavours elsewhere). Concerns regarding data security and human safety have also been expressed in the face of a production line that progresses at a lightning pace of development.

Commuter Belt

Monifieth, Angus

While High Speed 1 opened 15 years ago to carry Eurostar e300/e320 and Southeatern ‘Javelin’ trains across the south east of England, High Speed 2 is slowly making its way across the Midlands towards Birmingham, Manchester and Leeds but isn’t expected to arrive for another decade at most.

On the commuter front at home, the Levenmouth Rail Link in Scotland is due to be open for business by this time next year, providing direct trains to the national capital for the first time in 55 years. It should, hopefully, regenerate an area of deprivation with the additional capital its improved transport alignment with the rest of the country will deliver.

Unlike the UK, Brightline is still the only passenger carrying intercity railroad that’s privately owned and operated in the United States since it started running five years ago between Miami Central and West Palm Beach in Florida. Its 170 miles high-speed extension onwards to Orlando International Airport opened a couple a months ago with a further expansion to Tampa 67 miles away also in the works.

A couple of years ago, Amtrak, the American National Railroad Passenger Corporation, received its biggest increase in funding since its inception 50 years prior so it can address its backlog of maintenance and start providing services without the burden of making a profit, after a legal pivot in the language of its mission statement.

Killiecrankie Viaduct, Perth and Kinross

With the social, economic and environmental benefits of the modern railway scientifically uncancellable, the new age of the train is on its way – and is only getting faster.

Words and photographs by Adam Zawadzki


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