The Different National Traditions of Building High-Speed Rail

I’ve written five pieces about national and transnational traditions of building urban rail: US, Soviet bloc, UK, France, Germany. I’m about to continue this series with a post about Japan, but yesterday I made a video on Twitch jumping ahead to different national traditions of high-speed rail. The video recording cut two thirds of the way through due to error on my part, so in lieu of an upload, I’m writing it up as a blog post. The traditions to cover are those of Japan, France, Germany, and China; those are the world’s four busiest networks, and the other high-speed rail networks display influences from the first three of those.

The briefest description is that the Shinkansen is treated like a long-range subway, the TGV like an airplane at flight level zero, and the ICE like a regional rail (and not S-Bahn) network. China doesn’t quite fit any of these modes but has aspects of all three, some good, some not.

But this description must be considerably nuanced. For example, one would expect that airplane-like trains would have security theater and a requirement for early arrival. But the TGV has neither; until recently, platforms were completely open, and only recently has SNCF begun gating them, not for security but for ticket checks, with automatic gates and QR codes. Likewise, until recently passengers could get to the train station 2-3 minutes before the train’s departure and get on, and only now is SNCF requiring passengers to show up as long as 5 minutes early.

Tabular summary

SummarySubwayAirplaneRegional railMixed
InfluencedKorea, TaiwanSpain, Italy, Belgium, MoroccoNorthern Europe
FrequencyVery highLowMediumHigh
Seat turnoverMediumLowHighMedium
Approximate fare/km$0.23$0.14$0.15$0.10
EgressVery fastVery slowMediumFast
Integration with slow trainsMediumPoorGoodPoor
Average speed (major cities)HighHigh, except BelgiumMixed high, lowVery high
Timed connectionsNoNoYesNo
One-seat ridesLimitedExtensiveCommonCommon
Security theaterNoOnly in SpainNoYes
Platform access controlYesIncreasingly yesNoYes
Major city stationsCentralHistoric, Paris has 4CentralOutlying
Terminal turnaroundsFastSlowMixedSlow
Minor city stationsMixedOutlying, “beet fields”Usually legacyUsually outlying
Grades1.5-2%3.5%1.25%, max 4%1.5-2%
Construction costsHighLow or mediumMediumHigh

For more detailed data on costs and tunnel and viaduct percentage, consult our high-speed rail cost database.

The Shinkansen as a subway

The Shinkansen network has very little branching. Currently there is none south of Tokyo; a short branch to Nagasaki is in planning but will not open anytime soon. To the north, there is more branching, and the Yamagata and Akita Mini-Shinkansen lines, the only legacy lines with Shinkansen through-service, split trains, with one part of the train continuing onward to Shin-Aomori and Hokkaido and another part splitting off to Yamagata or Akita.

Source: Wikipedia

Going south of Tokyo, the off-peak frequency to Shin-Osaka is four express Nozomi trains an hour, at :00, :09, :30, :51 off-peak; two semi-express Hikari, at :03, :33; and one local Kodama, at :57. The 21-minute gaps are ugly, but on a train that takes around 2.5 hours to get to Shin-Osaka, they’re not too onerous. Thus, there is a culture of going to the train station without pre-booking a ticket and just getting on the next Nozomi. The ticketing system reinforces this: there is no dynamic yield management, but instead fixed ticket prices between pairs of station depending on seat class. What yield management there is is static: the Nozomi has a small surcharge, to justify excluding it from the JR Rail Pass and so shunt tourists to the Hikari.

This is not literally the headway-management system seen on some unbranched subway systems, like the Moscow Metro and Paris Métro; Moscow keeps time by distance from the preceding train, and not by a fixed schedule. But this is fine: some subway systems are timetabled, like the U-Bahn in Berlin and the Tokyo subway. Tokyo even manages to mix local and express trains on some two-track subway lines with timed overtakes. To the scheduler, the fixed timetable is of paramount importance. But to the passenger, it isn’t – people don’t time themselves to a specific train.

Another subway-like characteristic includes interior layout, designed around fast egress. Shinkansen cars have two door pairs each and platforms are 1,250 mm high with level boarding, enabling 1 minute dwell times even at very busy stations like Shin-Osaka. Trains make multiple stops in the Tokyo and Osaka regions, and even Nozomi and equivalent fastest-train classes on other lines stop there, to distribute loads. There is no cafe car, and luggage is overhead, to maximize train seating space: a 25 meter car has 18-20 seating rows with 1-meter pitch, which is greater efficiency than is typical in Europe.

Station location decisions, finally, are designed as far as practical to be in city centers. Stations with Shin- before their names are new stations, like Shin-Osaka and Shin-Yokohama, but they tend to be sited close to city centers, at intersections with subway and commuter rail lines.

The main drawback of Japan is that the construction costs are very high. This comes from a political decision to build elevated lines rather than at-grade liens with earthworks, as is common in Europe. This preponderance of els has been exported to South Korea, Taiwan, and China, all of which have high costs relative to the tunneling proportion; the KTX, essentially a Shinkansen adapted to an environment in which the legacy trains are standard-gauge too, is notable for having low tunneling costs, as is common in Korea, but high costs on lines with moderate amounts of tunneling thanks to the high share of construction on bridges.

East Asia has high population density, which lets it get away with high costs since the ridership is high enough to compensate – THSR is at this point returning around 4% on very high costs. But in any other environment, this leads to severe problems. China, with lower incomes and fares than in Japan, Korea, and Taiwan, already has trouble paying interest on lines other than the Beijing-Shanghai system. India, building a turnkey Shinkansen as recommended by Japanese consultants, who were burned by Taiwan’s mix of European and Japanese technology on an operationally-Japanese system, is spending enormous sums of money: the Mumbai-Ahmedabad corridor is around PPP$50.6 billion, for 508 km, $100 million/km on a line that’s only 5% in tunnel and even those tunnels could have been avoided by running on broad gauge and using existing a widened legacy right-of-way in Mumbai.

The TGV as flight-level zero air travel

As detailed in New Departures by Anthony Perl, the history of the TGV differs from that of the Shinkansen in a key aspect: the TGV was built after the postwar decline of rail travel (as was the ICE), whereas the Shinkansen was built before it (as was to some extent CRH). The Shinkansen was built in 1959-64: there was no decline in rail evident yet, with only 12 cars/1,000 people in Tokyo in 1960, and the system was designed to deal with growing ridership. In contrast, the TGV was planned after the 1973 oil crisis, in a then-wealthier and more motorized country than Japan, aiming to woo passengers back to the train from the car and the plane.

Previously, SNCF had been engaging in experiments with high speed and high-voltage electrification, inventing 25 kV 50 Hz electrification in the process, which would be adopted by the Shinkansen and become the global standard for new electrification. It also experimented with running quickly on ballasted track – without modifications, the trains of that era kicked ballast up at high speed, there was so much air resistance. But investment had gone to legacy intercity rail, driving up the average speed of the electrified Mistral to 130 km/h and the Aquitaine to 145 km/h. Nonetheless, competition with air was fierce and air shuttles in that era before security theater attracted many people in competition with four-hour trains from Paris to Lyon and Bordeaux.

The TGV’s real origin is then 1973. The crisis shocked the entire non-oil-exporting world, leading to permanently reduced growth not just in rich countries (by then including Japan) but also non-oil-exporting developing countries, setting up the sequence of slow growth under import substitution and then the transition to neoliberalism. France reacted to the crisis with the slogan “in France, we have ideas,” setting up the nuclearization of French electricity in the 1980s, reduced taxes on diesel to encourage what was then viewed as surplus fuel rather than as a deadly pollutant, and the construction of the electric TGV.

Despite the ongoing growth of the Shinkansen then, there was extensive skepticism of the TGV in the 1970s and early 80s. The state refused to finance it, requiring SNCF to borrow on international markets. The LGV Sud-Est employed cost-cutting techniques including 3.5% grades and high superelevation to avoid tunnels, at-grade construction with cut and fill balancing out to avoid surplus dirt, and land swaps for farms that would be split by the line to avoid needing to build passageways.

Construction costs were only 5.5M€/km in 2021 euros. Unfortunately, costs have risen since and stand at 20M€/km, or even higher on Bordeaux-Toulouse. But the LGV network remains among the least tunneled in the world thanks to the use of high grades; in our database the only less tunneled network, that of Morocco, is a turnkey TGV, built at unusually low cost.

As in Japan, the line was built between the two largest cities: Paris and Lyon. Also as in Japan, Lyon could not be served at the historic center of Perrache, but instead at a near-center location, Part-Dieu, which then became the new central business district, as the LGV Sud-Est was built concurrently with the Lyon Metro and nearby skyscrapers, as is typical for a European city wishing to avoid skyscrapers in historic centers. But everything else was different. There were no real intermediate stops the way that the express Shinkansen have always stopped at Nagoya and Kyoto: the LGV Sud-Est skipped Dijon, which instead was served on a branch, and the two intermediate stops on the line, Le Creusot and Mâcon-Loché, are on the outskirts of minor towns and only see a few trains per day each.

Moreover, relying on France’s use of standard-gauge, there was, from the start, extensive through-service beyond Lyon, toward Marseille, Geneva, Saint-Etienne, and Grenoble. Frequency was for the most part low, measured in trains per day. There was little investment in regional rail outside the capital, unlike in Germany, and therefore there was never any attempt to time the connections from Saint-Etienne and Grenoble to the TGV at Part-Dieu.

At the other end, Paris did not build a central station, unlike German or Japanese cities. The time for such a station was, frustratingly, just a few years before work began on the TGV in earnest: RATP was building the RER starting in the 1960s and early 70s, including a central station at Les Halles, which opened 1977. But this was designed purely for urban and suburban use, and the TGV stayed on the surface. The last opportunity for a Paris central station was gone when SNCF extended the RER D from Gare de Lyon to Les Halles. Thus Paris has four distinct TGV stations – Lyon, Montparnasse, Nord, and Est – with poor connections between them.

This turned the TGV into a point-to-point system. Were there a central station, trains could have gone Lille-Paris-Lyon-Marseille. But there wasn’t, and so for Lille-Lyon service, SNCF built the Interconnexion Est, bypassing Paris and also serving Disneyland and Charles-de-Gaulle Airport. When the LGV Atlantique opened, Tours kept its historic terminal, and thus trains went either Paris-Tours or Paris-Bordeaux bypassing Tours. When the LGV Sud-Est was extended south with the LGVs Rhône-Alpes and Méditerranée, trains did not go via Part-Dieu, even though it had always been configured as a through-station for points south, but rather via a bypass serving Lyon’s airport; trains today go Paris-Lyon, Paris-Marseille, or at lower frequency Lyon-Marseille, but not Paris-Lyon-Marseille.

Of note, Japan’s subway-like characteristic is partly the outcome of its linear geography along the Taiheiyo Belt, making it an ideal comparison also for the Northeast Corridor in the United States. But Lille, Paris, Lyon, and Marseille are collinear, and yet the service plans do not make use of that geography. There is no planning around seat turnover: if a train makes an intermediate stop, it’s one with very low ridership, like Mâcon, with no attempt to have seats occupied by Paris-Lyon passengers and then by Lyon-Marseille ones.

Over time, this led to a creeping airline-ization of the TGV. Airline-style dynamic yield management was introduced, I believe in the 1990s. This was after SNCF had spent the 1980s marketing the TGV as 260 km/h for the same fare as 160 km/h; the overall fares on legacy intercity trains and TGVs are similar per p-km, but TGVs have opaque pricing, and are designed to maximize fares out of Paris-Lyon in particular, where air competition vanished. The executives at SNCF are increasingly drawn from the airline world, and, perhaps out of social memory of the navettes competing with 4-hour trains in the 1970s, they think that trains cannot compete with air travel if they take longer than 3-3.5 hours, even though they do successfully on such city pairs as Paris-Toulon.

Having skipped Germany’s InterCity revolution and its refinements in Switzerland, Austria, and the Netherlands, the TGV network has stagnated in the last decade. Ridership is up since the pre-Great Recession peak but barely, only by around 10%. The frequency is too weak for inter-provincial links, where people mostly drive, and in the 1990s and 2000s the TGV network grew to dominate the Paris-province market; there isn’t much of a remaining market for the current operating paradigm to grow into.

While some regional links are adopting takt timetables, for example some of the Provence TERs, SNCF management has done no such thing. Instead, it has spent the last 15 years pursuing airline strategies, including imitation of low-cost airlines, first iDTGV and then OuiGo. A generalist elites of business analysts believes in market segmentation and price discrimination, which do not work on a mode of travel where a frequent, flexible timetable is so paramount.

Among the countries influenced by France, Spain is notable for realizing that it has a problem with operations. In an interview with Roger Senserrich, ADIF head Isabel Pardo de Vera spoke positively of Spain’s efficient engineering and construction, but centered ADIF and RENFE’s problems, including the poor operations. Like Italy and Belgium, and more recently Morocco, Spain learned the concept of high-speed rail from France; also like Italy and Belgium, it mixed in a few German elements, which in the 1980s meant Germany’s more advanced LZB signaling, but at the time, there was no Switzerland-wide takt yet, and the inferiority of French operations and scheduling was not yet evident. But Spain self-flagellates – this is how it learns – whereas France is just a hair too rich to recognize its weaknesses and far too proud for its elite to Germanize where needed.

The ICE as long-distance regional rail

Germany came into the 1960s with some of the most advanced legacy rail in the world, with technology that would be adopted as a Shinkansen standard. This goes back to the 1920s, when Deutsche Reichsbahn was formed from the merger of the state-level railways in the wake of the post-WW1 German Revolution. The new railway regulation, dating to 1925, promoted new kinds of engineering now completely standard, such as the tangential switch. DRB would also experiment with 200 km/h diesel express trains in the 1930s. Even in the 1960s and early 70s, when the most advanced rail tech was clearly in Japan, Deutsche Bundesbahn kept up with rail tech, much like SNCF, inventing LZB signals.

But unlike Japan and France, Germany never built a complete high-speed rail network. The InterCity network, dating to 1971, was designed around fast legacy trains, at slightly lower speeds than available on the express French legacy trains. The key was that city pairs would be served every two hours, with timed connections at intermediate points boosting many to hourly. This was from the start based on a regular takt and turnover, with more expansive service to smaller cities.

High-speed lines in Germany were delayed, and often built on weird alignments. The most important reason is that in the formative period, from 1971 to 1990, there was no such country as Germany. The country was called West Germany, and, much like Japan, had a fairly linear population distribution from the Ruhr upriver to Cologne, Frankfurt, Mannheim, and finally either Karlsruhe or Stuttgart and Munich; but the largest city proper, Hamburg, lay outside this corridor.

The north-south orientation of West Germany contrasted with the rail network it inherited. Until the post-WW1 German Revolution, the rail networks were run by the states, not by the German Empire, and thus interstate connections were underbuilt. Prussia had an east-west orientation, and therefore north-south lines were relatively underbuilt (see for example the 1896 map), and to top it off most north-south routes crossed the Iron Curtain.

To solve many problems at once, but not to solve any of them well, Germany’s first high-speed line connected Hanover, Göttingen, Kassel, Fulda, and Würzburg. Getting to more substantial cities like Hamburg and Frankfurt requires onward through-service at lower speed. The LGV Sud-Est had a minimum curve radius of 3.2 km, and usually 4 km, and can squeeze 300 km/h out of it now, without any tunnels; the Hanover-Würzburg line has a minimum radius of 5.1 km and a maximum grade of 1.25% and is limited to 280 km/h (service runs at 250 km/h), as it was built as a mixed freight-passenger line.

Subsequent lines have, like Hanover-Würzburg, not been complete connections between major cities. Here the difference with France, Italy, South Korea, and China is evident. All are standard-gauge countries, like Germany, and all employ through-service to various degrees. But France opened a complete Paris-Lyon high-speed line in 1981-3, and only the last 30 km into Paris were on legacy trains (since reduced to 8 km with the Interconnexion Est), and likewise Italian, Chinese, and Korean high-speed lines connect major cities all the way. In contrast, this never happens in Germany at longer distance than Cologne-Frankfurt, a 180 km connection. There are always low- or medium-speed segments in between. The maximum average speed between major cities in Germany is either Cologne-Frankfurt or Berlin-Hamburg, a 230 km/h line with tilting trains, both averaging around 180 km/h; the Tokaido Shinkansen, with legacy 2.5 km curves, squeezes 210 km/h out of the Nozomi, and LGVs routinely average 230-250 km/h between Paris and major secondary cities.

Nor are the lower speeds in Germany saving money. The mixed passenger/freight lines have heavier tunneling than they would need if they had 3.5-4% grades. Hanover-Würzburg cost 36M€/km in 2021 euros thanks to its 37% tunneled alignment. German construction costs are not high relative to the tunneling percentage, unlike Chinese or Taiwanese costs, let alone British ones, but the tunneling percentage is in many cases unnecessarily high. This is thankfully not exported to every Northern European country that learned from the InterCity, but the Netherlands, as NIMBY-ridden as Germany, built an unnecessary tunnel on the HSL Zuid and had very high costs even taking that into account; Italy, with an otherwise-French system, likewise overbuilds, as pointed out by Beria-Albalate-Grimaldi-Bel, with viaducts designed to carry heavy freight trains even where there is no such demand.

So the bad in Germany is that the lines have very shallow grades, forcing heavy tunneling, and the costs are so high that the system is not complete. Is there good? Yes!

The InterCity system’s focus on high frequency enables decent service between major cities. Berlin-Munich trains, compromised by the Erfurt detour and subsequent descoping of much of the line, do the trip in 4.5 hours where they should be taking 3 and even 2.5 hours. But it’s not the same as the 4 hours of the pre-TGV Mistral to Lyon or Aquitaine to Bordeaux, the latter of which averaged the same speed as most Berlin-Munich trains today. The Aquitaine ran as a single daily Bordeaux-Paris-Bordeaux round-trip, and another train, branded the Etendard, ran the same route daily but Paris-Bordeaux-Paris. In contrast, DB today connects Berlin-Munich roughly every hour. It’s far more flexible, and the connections to other intercity trains are better.

And just as the TGV’s inexpensive construction has been perfected in Spain while France has slouched on cost control, so has the interconnected system of Germany been perfected on the margins of its sphere of influence, especially in Switzerland. Swiss connections are never fast: the country is too small for 300 km/h trains to make large differences in door-to-door trip times. The average speed on the workhorse Swiss lines connecting the Zurich-Bern-Basel triangle is around 110-120 km/h. But they run on a half-hourly takt, and other lines run on an hourly takt, and connections at the major cities are timed. European urbanism has a long tail of small cities, unlike American or Asian urbanism, and the Swiss takt connections those small cities to one another through regular timed transfers, with investments to prioritize punctuality.

This leads to a false belief among German rail advocates in a tradeoff between French or Spanish speed and Swiss or Dutch or Austrian connectivity. The latter set of countries have higher rail ridership per capita, and even Germany has recently overtaken France’s intercity rail ridership (though not yet per capita), and thus activists in Germany think investing in high speed is a waste. But what is actually happening is that the countries of Europe that look up to France have built high-speed rail, and the countries that look down on France have not; the Netherlands has HSL Zuid but it’s peripheral to the national network and its system is otherwise rather Swiss. Germany absolutely can and should complete its network. It just needs to understand that in certain aspects, countries it is used to stereotyping as spendthrift have done a more prudent job than it has.

Already, the younger rail advocates I meet, like Felix Thoma, seem interesting in applying the Deutschlandtakt concept to a high-speed rail network, rather than to a medium-speed one as the previous generations called for. But Germany is a NIMBY country. NIMBYs blocked French levels of energy nuclearization in the 1970s and 80s, creating the last generation’s Green Party (current leader, Annalena Baerbock, is 40 and came of age after those fights); NIMBYs sue projects they dislike on frivolous grounds until the politicians lose interest, much as in the US with its government-by-lawsuit, and thus high-speed rail on the Hamburg-Hanover line has been stuck in limbo for a generation.

Besides the political deference to NIMBYs, who as in the US are not as powerful as either they or the state thinks, the main problem then is unwillingness to merge French and German planning insights where they work. I might also add Japanese insights – the Shinkansen is far more efficient with platforms than any European railroad – but they’re less important here or in France than in the UK, which is a ridiculously high-cost version of French planning.

China as a mixture of all modes, some good, some awful

When I started planning this video and now post, I was puzzling over where to slot China. Other systems seemed fairly easy to slot as Japanese, German, or French, with the occasional special feature (insanely high UK costs, HSL Zuid in an otherwise Swiss intercity takt system, Korean standard-gauge adaptations). But China is its own thing. It makes sense: on the eve of corona, China had 2.3 billion annual high-speed rail riders, comfortably more than than the rest of the world put together; Japan, the second busiest network, had 436 million. In Europe, only France has more high-speed rail ridership per capita, by the smallest of margins.

Historically, the system should be viewed as having borrowed liberally from other systems in richer countries that built out their networks earlier. Among the three prior traditions, the one most similar to what CRH has converged on is the Shinkansen, and yet there is significant enough divergence I would not class CRH as a direct Shinkansen influence the way I do the KTX and THSR. This also mirrors the situation for rapid transit: China displays clear Soviet influences but has diverged sufficiently that it must be viewed as a separate tradition now.

The most important feature is that CRH evolved on the cusp of the decline of rail in favor of cars and planes, a decline that has been more complete in Western countries. In the 1980s and early 90s, China was already growing very quickly; this was from a very low base, so it was not noticed in richer countries, but it was enough that there were already motorization and domestic air travel competing with China Railway. This led to a multi-phase speed-up campaign, announced in 1993 and implemented from 1997 to 2007.

At this point, construction was on legacy alignments to legacy stations. In the North China Plain, the railroads were straight thanks to the flat topography, and so what was needed was investment in the quality of the physical plant – the sort of investments figured out in midcentury France and Germany, adapted by the Shinkansen. This was not trivial, not in a then-low-income country like China, but it was not enormously expensive either. At the same time, there was growing electrification in China, using 25 kV 50 Hz, leading to higher and higher train classes, all charging premium fares over the third-world tickets for traditional trains. At the apex was the D class, covering 200 km/h EMUs; the one time I rode a train in China, a day trip from Shanghai to Jiaxing and back in 2009, the way back was on a D class train, which had the comfort level and speed of the Northeast Corridor, topping at 170 km/h and averaging maybe 110. This investment has continued, and as of 2019, 72% of the network is electrified.

But China was already looking for more. In 2008, the Beijing-Tianjin high-speed line opened, as the world’s first 350 km/h line. In the financial crisis’s aftermath, China rapidly built out the network as fiscal stimulus, and by 2011, ridership overtook the Shinkansen’s as the world’s largest. Without legacy considerations, the system is built for 380 km/h, even though trains run at 350 km/h, and express trains average 280-290 km/h.

Like the United States and unlike Japan or most of Western Europe, China has an extensive freight rail network. Its approach is the opposite of Germany’s: high-speed lines are dedicated to passengers, and some are officially called passenger-dedicated lines, or PDLs, to make this clear. Freight trains go on the legacy network. Regional rail in China is very weak; the few lines that exist are new-builds, rather like long-range subways, and frequency is often lacking, the Beijing lines branded as S-Bahn barely running off-peak. With nearly all intercity rail having moved over to CRH, the legacy network is relatively free for freight use, even coal trains, which are slow and care little for reliability improvements for higher-end intermodal cargo.

However, the passenger-only characteristic of CRH’s system does not mean it’s employed French cost-cutting techniques. Rather, lines run almost exclusively on viaducts and have shallow grades, raising construction costs as in the rest of East Asia. Stations are newly-built at high expense: Beijing South cost 7 billion yuan, which in today’s PPP dollars is around $3 billion. There are many tracks and no economization with fast turnarounds as in Japan, and station layouts are comparable to airports, with some security theater.

Beijing South is at least just outside the Second Ring Road. Other stations are farther out. This is not just the beet field stations that characterize TGV service to small cities like Amiens or Metz, but also outlying stations in major centers. Shanghai Station only sees high-speed trains on the local line to Nanjing, providing a dedicated track pair equivalent to Kodama service while Nozomi-equivalent trains continue on to Beijing on their own tracks. The trains to Beijing get a separate Shanghai station, Hongqiao, colocated with the city’s domestic airport. The connecting subways tend to be better than at true beet field stations in France, which miss regional rail connections, but those stations are still well outside city center.

China is moreover exporting the bad more than the good. Chinese-funded projects in Africa are not fast – the average speeds are perhaps midway through China’s speed-up campaign, predating CRH. But they do have oversize, airport-like stations located well outside city centers. This happens even when right-of-way to enter city center exists, as in Nairobi.

On mixing and matching

Understanding these four distinct traditions is important for high-speed rail planning, in those four countries as well as elsewhere, such as in the UK and US. It’s important to understand the tradeoffs that these traditions made, and drawbacks that are not so much tradeoffs as things that didn’t seem important at the time.

Most notably, Britain has oversize stations, spending billions on new terminals such as in Birmingham. This comes from the low efficiency of most European turnaround operations, because most European cities have huge rail terminals from the steam era with a surplus of tracks. When trains need to turn fast, they do: German trains running through Frankfurt, which is a terminal, turn in 3-4 minutes to continue to their onward destination. In Tokyo, where space is at a premium, JR East learned to turn trains in 12 minutes even while giving them a cleaning, and with such tight operations, Britain should be able to fit traffic growth within existing station footprints.

It is also desirable to learn from students who have surpassed their old teachers. Korea has lower construction costs than Japan, Spain has lower construction costs than France and greater understanding of the need to integrate the timetable and infrastructure, Switzerland has perfected the German system to the point that German rail advocacy calls for reimportation of its planning maxims.

In the same way that Taiwan built infrastructure to European specs but is running Japanese trains on it, to its profit and to Japan’s chagrin, it may be advisable to build infrastructure in the French (or, better yet, Spanish) way but then run trains on it the German (or better yet, Swiss) way. But it’s more nuanced than this conclusion, due to important contributions from China and Japan, and due to the focus on having a central station, which France chose not to build in Paris to its detriment.

But in general, I think it behooves countries to learn to implement the following from those four traditions:

  • Japan: the best rolling stock, high-efficiency turnaround operations, reliable schedules; avoid excessive viaducts and Japan’s increasing demand for turnkey systems.
  • France: passenger-dedicated infrastructure standards (supplemented by Cologne-Frankfurt), land swap deals for at-grade construction, cost control (in the Spanish version – France is deteriorating); avoid TGV rolling stock and airline-style pricing.
  • Germany: takt (especially in the Swiss and Dutch versions), open station platforms, integration between timetable and infrastructure, seat turnover, decent rolling stock; avoid empowering NIMBYs and building mixed lines with freight.
  • China: separation of passenger and freight operations, very high average speeds; avoid airline-style outlying stations and excessive viaducts.


  1. Matthew Hutton

    I’m not clear where you think the Shinkansen should have been built at grade given the terrain and the city locations.

    And I’m pretty sure north of Tokyo outside of built up areas it is at grade.

      • Matthew Hutton

        I’m not sure where the at grade is on the Tokaido Shinkansen because of the terrain/urban areas – there certainly wasn’t a lot.

        I guess maybe the Chou Shinkansen could have more at grade and perhaps the lines beyond Hiroshima or Sendai or the branch lines in the north that I’ve not been on (which are to be fair newer) – but Japan seemed pretty mountainous and built up to me.

          • Herbert

            Still, you can’t entirely discount geography. France has no mountain ranges to tunnel thru except for the French Alps which are at the border and only relevant for the link to Torino (which will indeed have one of the longest railway tunnels on earth). The Massif Central has formidable mountains, but it is not “in the way” of any major hsr axis.

            In Germany, meanwhile, you can’t go north to south without crossing several mid sized mountain ranges…

            Of course the decision to have lines that allow freight led to more tunneling but if you applied the 100% identical policies to French and German hsr, the German network would still have more tunnels due to geography

          • Sassy

            It’s 53% on earthworks, but it’s not really “at grade”. The earthworks involved are generally taller than a lot of earthworks in Europe, enough to fit a medium sized truck (~4m) underneath without lowering the road at all, and a lot of roads go under it (one every 100-500m in farmland, which is the main place embankments get used, since otherwise it’s viaduct, trench, or tunnel).

          • Matthew Hutton

            And even in Britain where I think you should be able to build high speed rail largely at grade the chiltern hills are pretty steep which may justify some short sub 2km tunnels if you want to avoid existing settlements. And while we could knock down more post 1880 housing (and certainly more post 1945 housing) I think demolishing old village centres would be hugely unpopular. Plus we have more public footpaths ( and routes for horses which will need disabled accessible crossings of the railway or diversions.

            This doesn’t mean we can’t do things for something substantially closer to French costs – or possibly cheaper as I’m not convinced the french built their network for the lowest possible cost – but every country is different.

    • Phake Nick

      Hokuriku Shinkansen Tsuruga to Osaka section, giving up the Kosei Line alignment for Obama to Kyoto obviously elevated the cost unnecessary
      Chuo Shinkansen also obviously used more tunneling than otherwise necessary but I think it is understandably so given its emphasis on speed. But one thing I wonder is how will its terminal station at Shinagawa connect with JR East’s Shinkansen system.
      Hokkaido Shinkansen Sapporo Extension having high tunneling ratio is understandable I think given the geography?

      And on the other hand for Korea I have also learnt about they’re trying to copy the French way of system design, but terrain make them needing to build more tunnels and bridges than French

      • anonymouse observer

        High tunneling for Chuo Shinkansen is not only for speed and topography but also for ease of easement acquisition thanks to “大深度地下” (deep underground). They came up with a national law during the real estate bubble economy in 1980s (finally went into effect in 2001) which allows one to dig under someone else’s property without easement in the 3 largest metropolitan areas if the underground structure is built 40 meter or deeper below the surface (as well as other conditions) as long as the construction is approved by the government as deep underground infrastructure construction. Chuo Shinkansen is using this scheme to avoid construction easements while building straight maglev line in the middle of Tokyo and Nagoya. On Shinagawa side, the alignment stays straight deep underground tunnel all the way from Shinagawa to Kanagawa-Yamanashi prefectural line with minimum amount of horizontal curves.

        Hokkaido Shinkansen Sapporo Extension is due to topography and alignment choice. That part of Hokkaido is very mountainous and geologically very active. The Shinkansen alignment also needs to pass through several active volcanoes in order to get from Hakodate and Sapporo.

        Hokuriku Shinkansen Tsuruga to Osaka section has the same topographic challenge like the Sapporo extension. Unless the alignment goes to Maibara or along Kosei Line, it needs to go through multiple mountain ranges. Also, building a new high-speed rail line in the built-up suburbs and cities between Kyoto and Osaka does not help (they might use deep underground scheme for this extension).

  2. Roger

    Fascinating topic.

    I agree Korea’s KTX is quite similar to Shinkansen as described above. There are a couple of differences that I thought I might point out:
    – KTX has no platform access control. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve run to the platform a minute before the doors closed.
    – As you mentioned, Korea has a standard gauge legacy rail network. The consequences of this is that KTX often runs onto upgraded legacy track. While the Gyeongbu and Honam high speed lines are new-build 300 km/hr dedicated passenger lines, the Jeolla, Gyeonggang and partially open Jungang lines are a mixture of upgraded legacy and new-build track with speed limits ranging from 150-250 km/hr. In fact, much of Korea’s remaining legacy network is being incrementally replaced with new-build track over the coming decade. Another consequence of the standard gauge legacy network is that Korail (the national rail operator) offers services that run partially on legacy track. For example, heading south from Seoul station, a few trains a day will stay on the legacy Gyeongbu line in order to serve Suwon (a satellite city of Seoul to the south with ~1 million inhabitants) and re-join the high speed Gyeongbu line at Daejeon.
    – KTX has a highly diverse stopping pattern. For example, KTX trains on the Gyeongbu line all stop at the major stations of Seoul, Daejeon, Daegu and Busan (aside from the last few services of the day). Among the 6 minor intermediate stations, there are trains that stop at none of them, all of them, and practically every combination of the 6. Taiwan’s HSR is similar in this regard. I’m not sure whether Japan does this also, or whether all Hikari services for example have the same stopping patterns. If I recall correctly, Alon has advocated for simplifying stopping patterns, but I’m not sure what the rationale is. As far as I can tell, aside from it being a bit confusing, there doesn’t seem to be a massive drawback.

    • Alon Levy

      Japan sometimes has weird stopping patterns. It depends on the line; on Tokaido, the Hikari have a bunch of different patterns, half making all Nagoya-Shin-Osaka stops and then of those half also serve Odawara and half also serve Toyohashi, and half skipping local Nagoya-Shin-Osaka stops but serving Shizuoka and Hamamatsu and those sometimes also stop at Odawara or Mishima. But the majority of trains are Nozomi with fixed patterns on Tokaido.

      Edit: the difference with France is that France doesn’t have major all-stops stations the way Japan has Nagoya, Hiroshima, and Sendai, or the way Korea has Daejeon and Dongdaegu. Paris-Marseille trains don’t stop at Part-Dieu and rarely stop at Saint-Exupéry.

      • Phake Nick

        I think one reason behind such stopping pattern in Japan is that, for smaller cities, passengers travelling there are much more likely heading from/to a major cities, than is to/from another small/mid-sized cities. Thus, it is not effective and not necessary to have trains serving all the smaller cities along the line. As a result, different Hikari trains serve different smaller cities in order to give those cities a still relatively fast access speed to major cities instead of being slowed down to made multiple stops in between

        • Roger

          I agree. Would this not generalize to all countries? Are these small travel time savings worth the additional operational complexities of diverse stopping patterns?

          • Herbert

            The ICE very occasionally does a somewhat similar thing by serving certain cities only in the morning and evening (“Tagesrand” they call it) for example Coburg in northern Franconia is bypassed by most Berlin-Munich ICEs but some do stop there…

          • Phake Nick

            I think China HSR network have some similar stop allocations, but for other countries the frequencies probably isn’t big enough to support multiple stop pattern

        • anonymouse observer

          Also, there are difference in demand potential between those non-all-stop cities. For example, Shizuoka and Hamamatsu are larger cities with more large companies basing there (Yamaha and Suzuki headquartered in Hamamatsu) and government offices (Shizuoka is prefectural capital of Shizuoka Prefecture, and some branch offices of the national governments are located there) than other stops like Kakegawa or Mishima. These cities needs to be served more frequently with slightly faster trains than other stops due to demand and potential.

          Those Hikari trains stopping at Shizuoka and Hamamatsu are very well utilized and one of the most difficult trains to get the reserved seats even though these trains are overtaken by 2 to 4 Nozomi trains between Tokyo and Nagoya (more difficult to get a reserved seat on the other Hikari trains stopping either Odawara or Toyohashi even though the train don’t get overtaken by any other train between Tokyo and Nagoya), and a lot of seats on the train get turned over at Shizuoka and Hamamatsu.

          • borners

            See this is why they need to improve conventional services in Shizuoka! (Lets not go there again)

            Still given that the Tokaido line is at capacity and has a speed constraining alignment, I can’t see how semi-expresses (which is what Hikari would be called in conventional Japanese rail lingo) could be made more regular without screwing Nozomi passengers. JR Central is proposing more such services once the Maglev is complete.

            Alon and others have made the argument that the Shinkansen operates like a subway which is definitely a good argument to make with operators and commentators who don’t quite get how the Shinkansen kills on frequency and simplicity. Pedantically its more like conventional Japanese urban rail, with local (serving all stations), semi-expresses, section-expresses and expresses (I hate the translation of Kyuko as Rapid). Nasuno and Kodama are local, Nozomi and Hayabusa are expresses, Yamabiko a section express, and Hikari is a semi-express.

          • Phake Nick

            With how JR Central plan to make the Chuo Shinkansen effectively online ticketing only, it might lost some of such feature

          • anonymouse observer


            I try not to get into the conventional rail argument to respond…

            Improved conventional rail in Shizuoka would not improve this because majority of these passengers getting on or off Hikari trains at Hamamatsu or Shizuoka seems to be traveling outside of the conventional rail range based on my observation onboard. Majority of them are business travelers on suits with a briefcase coming from Tokyo, Nagoya, and Osaka while there aren’t a lot of passengers using Hikari between Hamamatsu and Shizuoka. Even if there were rapid or limited express trains on the conventional rail, it cannot match the speed offered by the Shinkansen service. While these Hikari trains are scheduled to run between Nagoya and Shizuoka and between Tokyo and Shizuoka in about an hour, one hour on Tokaido Main Line can only get from Nagoya to Toyohashi (on New Rapid) or from Tokyo to Odawara (on Limited Express Odoriko), which are less than a half of the distance to Shizuoka (I actually took Limited Express Tokai from Shizuoka to Tokyo before being discontinued, and hated it because it was just too slow and waste of time compared to even Kodama trains on the Shinkansen).

            The other argument one could make to justify current Tokaido Shikansen service is difference in population, employment, and number of corporations between Shizuoka-Hamamatsu metro area and 3 largest metropolitan areas in Japan (Kanto, Keihanshin, and Chukyo). Even though Shizuoka-Hamamatsu area is home of some key large corporations, it has just 1/3 of population, 40 percent of population density and number of corporations basing, and a little more than 1/4 of employment compared to Chukyo region, the smallest of the 3 largest:

            In other words, it need a semi-express equivalent service serving Shizuoka and Hamamatsu while making all Nozomi trains to be an true express service connecting 3 largest metropolitan areas in Japan very frequently and as fast as possible because of the size of and density within each of these 4 metropolitan areas and trip demand potential.

            I think Alon use subways over Japanese conventional rail in this case because not many people know how Japanese conventional rail service structure looks like based on comments made by some regulars of this blog and interactions with professionals working in the railroad service planning in North America. Another way of characterizing the Shinkansen service is to a high-speed rail service operated just like Japanese conventional rail service in large metropolitan areas or on heavily-utilized passenger rail corridor in Japan but on the dedicated standard-gauge high-speed rail tracks using the high-speed rail trainsets, but again, this wouldn’t work well.

          • caelestor

            The Tokaido Shinkansen is a “subway” in that it has relatively high stop density for a HSR line, i.e. a station every 30 km. (For comparison, the Beijing – Shanghai HSR line only has a stop every 50 km.) A subway-like operation would have all Nozomi stop at an intermediate station like Shizuoka so that riders can transfer to / from local stations, but no station has the island platforms to support that. Furthermore, the current reality is that most riders want the fastest service between Tokyo and Nagoya / Kyoto / Osaka, so JR Central runs the majority of its trains as flight-level zero Nozomi.
            Subsequently, the Chuo Shinkansen is being built as a flight-level zero HSR line taking the shortest path between Tokyo and Nagoya / Osaka, with 1 tph at intermediate stops to pacify local prefectures. This would allow for all Tokaido Shinkansen trains to stop at Shizuoka and Hamamatsu, most trains to stop at Toyohashi, and more service to all the other stations, while reducing the number of overtakes that slow the Kodama trains too significantly.
            However, the Chuo Shinkansen is going to suffer from capacity issues because of the turnouts required to support the 1 local tph, so JR Central is likely going to price the Chuo Shinkansen to maximize profits. The Tokaido Shinkansen will still be at capacity, except it will resemble the Sanyo Shinkansen more, with most trains stopping at the currently underserved Shizuoka, Hamamatsu and Toyohashi stops.

        • Eric2

          This is a common practice with US commuter rail too. There is a line with let’s say 30 stops, the train only makes about 5 consecutive stops, then runs express to downtown. The idea is that suburb-to-suburb travel is minimal, and particularly with diesel trains the stop penalty for a fully local service is intolerable.

          Is there a reason why this would be a good idea for US commuter rail and a bad idea for Shinkansen, or vice versa?

          • Alon Levy

            It’s a terrible idea in US commuter rail, because frequency really matters, and people don’t just travel to (say) Manhattan. And it’s not even about diesel trains – the railroads that do this the most aggressively, the LIRR and Metro-North, run EMUs.

            Note that Japan barely does this. The Kodama makes all stops, the Nozomi makes only the major stops, and half the Hikari make major and semi-major stops. This is also how rapid trains work on commuter rail in Japan: the special rapids on the Chuo Rapid Line serve regularly-spaced major stops like Tachikawa and Kokubunji. Some of these trains drop to local service very far out, e.g. on the Ome branch, but it’s not LIRR-style 3-stops-then-nonstop.

            A hypothetical Metro-North timetable on this model might make all stops New Haven-Stamford, and then stop at Greenwich, then maybe Port Chester or Rye, then New Rochelle, then Fordham, then the Manhattan stops. LIRR trains following this paradigm would likewise never skip Mineola and Jamaica, whereas in fact some rush hour LIRR trains don’t bother stopping at either.

          • Eric2

            What you describe in the last paragraph is also the model of NYC subway express lines – many local stops in the outer boroughs, then a few express stops further in. I agree that it makes sense for regional/commuter and long-distance rail too.

          • adirondacker12800

            Very roughly with the same electrical system they can run two locals or one local and two expresses. They move more trains during peak by having more expresses. How many trains an hour does there have to be between Penn Station and Jamaica? If a few of them don’t stop in Jamaica that encourages people to avoid the trains that do stop in Jamaica. And gives them a slightly faster ride.

          • Matt da Silva

            This is why I was incredibly frustrated when Metropark was rebuilt from the ground up a few years back with side platforms instead of islands. Besides the time penalty to Acelas of having to shift to the local track, it means any shift of NJ Transit operations away from zone expresses towards a Japanse model is locked in by problematic platform layouts.

          • Phake Nick

            In Japan they have many different stop patterns because they have so much demand that number of vehicles operated have reached track capacity, and as the trains can be filled up even after stopping at just a few stops, it make sense for the train to not observe the remaining numbers of stops and head directly to destination. But I don’t think the frequency of most US regional rail for commuter traffic have such amount of demand/capacity situation?

        • Andrew in Ezo

          The Hikari services are basically divided into two service patterns: one hourly Hikari service runs Tokyo to Okayama, with stops including Shizuoka and Hamamatsu, and the regular big city stops, and then runs local Kyoto to Okayama. The other hourly Hikari is a Tokyo to Shin-Osaka service, with stops including Odawara or Toyohashi, and then running local Nagoya to Shin-Osaka. It’s in a way the utility player or “garbage man” of the Tokaido Shinkansen train service lineup, serving the tweener markets the Nozomi passes through but merits more than the 2tph Kodama.

    • Phake Nick

      While Japan have platform access control, there are still no requirement that passengers need to present at platform x minutes before departure, and even non-travellers can still get a platform ticket to access the platform

      • Sassy

        Alon did describe Shinkansen as “subway style” platform access control, which in Japan is afaik used for everything except rural stations. At least the JR East network also allows passengers to board using only Suica without buying anything ahead of time for unreserved seats, just like getting on a pretty much any other train (except rural pseudo-railbuses).

        Even if it’s a design choice instead of a technological advancement, it’s one of the most futuristic feeling parts of the Shinkansen passenger experience. It feels like you’re getting on a subway (including trains that stop precisely where they should every time and platform screen doors), except the interior feels like a (very comfy) airplane, and when you arrive, you’re half way across the country, but it feels like you just go off the subway.

    • Alon Levy

      China has fixed pricing at low rates. And Germany has less dynamic pricing than France and the same approximate fares per p-km.

      • df1982

        China is a bad comparison though because it’s a middle-income country. German pricing for ICE trains can be pretty dynamic. A trip like Berlin-Frankfurt can range from €30 to €140. I would call that dynamic. It also has the Bahncard which has a very high take-up, enabling cheaper trips for regular users. What does SNCF do? I’m guessing some kind of frequent flyer system?

        • Max Wyss

          The “dynaymic” fares in Germany are not yield management fares, because a certain Sparpreis costs the same, independently of the train (assuming that the fare is available).

          There are two (well, three) levels of Bahncard; 25, 50 and 100; 25 and 50 give a respective discount; 100 is a general pass. These reductions do lead to a different fare price, but the ticket category is the same (in other words, there are no contingents for Bahncard 25 or Bahncard 50; there are, however, some seats in ICEs reserved for Bahncard 100 passengers, which can be used otherwise, but if someone with a Bahncard 100 comes, you’d have to leave that seat.

          SNCF does have some discount cards (frequent traveller, elderly, youth), where the discount applies after a certain ticket category has been selected.

          • Herbert

            But DB will offer less Sparpreis tickets on a train where they can sell more expensive tickets…

    • anonymouse observer

      I agree. KTX got more French/TGV influence than they got from Shinkansen not because of the technology choice or geopolitics but service structure, such as:
      – Branching (as you mentioned);
      – Multiple terminals in Seoul (Yongsan for KTX Honam Line, Cheongnyangni for KTX Gangneung Line, and SRT Suseo);
      – Heavy emphasis on one-seat ride from the Capital;
      – Relying on conventional rail track for big city access and branch line service (though some have been eliminated) and capacity issue on the shared segment near the Capital,
      – Many mid-line smaller city stations built in “beet field” locations,
      – No fare gates at stations, and;
      – Fare structure (no integration with conventional rail service or metro rail service)

      I think the only commonalities between KTX and Shinkansen would be heavy use of tunnels and elevated structure (probably due to mountainous topography) and adoption of EMU (though it was originally push-pull configuration like TGV or TGV-mod).

      • Herbert

        To be fair, the Seoul area is gargantuan and dominates South Korea far more than Paris dominates France…

        • Luke

          I think the point is that unlike Tokyo, where the “termini” of the various Shinkansen are physically connected by rail at Tokyo Station, and through service is at least possible in theory, Seoul’s KTX/SRT lines truly terminate at different points in the city, and at least until the GTX regional rail service is substantially complete, there won’t be any physical connection to make through service feasible. More than the fact of the city’s size (undeniable though its dominance of South Korea is), the multiple termini have to be credited in part to the fact that the city is very multipolar (around Gangnam, Jongno, and Yeouido), and the poles are quite far apart (unlike Tokyo’s Minato, Chiyoda, and Shinjuku) with centers roughly corresponding to the stations. An upcoming one in Gangnam underneath Yeongdong-daero will bring KTX/SRT service from Suseo to Gangnam’s center.

          • Phake Nick

            But as Korean railway labor union have pointed out, such multi-terminal approach is killing the frequency and the separate booking platform by multiple companies are killing the convenient of railway travel, especially when one is travelling to/from lower demand branch/intermediate stations. Even if the SRT is extended via GTX into Seoul station (I forget was it part of the plan), their boarding area and ticketing will still be so vastly different that passengers cannot just arrive at Seoul Station and have an easy way to pick when will the next train to their destination be departing.
            And then when it come to Tokyo, the challenge would be how to connect passengers from Chuo Shinkansen to Tohoku Shinkansen

          • Phake Nick

            Speak of which, Tokyo also have plans to make a new Shinkansen terminal at Shinjuku, but the cost made them think twice about it, and thus now they’re just trying to use the existing tracks and platforms and stations more efficiently.

    • yuuka

      But you can fill more seats, no?

      I think there are already some doomsday predictions for the shinkansen expansion to Sapporo, with the high fares compared to the many budget airlines that operate Narita-New Chitose.

      That said, JR East (eki-net) and JR Tokai both sell discounted tickets for early booking…

  3. Max Wyss

    About France: The original idea of the high speed lines was to operate them with gas turbine-powered trains (the TGV 001 was a Turbotrain à Grande Vitesse). Fortunately, the oil shock in 1973 ended these ideas.

    The reason for Paris – Lyon as first segment was because the main line was, despite 4-tracked over some distance, running at capacity. So, a new line was justified.

    No intermediate stations… as soon as you have left the outer burbs of Paris, you run through no-mans land. Yes, Dijon is a bigger place, but too far off the route (but Dijon got served with TGVs, running towards Switzerland). The two new intermediate stations were pretty much political, to make believe that the touched Départements had their TGV to Paris.

    The first station the TGV used in Lyon was Brotteaux, just about near the station throat of todays Part Dieu station. I’d have to look up when they built Part Dieu; there is more space than Brotteaux. Perrache is not suitable for a north-south connection, as it is on the other side of the Rhône river. It is, however, the terminal for some Paris-Lyon only TGVs.

    A personal anecdote: About 2 weeks after the first TGV line opened, I got a railpass for France, to sample the TGV as a day trip. Taking the “Arbalète” from Zürich to Paris as first leg. But the regular line was closed, so we got detoured via Strasbourg – Nancy… the comfortable 1h40 or so connection shrank to a bit more than half an hour. So, no RER to the Gare de Lyon, but a Taxi; i told the driver that “je suis un peu pressé”… well, he deserved a generous tip… TGVs always required reservations, but with a railpass, I didn’t have one. However, they had a reservation vending machine at the platform, where you could buy one up to about 3 minutes before departure. Got one, got on the train, and on the way we were. The ride was uneventful, but a bit shaky (because they were using helical coil springs, vibrations got through (and for some time “TGV” stood for Train à Grandes Vibrations); they fixed that pretty quickly by switching to air bags… and since then, the TGVs run very smooth. From Lyon Brotteaux, I had a connection to the Catalan Talgo for Genève, from where I took one of the many ICs back to Zürich…

    Anyway, the route towards the Southeast got expanded, and as part of the first segment south of Lyon, they built the bypass with the station at the Satolas airport (aka Lyon Saint-Exupéry). However, there are no trains between Satolas and Gare de Lyon; the trains stopping at Satolas use the Paris bypass (with stops in Marne la Valléé and CDG airport), and continue towards the North. Trains towards Avignon – Marseille and beyond either do not stop in Lyon at all, or they stop at Part Dieu.

    Anyway, SNCF made the fatal error to hire phased out airline managers. That lead to the idiotic yield management (well, if a high speed rail system uses yield management, it is a sign that the service level is lousy, IMHO). This eventually lead to the OuiGo concept (which is ridiculously expensive to operate (blocking a whole platform for at least half an hour and needing a dozen staff at the station…). One has to consider OuiGo as a way of SNCF to block open access operators by gobbling up paths.

    (the ironic thing is that SNCF exactly does with OuiGo_ES in Spain what they wanted to prevent with OuiGo (F) in France; a nice example of bigottery…).

    • Alon Levy

      I was on a train to Paris that stopped at Saint-Exupéry – could it be that they’ve changed the stopping pattern since then? It would’ve been either the summer of 2010 or the end of 2016.

      And how come your TGV trip was Zurich-Paris-Lyon? Wouldn’t it have been faster to get from Zurich direct to Lyon via Geneva and then take the TGV to Paris?

      I think of OuiGo as less conspiratorial than this, even though SNCF is conspiring about other things (RENFE electrical interference…). The entire discourse in France was about the need to innovate like low-cost airlines, and the Spinetta report asserts that Ryanair has lower per-seat-km costs than the TGV, when you exclude airport infrastructure but (I believe) include LGV infrastructure. “Lower costs at outlying airports” is common enough for Ryanair, so SNCF tried to do the same, never mind that rail works differently and at no point was the Gare de Lyon throat at capacity.

      • Max Wyss

        Zürich – Paris was the “good old” EC Arbalète; can’t remember whether it had Swiss or French cars. At that time, the only TGVs to Switzerland came to Genève. A bit later, they introduced the tricourant sets, which could go to Lausanne and Bern (-Zürich).

        They may have changed the routing over the years, so Lyon Saint-Exupéry – Paris Gare de Lyon were/will be possible.

        Thing is that they already had a low-cost variant, IdTGV, which worked absolutely well.

        OuiGo caused a serious brouhaha. There are a considerable number of commuters between Avignon and Marseille. During the useful time (16:30 to 18:30), all of a sudden two third of the trains were made OuiGo, of course not accepting passes etc. I think they did find some solution, but not really satisfactory…

      • Phake Nick

        Assuming what the other commenter said about Ouigo is true then they aren’t really learning from LCC, the most important thing about LCC is the efficient and heavy use of vehicles reducing dwell time and saving on operational expense

        • Herbert

          Well, Ryanair has (at many but not all airports) quite personnel intensive “pre boarding zones” which take up the space needed to fit 189 people for an hour and a half, but then airports have more real estate to work with…

    • Herbert

      The trains on Corsica are to this day sometimes called “train a grand vibration” but then they are slow narrow gauge trains…

  4. Max Wyss

    About Germany: As stated, high speed lines were built to support the classic network, and not as a system on its own. And, in particular, the Hannover – Würzburg line, was also used by IC (loco-hauled, 200 km/h) trains. From the beginning, the German high speed network consisted of NBS (Neubaustrecken, such as Hannover – Würzburg, or Frankfurt Flughafen – Köln), and ABS (Ausbaustrecken, such as Hannover – Hamburg, or Hamburg – Berlin, where the maximum speed was raised to 220 km/h or so, but not new builds).

    The key feature of German high speed is that it was set up as a network from the beginning; of course, it had its roots in the IC network, where lines (with numbers) and timed connections were introduced. This allowed for more cities to get fast connections than with a dedicated high speed “network”. This also suits better with Germany’s polycentric structures.

    The standard maximum speed on most high speed lines is 250 km/h. However, if there is a delay, the driver is allowed to do 280. That allows to catch up a few minutes, getting to the next node in time.

    Germany’s high speed stands out with the comfort of the trains (ambiance, space, seats, etc.). And, the lack of yield management (selling a limited number of Sparpreis tickets is not yield management, because their price does not vary from train to train). (They say that under the Mehdorn era, they tried yield management, but it did backfire big time; in Germany, (and Switzerland, and the Netherlands), rail travel means “freedom”; something to really keep in mind).

    A side note to Switzerland, and why there is no real high speed line: The Swiss principle is the Takt, and that leads to the principle “not as fast as possible, just as fast as necessary” … and it works…

    • Alon Levy

      I was alluding to the run-as-fast-as-necessary principle, talking about how it wouldn’t do much good to speed Zurich-Bern-Basel beyond 53-56 minutes on each connection. But this is also related to country size. Switzerland is small, so Zurich-Bern should be either 56 or 26-27 minutes, and getting to 27 requires 300 km/h and Korean levels of tunneling. But in Germany the cities are spaced farther apart, so it’s possible using 300-320 km/h running to get Berlin-Erfurt down to an hour and Leipzig-Erfurt down to 30 minutes, and likewise squeeze Stuttgart-Munich to an hour, Hanover-Bielefeld to 30 minutes, Bielefeld-Dortmund to 30 minutes, Hanover-Hamburg to 45 minutes, etc. (I’ve seen German rail advocates claim Hanover-Bielefeld can’t be done in less than 30 minutes because the average speed requires long nonstop stretches as in France, which is nonsense; it’s 100 km in flat terrain, doing it in 27 minutes is doable by comparison with Nagoya-Kyoto, which is a 285 km/h and not 300 km/h line.)

      • Phake Nick

        I don’t get why the speed have to be right less than 1 or 0.5 hours. If it is faster then it will be faster for passengers travelling between any points on the line, and schedule integrity and connection still can be achieved by passengers and trains waiting at station after finishing the trip faster

        • Alon Levy

          Because there’s a long tail of connections like St. Gallen-Biel, which gain nothing from making Zurich-Basel faster unless it fits into a new takt, which it doesn’t. Remember, here in Euro-land we’re very urban but “urban” means “historic urban area of 300,000,” especially in smaller countries that are not Denmark, whereas half of South Korea lives in metro Seoul an half of Japan lives in metro Tokyo, Osaka, and Nagoya.

          • Phake Nick

            It would still benefit quite a bit direct passengers, while connecting passengers journey time wouldn’t be penalized by shorter train travel time if they have to stay on platform a few more minutes.

          • Alon Levy

            Yeah, it would, but most passengers aren’t direct, and the cost of speedups isn’t zero. So if there’s money in the budget, it’s generally better to create more knots, as is the case for the Bahn 2035 plans.

          • Herbert

            Go to the average Swiss interchange station and see how many people change trains

          • Phake Nick

            That is not really possible under the current ongoing pandemic.
            Plus, even if there are one or two hundred passengers changing trains at train station, they would still be relatively minority of the entire train’s capacity?

        • Richard Mlynarik

          I don’t get why the speed have to be right less than 1 or 0.5 hours. If it is faster then it will be faster for passengers travelling between any points on the line, and schedule integrity and connection still can be achieved by passengers and trains waiting at station after finishing the trip faster

          I don’t think you understand how completely Takt-integrated Switzerland is, or how heavily used station tracks (and main line tracks, even by Japanese standards) are, or how heavy transfer traffic is in a very multi-polar network.

          If a train runs “too fast” not only do passengers have to wait longer for connections — maybe having to make an extra break to find a place to wait in the station waiting for the connecting train to arrive — but there is nearly never a place in the station for the train to wait, while any immediate reversal and return would almost certainly conflict with heavy and Takt-locked traffic around the station.

          Now if you were talking, say, a completey separate and non-integrated Zürich-Bern (or whatever) shuttle line with separate tracks and separate platforms from the rest of the network and captive trains, maybe that could work (oh, and “separate platforms” means “added trip time” because the only place to put new platforms is below existing station platforms) but that sort of thing has been proposed and studied and costed and not funded.

          And then of course there is always this sort of nonsense:

          • Herbert

            If you strap people in and accelerate them at 9.81 ms ^-2 you can get the train to 300 km/h even in Switzerland…

          • Max Wyss

            Swissmetro: Hypyloop done right… Actually, they were pretty close to getting the concession for building the line, but then SBB (which was a partner) chickened out, in favour of Bahn2000 and the integrated Takt…

          • df1982

            Could you do the Zurich-Bern-Basel triangle in 45min legs, with 15min frequencies? That way each train has Takt connections at one end (with trains alternating which one is connecting), and I would say the vast majority of journeys involve a destination at one of the core cities (i.e. there aren’t that many people travelling from a village near Bern to a village near Zurich). Yeah, a bit more complicated than the current system, but the travel time savings on the main trunk would be nothing to sneeze at.

          • Phake Nick

            I am talking about passenger spending extra time at transfer station waiting for connection still wouldn’t result in longer overall door to door time.
            Trains can continue travel onward instead of immediately reversing
            And so how much transfer traffic is there in actual? Are they more than 50% of the train?

          • Max Wyss

            @df1982: It would be feasible, but quite expensive, as it would involve some very long tunnels. Scheduling should be possible, but it would break the hourly nodes in Zürich, Basel and Bern.

          • Richard Mlynarik

            Trains can continue travel onward instead of immediately reversing

            Nick, you just don’t get it!

            “Trains continue onward” on which tracks exactly? Either on the same segregated tracks (in which case just keep throwing money at tunnels forever) or … these off-Takt trains have to slot in on existing tracks with existing heavy traffic and so they have to be Takt-locked themselves. Contradiction.

            There really are only two choices: segregated tracks and platforms, or Takt integration. Running random trains at random speeds at random times just isn’t an option.

            Off-topic!, this shows only inter-regional passenger traffic of Switzerland, not S-Bahn and no freight:

            Here’s what a how an section of existing 4-track-narrowing-to-2-track-back-to-4-track line is presently scheduled (Bern-Aarau, shown in as “OO” and “AA”) which is progressively being rebuilt to four tracks throughout. You can’t just throw random extra trains into that, before or after the build-out. It’s the same everywhere you’d want to run more trains — there are so many trains already.

          • Herbert

            Not to mention that mixing speeds eats capacity faster than having everything swim at more or less the same speed…

          • Phake Nick

            If you mean coordination between different trains on same tracks, shouldn’t speed boost affect all trains sharing the same tracks and thus, let say if a segment travel time is shortened to 21 minutes instead of 28 minutes, isn’t it possible for all trains there from other direction to shift their schedule and meet at that station at :23 and :53 instead of :30 and :00?

          • Alon Levy

            No. This shift only works if you expect connections to happen in just one direction. As soon as connections happen in more than one direction, you lose the ability to connect if you shift times too much.

          • Phake Nick

            Given trains in Switzerland appears to connect by one major backbone, couldn’t trains in every other directions be re-timed to match the sped up main corridor?

    • Phake Nick

      Thing is, the world’s fastest high speed trains operating at 350km/h, are already 60%+ faster than 220km/h. This is bigger than the difference in speed between conventional rail and high speed rail in Germany. Resulting in a number of longer distance travel pairs needing 4 or 5 hours while they could be done faster and attract more passengers.
      And building a high speed trunk line to fit in conventional network only make sense if you are building a conventional speed network instead of a high speed network. Polycentric is no excuse of only building only a line between. Not to mention important Germany cities from Rhine-Ruhr to Frankfurt to Stuttgart to Munich and from Rhine-Ruhr to Hanover to Berlin are on a line. Those who plan and build Germany’s high speed network just choose to build high speed lines within conventional network instead of creating a new high speed network.

      • Herbert

        The speed gains of 350 km/h vs 300 km/h are minimal. It’s much more worthwhile to speed up slower sections. Or to replace dead end stations with through stations. Which, incidentally, is one of the components of Germany’s most controversial railway project, Stuttgart 21

    • df1982

      Why does the Sparpreis not count as yield management? In my experience, unless you’re travelling on a Friday or other peak times you have the option of a full price flexi-fare (meaning it’s valid for any train and you can cancel with a refund), and a Sparpreis attached to a specific itinerary. Up until a few days before departure the Sparpreis will usually offer significant discounts over the full fare, but the prices for these tickets ramp up the fuller the train gets. This sounds like yield management to me. It’s exactly what most airlines do.

      And it makes a difference for travellers. When I studied in Germany I basically never caught an ICE because it was prohibitively expensive, and discount tickets were hard to come by. Nowadays it only requires a little bit of advanced planning and avoidance of peak travel times to be able to find a reasonably priced ticket.

      • Max Wyss

        Because a Sparpreis for a certain relation always costs the same. Yield management has variable pricing for each and every individual train.

        • df1982

          That’s splitting hairs, though. You look up a certain train journey four weeks from departure and the Sparpreis is €30. Then look again two weeks later and it’s gone up to €50, while the flexi price remains the same at €100 (or whatever). It might be a little less arcane than France or the UK, but it’s still yield management, and it’s exactly what DB does for intercity journeys.

  5. Martin Kolk

    Just of curiosity, what is the problem with dynamic pricing? I think most of the academic literature is in favor. It is basically pricing scarce high-demand tickets more, and ensuring fewer in-demand trains don’t run empty. Sure, it is very annoying as a tourist, and has real costs in ease of use, but to me, those drawbacks are much smaller than the extra efficiency gains that bring very real savings for people that take less in demand trains. It has of course to be combined with real infrastructure to buy (occasionally more expensive) tickets if you just show up for the train, but that seems very feasible. After all, no one suggests year-round fixed prices on oranges, but let the price fall and rise with supply and demand. And everywhere in the world (I know no exception), high-speed rail is basically already so expensive that it is out-pricing lower income indivduals (with both China and Japan being very obvious examples).

    The kind of half-assed promotion (and holiday etc) tickets that German, Japanese, and Taiwanese high speed rail use to fill empty trains seem like a very bad compromise, to solve similar problems. The Taiwanese also have so underpriced trains on some routs that it seems as like 50% of days are sold out completely when tickets are released a few months early.

    In particular, if you one is in favor of high frequencies over the entire day the case for dynamic pricing seems to be even stronger, as all those empty trains at less-in-demand hours then can outcompete intercity buses, airplanes, and cars on price (poor people taking a late evening train for slightly less, than they would have spent on a much longer but more convenient timed bus).

    • Max Wyss

      “dynamic pricing” in the sense of yield management is really bad, because it prevents any kind of flexibility. It has some very limited reason to be when there is maybe one or two trains per day. But for more dense schedules, it is pure poison.

      There are means to fill up lower use trains, but such tickets should not be tied to a specific train (example, a ticket not valid before 9:00, to relieve the morning peak).

      “dynamic pricing” is also not really working within a network. There is always some travel before the high speed train, and some after. “dynamic pricing” can not properly include that.

      “dynamic pricing” leads to a rather complicated fare structure, where the cost to maintain and enforce can be higher than its gains.

      And, as said elsewhere, the worst a rail operator can get is a phased out airline manager… you find proof all over the world…

      • Martin Kolk

        Are you sure? An obvious comparison is indeed airlines, which operate with a network structure, and with very frequent schedules.

        European airlines had pretty much-fixed prices much like trains until the 1980s, and then it was also out pricing nearly everyone except the upper-middle class. The growth of airlines competing on price may have been disastrous for train travel but has certainly been very beneficial for the opportunities of low-income people to travel. So if anything, I think the history of air travel, really highlights the advantages with dynamic pricing. Do anyone really want to turn airline travel back to the 1970s and 1980s?

        The example of dynamic pricing I am most familiar with is Sweden, where it seems to work pretty well (China seems to use It pretty much all over the system, though the maximum price seems quite low, so trains still frequently sell out). It breaks down when there are massive delays, but then the companies are in practice pretty flexible (and the real scandal is the frequent system-wide delays).

        A real drawback you identify is that you get tied to a specific train, but it could be alleviated by always allowing tickets to be changed to other same-day trains (for a fee of course), or some kind of broader slotting. And as long as you have seating you are in any case still always tied to a specific train, and lots of high-speed rail to not allow you to change trains at will except the one you have a seat for, because of safety regulations against standing passangers.

        There are of course limits to dynamic pricing, no one suggests it for regional or local public transit. And those connecting trains would be taken within such modes of transport.

        In any case, once the European train market actually start following EU directives and allows different actors to run trains on the same tracks, I think you will get dynamic pricing pretty much by default.

        • Herbert

          There is no good reason to disallow standing passengers and in fact German ICEs have standees quite often

        • Tonami Playman

          Dynamic pricing is attractive on airline operations as a tool to optimize capacity utilization. This is due to the high operating cost per trip and inflexibility in absorbing excess passengers (no standing passengers on planes but they are frequent on German ICEs, Chinese HSR and Shinkansen especially between Shin-Yokohama and Tokyo). In contrast, HSR has relatively low operating cost per trip and is elastic enough to absorb excess passengers as standees for brief periods on certain segments.

          Most airline managers that try to impose this on train operations drawing from their experience in airlines miss this aspect. In order to maximize profitability, Airlines strive for high load factors. Currently global average is about 82%, meanwhile the Shinkansen is between 61% -79% depending on the line. Airlines even go as far as overbooking each flight to account for last minute cancellations hence the practice of dragging people off the planes even if they have a valid ticket when too many people show up for the flight.

          • ericson2314

            I would go as far as to say the private sector in general produces people unable to understand low operating costs. The “value creation” vs “value capture” difference in goals promotes a certain sort of thinking around unit economics which is just really bad for infrastructure.

          • Herbert

            Still there is the issue that you cannot run more trains than you have at the peak and not more trains than the infrastructure allows. So you hit a real capacity ceiling at the peak. Whereas off-peak the marginal costs of running a train vs letting it sit idle in the depot are pretty low. So there is good reason to entice those who have a choice away from your crowded and into your less crowded trains. If you know of a better mechanism to do this then price, do tell…

          • Phake Nick

            Actually, ability to spread out the peak is useful on train network, as the number of trains needed to operate on peak hour/season determine the total number of trains you need to pay for the purchase and maintenance. Fewer passengers at peak mean you need fewer train vehicles (instead of just idling the train) and hence lower cost
            Hence Japan is trying various form of dynamic pricing on various trains too

          • Martin Kolk

            I have several times waited several hours for trains with empty seats at Chinese HSR stations, because standing passengers were not allowed. Once aboard the train there were no standing passengers (nor have I ever seen it in western and central China).

            Maybe it is allowed for short distances on the East Coast for city pairs like Shanghai-Nanjing.

        • Phake Nick

          Rail line have much higher fixed cost of infrastructure than aircraft.
          Dynamic pricing on airlines help bringing down ticket price for air travel by forcing the popularizing of no-frill services, increase vehicle utilization rate, using more efficient aircraft, increase operation efficiency, and reduce wasting money on non-profitable routes and excess service, but those aren’t factors that make much sense on high speed rail, given most part of the cost of high speed rail come from construction instead of operation, and in cases like Japan where passengers are being overcharged for high speed rail the profit goes into supporting local rail lines (Although, to some, it might be desired to cut such subsidy to unprofitable local rail line in order to cut train fare). And then things like increased operation efficiency and lower service price by providing no-frill service are something rail companies can actively implement on their own without having to draw in new competitors.
          Another thing of note is, HSR already compete with airlines, including LCC, even if airlines aren’t operating on the track. ANd thus they are already receiving competition pressure.

          • Herbert

            The social benefits of rural rail service vastly outpace the costs of subsidizing them

          • Herbert

            There are virtually no routes where hsr goes head to head with Ryanair or the likes on routes where the train takes four hours or less. No, subsidiaries of flag carriers like Eurowings don’t count…

          • Alon Levy

            OuiGo simultaneously tried to cut operating costs by going from 8 conductors per 400-meter train to 4 (Shinkansen: 3), but with gate staff, there was no saving; it was impossible to engage in layoffs, I can’t tell whether because of limits to the operating paradigm or because the cheminots threatened to go on strike. (Bear in mind, headcounts in Japan are consistently lower than in Europe.) One of the causes of SNCF’s recent fiscal losses is that ticket fare revenue fell – average TGV fares have been 0.10€/km for a decade and while our inflation is low it is not zero – whereas operating expenses did not.

            JR fares aren’t subsidizing money-losing regional lines. JR East and West got rid of those lines and are if anything underinvesting in regional rail in secondary cities where trains could make more money if they ran better, like Sendai. JR Central is losing money on the Nagoya commuter trains, I think, but those losses are a rounding error. The Shinkansen prints money; the 23¥/km fares go to profits, not subsidies for weak lines.

          • Phake Nick

            – But what about, like, utilization of rail vehicle? Do they publish figures like, each individual train they own would run for how many hours revenue service on track on average each day, and how that figure compares to other services?
            – JRs are getting rid of lines that lose money massively but overall they still have many lines that not as much but are still losing money. Tons of lines that lost money up to 5x or even more the total revenue of the line are still being deemed acceptable and are continually operated by those rail companies. Those aren’t lines around primary or even secondary cities. And more in point is JR Hokkaido which is expected to depends on the extension of Hokkaido Shinkansen to Sapporo in order to cancel out their entire operation loses from operating conventional lines. While you can say these revenue from Shinkansen are for profit and losses on local lines are little compares to that, those are still losses that wouldn’t be acceptable for those railway companies if they didn’t have such income source, as examplated by JR West and JR Kyushu recent declaration to discuss the future of local lines amid the Shinkansen ridership dropped significantly which impact their company financial performance.

          • borners

            @Alon Levy we need to make a distinction between regional lines and what Japanese call “local” lines outside the major urban areas. The regional mainlines are doing pretty well especially with the revival in freight. Its the local lines where the losses are concentrated, ones that connect minor cities to towns likes the Yamada line going east from Morioka, the Banetsu line connecting Koriyama and Iwaki etc. And you are right that they are not properly trying to co-ordinate with shinkansen connections, though I wonder if this a result of too much focus on urban Japan where frequency is so high co-ordination doesn’t matter so much. There isn’t much discussion of Germanic Takt practices and timed connections in Japanese, mostly cooing over streetcars if they notice Germany etc at all. Even though the Daiya system is most of the way to a national takt already….

            @Phake Nick Are you talking about the Senzan line? I saw in google maps its recommending trains. That was a shock given that Yamagata and Sendai are big by Tohoku standards. I think a lot of these lines are entering frequency death spirals. Curiously Willier buses has taken over some of those ex-JR loss making lines in rural Kyoto prefecture and has implemented an aggressive tourism plus clockface frequency strategy, its gotten a lot of good press, but it only seems to have stabilized the Tango area’s ridership.

          • Phake Nick

            @borners There are more than a few cases according to my knowledge, Sendai to Yamagata is one such pair, but there are also like a number of Hokkaido intercity routes, some intra-Shikoku and intra-Kyushu services, Hiroshima to San’in, Niigata to Hokuriku, and so on. For these destination pairs, highway buses usually have comparable speed (sometimes a bit slower but sometimes they can also be faster than train) and cheaper fare than trains and more frequency.

          • borners

            For anyone who’s interested Takeshi here has done quite detailed lists of the troubled local routes of JR Hokkaido, JR West and East.

            @Phake Nick That makes sense in Sanin the alignments to Hiroshima are terrible. But Niigata-Hokuriku should not be its all electrified with decent population they should be outcompeting highway buses, but I guess they want to protect Shinkansen revenue?

          • Phake Nick

            @borners After the break down of conventional line into multiple 3-sector railway for each prefecture along the high speed line according to law following the opening of Shinkansen, those new 3-sector companies only have enough capacity to keep running local services, maybe with some timetable coordination, and a little bit of through running. This is because the rule say intercity traffic should be transferred to high speed rail instead and the slow rail which became redundant after the construction of high speed rail should be funded and managed by local governments and community. And as such they aren’t capable of attracting intercity travel demand. In addition, the demand between Niigata and Hokuriku isn’t that large, hence bus have the advantage of frequency over rail.

          • Phake Nick

            @Alon Envy there is one thing I forgot to mention: When the Shinkansen initially opens, its fare, as well as fare for entire Japan’s rail network, was relatively low. But due to debt of Shinkansen construction, worsening operational environment on conventional lines due to motorization, shift of intercity passengers from conventional line limited express to Shinkansen, and concentration of population at large cities away from smaller cities, as well as because of inflation and rising cost and labor struggle demanding better pay, the fare of JNR, the Japan National Railway, jumped significantly throughout 1970s-1980s, and that make the rail travel especially the high speed rail travel, expensive. After the privatization, the fare didn’t see much further rise, but it was also the period when Japanese economy stopped rising and somewhat stagnate, and thus despite the financial performance of various JRs have became healthier, the fare are still being felt as expensive as it is compared to other modes of travelling. Meanwhile, deregulation of long-distance bus have resulted in a significant drop in long distance bus fare. And as a result the gap between bus vs high speed rail fare in Japan is significant. And considering the history why JNR have to rise the fare this much, I would say the losses on the conventional line is one of the rather significant factor.
            It is also not unheard of for people to say the financial performance of JR Shikoku and JR Hokkaido can be saved by profit from building and operating Shinkansen to them, and JR Hokkaido is actually anticipating to move toward such path with its current finance state being bankrupt-unless-government-help and is expected to convert into profit-making after the opening of Hokkaido Shinkansen Sapporo Extension in FY2030, hence essentially using the profit of high speed rail to cover the entire island’s conventional rail losses.

          • Eric2

            Is the Shinkansen at full capacity (at least at peak hours)? That would explain both a bad modeshare and expensive tickets. The obvious solution then is to build a parallel line (as they are doing, Chuo Shinkansen).

          • Phake Nick

            @Eric2 At least Joetsu, Hokuriku, Kyushu, Hokkaido Shinkansen are far from filling up afaik. They anticipated many commuters in peak hour on Joetsu Shinkansen and built the double deck high speed trains, but their retirement speak for themselves in term of demand. But then, adjusting Shinkansen fare is something that needs to involve all 6 JR companies to sit down and agree on which is something very hard to get done, especially since it also involve how revenue are shared between different companies. IIRC This is one big reason that JR Central want their new Chuo Shinkansen completely detached from the pre-existing rail network, just so that they can introduce their own ticketing system and no need to worry about coordination with other JR companies.

    • Henry Miller

      It is about trade offs. For airplanes the majority of the cost is fuel to get the plane in the air. The difference in costs between a plane that is full to max weight, and a plane that only has the crew on board isn’t very much. Thus the fuller the plane the less each passenger needs to pay to make money (or the more profit to extract)

      For trains the costs are mostly track maintenance (and initial building costs if this isn’t already paid off). As such running two half full trains as opposed to one full train isn’t much difference in overall costs. Better yet, the more frequent trains are more convent for potential customers. So as trains get close to full you should add more trains to the schedule – passengers will respond by riding more and this will more than make up the cost of the new train.

      There are two issues to acknowledge here.

      Dynamic pricing will make slightly more money in the short run since a full train where you charge top dollar to those who will pay (turning away some who would like to get on but can’t afford it). In the long run more people using the train will result in more money for the operator as economic growth will grow more riders

      Eventually you reach track capacity. the busiest tracks get to 30 tph, but HSR currently doesn’t get over 12 (I think you could get to 20 TPH, but it probably isn’t worth the investment in the R&D required to make it safe). Once you can’t get more people down the track then dynamic pricing is a useful way to control train capacity. (of course if you have this many riders you should be able to justify more tracks someplace to take load off)

      • Tonami Playman

        @Henry Miller, Phake Nick shared this link in an earlier post
        It highlights how JR Central was able to squeeze 2 extra Nozomi trains onto the existing schedule by reducing cleaning times from 12mins to 10mins. The prior schedule had 10 Nozomi, 2 Hikari, 3 Kodama, and 3 depot runs. for a total of 18tph, the new schedule added 2 more for a total of 20tph. So 20tph is already in operation since March 2020 with no safety issues, but very few places on the planet require this intensity of HSR service.

      • Sassy

        > Dynamic pricing will make slightly more money in the short run since a full train where you charge top dollar to those who will pay (turning away some who would like to get on but can’t afford it). In the long run more people using the train will result in more money for the operator as economic growth will grow more riders

        It can also help fill the train at off peak times, which can make more money, while taking traffic away from air travel and cars. I think the high price of Shinkansen, even at very low demand periods, could be part of why air travel is more popular than it is in similar distance routes in Europe (cars are unpopular because tolls are comparatively expensive vs Europe).

        I think a DB Sparpreis style pseudo dynamic pricing scheme makes a lot of sense as a middle ground between the unpredictability of fully dynamic pricing, and the high price of effectively “Flexpreis Only” tickets that can lose passengers to less efficient modes.

        • Herbert

          In a very real sense the marginal seat at the peak is more expensive to produce than off peak. So why not let pax bear at least some of the price difference?

          • Henry Miller

            What trade off are you trying to optimize? If you want passengers to get on without thinking, then you don’t want to optimize for that. If you want maximum revenue, then you do make passengers bear the costs of peak seats. However for the most passengers (and most political power) you want all passengers on an unlimited ride monthly pass, which means you can’t yield manage nearly as effectively. Your income is a lot more predictable though. Trade offs, you can’t have both. For HSR you can go either way. For local transit your top metric should be % of passengers on the unlimited pass.

          • Herbert

            You want to spread the “variable” demand (“I could travel at the peak time, but if I am enticed not to, I will not”) to the off-peak trains. Also: hsr by its nature has far fewer people who commute daily with those services – and those already have Bahn Card 100 and the likes

          • Henry Miller

            Is HSR has peaky? Genuine question, I have no data here. People who need to get to work in the morning have peaks, but I would expect HSR to have that problem less just because the longer journeys mean that there is a larger set of times for meeting at the end. That is you get up early to meet people, or plan to arrive in the middle of the day.

            To some extent the reputation of busy times will limit peaks. When people find out (and you can help) that some trains you are nearly guaranteed a seat while others you may need to stand many will respond. Or better yet when things aren’t busy you can take up two seats and nobody cares.

            Again though, it is about trade offs. There are valid reasons to go both ways, but you lose the benefit of the other.

          • Herbert

            There is a definite peak Fridays after work lets out and Sunday evening…

          • Sassy

            > Is HSR has peaky?

            It can be. People can use HSR for daily commutes from exurbs, and the Tokaido Shinkansen gets up to 20TPH for morning rush. In addition, weekly commutes, weekend vacations, and national vacation times are also peaks.

          • Phake Nick

            HSR have peak over the season more significantly than over the hours. Especially around long holidays but also around regular friday evening/monday. but mid-day they also have lower demand than morning/evening

      • Martin Kolk

        As long as the cost of HSR is vastly above (as it is everywhere in the world) that of highway buses, cars, and conventional trains, and often low-cost flights, I think massive traffic increases have large societal value for the reasons you desribe. But a consequences of that is also that you must distinguish the very real differences in demand at different times of the day, which is only possible through dynamic prices.

        You want the prices of HSR at unattractive times to be less/comparable to those of cheaper modes of transportation, and you want that to be partly subsidized by higher fares for HSR at attractive times (where the added convenience means it easily competes with other modes of transportation).

        All of this is only possible with dynamic prices.

        Only the busiest lines in the world really run a full schedule 16-18 hours a day, everywhere else they run a much sparser schdeule in order to maximise revenue during those peak times. Though train companies that want to be profitable (in particular if they are restricted to non-dynamic prices) will of course scream loudly for more capacity at peak hours. It is not exactly common with HSR in the world that run 25 tph at 06:00. If you could run those trains with cheaper prices, there would be massive societal gain (as most people would prefer a HSR taking 2 hours at 06:00, over a bus taking 5 hours at a more convenient time, given the same price).

        • Eric2

          I think customer-friendly dynamic pricing could work as follows:
          “You have bought seat 34C on the 8:47 train from A to B for $30. You can use this ticket for any trip between A and B at any time that sells for $30 or less, but you are only guaranteed a seat on the 8:47 train. If you want to travel at a peak time where tickets are $35, use the app to pay $5 more to upgrade.”

          • Henry Miller

            That doesn’t work though because you have assigned a seat. Assigned seats is consumer friendly when the train is full because families who plan ahead can sit together (though some local cultures will have people shift seats as needed to make room). The assigned seat means they can sell standing only tickets (for less). However all of the assigned seats advantages to dynamic pricing fail if you can just use your assigned seat ticket anytime because they cannot sell your seat to someone else lest you show up at the last minute.

            If you want to manage pricing once you are assigned a seat it needs to be paid for use it or not. You can have a system where someone can give up their seat – but only if someone else is on standby who wants it. You can allow refunds up to an hour before the train (the exact time is itself subject to change) , but if you have an assigned seat when the train leaves you pay for that seat even if you are not on the train.

            You can do dynamic pricing where when things are normally busy tickets are more expensive. However if you assign seats before people are committed to getting on that train you need them to use that seat (or at least pay for it) since there is an empty seat that you couldn’t put someone else on.

          • Eric2

            The idea is that 90% of the time (or 99%, or whatever you plan for) there are some unreserved seats on every train. So you’ll probably have a seat, and if not, you suck it up and deal with it and still get to your destination.

            Apps to reallocate seats at the last minute are a nice addition, but not foolproof because some people won’t bother to cancel.

    • Alon Levy

      It’s hauled by power cars, rather than distributed power. This has the following problems:

      1. Acceleration is weaker, which makes a difference if trains make relatively closely-spaced stops, as is common in the German and Japanese traditions.
      2. The power cars do not carry passengers, reducing in-train capacity. A single-level 16-car Shinkansen in 4-abreast format has 1,100 seats, which is a bit more than a similar-length double-deck TGV.

      South Korea, which had French influences early on and got TGV derivatives, transitioned to EMUs, with similar performance specs to those of Germany and China. The only holdouts on going all-EMU are France, with its love affair with bilevel TGVs, and Spain, with its love affair with the Talgo tilting sets.

      • Herbert

        Spain also bought Velaros, so if their management is capable of honest assessment, they just need to look at the fleet they have to know which way to proceed…

        • Mikel

          If you wan’t EMUs to go beyond 250 km/h, they have to be high-floor, which makes their dwell times worse than those of Talgos and single-level TGVs, but that’s only relevant to Europe with its large legacy of low platforms. The Velaro won the AVE contract in the early 2000s wich was awarded mostly on an acceleration basis — at that time it was the train that offered the shortest travel time for nonstop Madrid-Barcelona services, and dwell times are not very relevant on that service. In the 2016 contract, the Velaro lost to the Avril on both capacity and overall cost. Renfe is trusting Talgo for long-distance rolling stock but they have an all-EMU fleet for regional high-speed services.

          In addition to the Europe-specific advantage of low floors, Talgos also have the Spain-specific advantage of gauge-changing technology. CAF trainsets are capable of changing gauge too but have high floors. Also the Talgo passive tilting is just a nice-to-have; I don’t think it allows trains to run faster, unlike i.e. the Cascades.

          • Herbert

            Plus the “national pride” argument of having a domestic supplier

          • Mikel

            Yup, although that wasn’t explicitly considered in the technical or price score — I think the pride was more on the supplier side. Whereas Alstom, Siemens and Bombardier bid higher with their well-tested trains, both CAF and Talgo placed low bids with designs that at the time were just prototypes. So much so, in fact, that CAF was disqualified for “reckless underbidding”!

            After being awarded the contract, Talgo offered to include gauge change technology in half the ordered trains for no extra cost, but then they renegotiated up the maintenance part of the total price, (understandably) prompting complaints from the losing bidders. Alstom then tried (and ultimately failed) to get revenge through dirty tricks in the recent RER contract, but that’s a whole different story…

      • michaelrjames

        “A single-level 16-car Shinkansen in 4-abreast format has 1,100 seats, which is a bit more than a similar-length double-deck TGV.”

        This thing again. It’s really not as convincing as claimed. Greater capacity of those other trains depends on two things: (1) no cafe car; (2) five-across seating versus 4.

        TGV: 400m 16 cars, 2x café cars, 1016 seats in 2+2; if 2+3: 1270 seats.
        N700: 404m 16 cars, no café, 1323 seats in 2+3, if adjusted to 2+2: 1058 seats.

        Clearly the TGV would win this game if they sacrificed the cafe cars. I am one of those who is glad they retain them, though admit that they are close to redundant on 2h journeys like Paris-Lyon and Paris-Bordeaux.
        Of course the reason for those trains having 2+3 seating is that their trains are 3.35m versus 2.9m wide loading gauge. This is the same reason why the Velaro–that replaced Alstom trains for Eurostar–have higher capacity but those trains cannot be used on most of the French network (are the summer trains that go express from London to Avignon and Aix-en-Provence the new Velaros or TGVs?).

        A disadvantage of the shared-bogies of TGV (and Talgo) that you didn’t mention is that cars can’t be uncoupled quickly, eg. swapping out a cafe car for a full-seat car for higher capacity at peak times. It can only be done in railyards specially equipped to lift an entire car off the bogies.
        Another thing I have never quite understood is that the locos occupy the equivalent of a car length of platform at stations, but surely this is not really required? At least not the full loco. With just half at the platform, this would allow an extra car but even up to two extra cars. Perhaps there are other things that limit the length of the trains…

        • Alon Levy

          High-speed trainsets are never swapped this way; neither are modern regional trains. Swapping individual cars is for Americans who think it’s still 1957; over here we have permanently-coupled sets, and on intercity rail the smallest unit is 200 m, with or without articulated bogies.

          So yeah, a bilevel TGV manages almost the same occupancy as a single-level Shinkansen in 2+2 format (but 2+2 Shinkansen is 1098, not 1058 – don’t forget the Green Car seats are already 2+2); the Shinkansen has longer seat pitch, though. And, far more importantly, the Shinkansen can unload at Shin-Osaka in 1 minute, whereas a TGV takes 10 minutes to unload at Gare de Lyon because the interior design is not optimized for fast turnarounds, and yes, part of it is that bilevels are bad at this.

          • Benjamin Turon

            Amtrak for its new Northeastern corridor trainsets is going for semi-permanently coupled integrated “trainsets” from Siemens, the same is true I believe for the new Siemens trainsets in the Midwest, California, and Cascadia. For the Empire Corridor, they only add and subtract cars in Albany for the ‘Adirondack’ and ‘Maple Leaf’ because they have to switch locomotives anyways, so adding a extra car NYC-Albany doesn’t add time to the schedule. Yes — it often seems that many US rail advocates think its 1957.

          • Herbert

            A lot of people in Germany love to claim that Jakobs bogies are “safer” is that true in any real sense?

            Also: Dresden S-Bahn uses bilevel rolling stock. Don’t ask me why.

          • Max Wyss

            @Herbert: A train with Jacobs bogies is insofar safer, as it needs more for toppling over as well as jackniving.

          • Phake Nick

            Japan’s new N700S high speed train come with the feature that can make train length be varied more easily.

          • Herbert

            Has there ever been a real world accident where Jakobs bogies definitely made the accident less severe?

          • Max Wyss

            @Herbert: there were a few incidents with the TGV, where the train remained upright, but would have toppled over as individual cars. And you may also look at the various incidents/accidents with FLIRTs

          • Phake Nick

            But is such safer worth the cost? Like American rail vehicle have bulkier design to reduce impact in case of crash, but due to the frequency of crash it’s still killing more people per passenger distance travelled than many places round the world

          • Max Wyss

            @Phake Nick: Anytime. Also note that an articulated train with Jakobs bogies has one bogie less to maintain. That already compensates for the price.

            Vehicles following the FRA standard are NOT crashworthy. FRA rules sets a maximum static load, which also translates in elastic deformation. Elastic deformation does not dissipate any energy at all.

            OTOH, EN 15227 compliant vehicles have crumple zones at the right place. Crumple zones means plastic deformation, and therefore considerable dissipation of energy. The deceleration is therefore way less then with a FRA-compliant vehicle. Vehicles compliant to the newest version of that standard can now be used without any restrictions.

            Very simplified: FRA cares about the integrity of the vehicle; EN 15227 cares about the integrity of the people and goods on board.

          • michaelrjames

            @Max Wyss

            When Alon (somewhere in comments) mentioned that the TGV achieves 300km/h on legacy ROW with tighter radii and much faster than what Germany achieves under comparable situations, at first I wondered if the shared bogie arrangement might have something to do with this. But no, second thoughts suggest it is because the TGV track is exclusive and they can design in higher super-elevation to achieve those speeds safely while the Germans chose to share track with freight and so couldn’t. Is that roughly the case?

          • Alon Levy

            Yeah. It’s not legacy ROW, it’s all new-builds. LGVs are passenger-dedicated (as in Japan and China), NBSes sometimes are (Frankfurt-Cologne) and sometimes aren’t (Hanover-Würzburg).

          • yuuka

            @Phake Nick yes the N700S lets you pick from a variety of lengths, but only when you’re buying the trains. Not day to day uncoupling.

            What is being described is more like regional rail operations where a 15-car Shonan-Shinjuku Line train can lose 5 cars somewhere enroute. Or JR West, with their 8+4 or occasional 4+4+4 operation.

          • Sassy

            @Max Wyss

            Fewer wheels mean higher axle loads means more track wear. In addition, the single bogie bears more weight, so there is more wear there too. Is that really offset by having to maintain fewer bogies?

            I don’t have any numbers, but Japan had trains with Jakobs bogies in the 20th century but phased them out in favor of regular bogies. Not out of some prejudice against the idea either, since many experimental/prototype trains continued to use Jakobs bogies even after they started getting replaced in revenue service, and JR East even ran the revenue service prototype E331 series between 2007 and 2011. It seems like Jakobs bogies have many theoretical benefits, but it doesn’t seem like they are actually better in the real world.

        • Sassy

          When you look at a 400m TGV Duplex, the naive assumption would be that it can seat close to 100% more passengers than a 400m N700, but in reality, it fits fewer passengers even width adjusted, despite being bilevel. If you removed the cafe cars and made it 2+3, it would seat ~1430 or ~8% more than an N700, which is still a pretty bad trade for the trouble of bilevel.

          We can also compare against a real life bilevel HSR EMU. A 400m E4 seats 1634 passengers, or ~24% more than an N700, including food counters (though not cafes with seating), and using a lot of space with electrical equipment that would have otherwise been under the floor, and using twice as much space for the pointy nose. Of course JR East has since decided that bilevel HSR just isn’t worth it.

          An E4 seating only 24% more passengers than an N700 is also surprisingly bad, as a result of a lot of car length being wasted with things that are unnecessary in a single level design.

          • df1982

            The big problem with bilevel HSR trains isn’t capacity limitations, it’s dwell times. TGVs are horrible at this, with dwell times ballooning out to several minutes if it’s a train packed with passengers trying to haul suitcases down stairways. You go to all the trouble of spending billions on a new high-speed line and then lose a chunk of the time gained to idling at a station trying to get the passengers on and off. Hence why they tend to avoid intermediate stations in France, which means a lot of the efficiencies of trains over planes (the ability to serve multiple city-pairs with the same service) evaporate.

          • Phake Nick

            Plane used to make multiple stops along the way too, 100 years ago, but they stopped doing so because landing and taking off again cost too much extra time and fuel. TGV is probably similar?

          • Herbert

            The marginal time and energy cost of stopping at a station is pretty low for well designed trains. Especially if you have to pass thru anyway and double especially if it is a legacy station with slow approaches that you can’t avoid. It’s no accident that ICE ridership is still growing whereas TGV ridership is flatlining

          • df1982

            Even a 350km/h train can lose as little as 5min from stopping: ca. 2min to slow down (it takes 4min, but the actual time lost against running full speed is half of this), 1min dwell, 2min to speed up again. But TGVs have much longer dwell times, which is particularly a problem on journeys like Paris-Nice, which make a lot of stops on the Côte d’azur, and also means they lose a lot of frequency gains for places like Lyon, as Alon has noted.

            For planes it’s more like an hour at a minimum. The main reason they used to make multiple stops on long-haul journeys was refuelling due to low fuel capacity/efficiency.

          • michaelrjames

            df1982: “TGVs have much longer dwell times, which is particularly a problem on journeys like Paris-Nice, which make a lot of stops on the Côte d’azur …”

            I don’t understand this. The PACA line is not a LGV and is a v. slow line no matter which trains use it. Hence all the agonising and $$ in any attempt to turn it into a LGV. The TGV I took from Paris didn’t make a single stop before it terminated at Nice, being the perfect example of Alon’s ‘airline’ train; though it is also an example of the extension of the TGV network by using the same gauge as standard trains/ancient track, something the Shinkansen can’t do. The trains that do stop along the coastal section are not TGVs (though I suppose some might use TGV rolling stock, kinda irrelevant). I did once take a train to Bandol (where the Lumiere Bros gave the world cinematography–those zany French and their crazy ideas, huh? .. and the very first film was of a train emerging from a tunnel on this same line!) but can’t remember if I had to change to a local train at Marseille (again, I was coming from Paris but on this, memory fails).

          • Tonami Playman

            @df1982 Maybe planes making multiple stops will become a thing again as electric aircraft become feasible. I calculate a 70 – 100 seat aircraft with today’s batteries will be able to have a range of 400km (216nmi) and recharged in 30mins with dual 4.5MW DC fast chargers for comparison a Bombardier Q400 has a range of 2040km(1100nmi). Though considering it would have to make 5 stops to cover the same distance, I don’t know how people will embrace such a proposition. I do see this type of aircraft as the best carbon free option to connect Norwegian cities which are hard to serve by rail due to terrain, low population, and non-linear distribution.

          • Eric2

            Taxiing and loading/unloading (including luggage) are significant unavoidable contributors to flight time.

          • Max Wyss

            @michaelrjames: Because of the topography, the Côte d’Azur HLS gets very expensive. And, in order to serve the important places, it will get slow towards the eastern end.

          • michaelrjames

            Max Wyss: “Because of the topography, the Côte d’Azur HLS gets very expensive”

            Yes, but it is also what makes that line one of the most interesting to travel on (at least for mainline). One of the upgrades to LGV involves bypassing entirely the Marseille to Toulon section and this is one of those tortuous slow routes but beautiful as it winds along and among the calanques. In other places (further east) the train is mere metres from sand beaches.
            It is no accident–and no need to imagine any cost inflation or padding or corruption–that this will be the most expensive HSR built in France. But all things considered I reckon they have it about right: the inland route may have been much faster from Aix to Nice, but the PACA has 5m population, with Toulon the 3rd largest city on the French med coast, and so maximising service to as many of them as possible is justified. Especially as this is one region of France that has American-like (or post-war) sprawl all along that coast, and the improved rail service should entice more local patronage not just Paris or northern European traffic heading to hedonistic pleasures of Nice/Cannes/Monaco.

        • Phake Nick

          There are other blog posts on cafe car, but I don’t think it’s worthwhile to keep them onboard high speed train, Japan also used to have cafe car on Shinkansen but they quickly realized the train car can be more useful if it is carrying additional passengers instead, which can bring in more revenue than the meals being sold onboard, and also simplify the operation

  6. Mikel

    Among the countries influenced by France, Spain is notable for realizing that it has a problem with operations

    Hmm, over time I’m becoming a little more optimistic on the issue, but I would caution against extrapolating too much from the interview (which is really interesting, so kudos to Roger Senserrich). Pardo de Vera is indeed very good, but she’s only been head of Adif since 2018, and there’s a lot of institutional inertia to overturn. And even though there are promising signs of a change of mentality at the political levels of the Ministry, including its change of name, Renfe is still very much stuck in its old ways. Its current CEO doesn’t even have any previous experience in the transportation sector…

    This is an excellent post, by the way — the tabular summary is really useful!

  7. Tonami Playman

    Looking at the JICA feasibility study for the Mumbai-Ahmedabad HSR, in table 9.2-1 on page 59, the embankment percentage is 63% (313km out of 508.5km). But on page 69. There’s an image comparison between embankment and viaduct structures showing a 12m wide ROW requirement for viaduct while it’s 38m for embankment. The route km it shows for each is 126km(viaduct) and 326km(embankment).

    On page 74 table 9.2-6, it lists the cut section of the route as 8.9km (1.8%). From page 90 table 9.4-3, 9.6km of over-river bridge spans. From page 99 table 9.5-1, 27.5km of tunnels

    So all put together, sections of the Mumbai-Ahmedabad HSR is as follows;
    Embankment – 326km – 64.1%
    Viaduct – 126km – 24.8%
    Tunnels – 27.5km – 5.4%
    Bridges – 9.6km – 1.9%
    Cuttings – 8.9km – 1.8%
    Others – 10km – 2.1%

    Looks like it’s majority on embankment, I don’t know why it’s so expensive. Looking at page 23 table 8.1-3, It’s also interesting to see the the stated maximum speed on a down gradient between 1.5% and 3.0% is 260km/h. Which is rather odd because LGV Sud-Est has steeper grades and is still able to operate at 300km/h. These standards might be what China has copied from the Shinkansen and what Japan is actively exporting to India.

    • anonymouse observer

      Even though the study report doesn’t say it clearly, I thought the down slope speed limit in Shinkansen system is typically applied for continuous grades (gradient continuing for a certain length), and it doesn’t get applied to a short segment of steep grades. Besides vehicle’s capability, it is likely this is due to keep braking distance as short as possible due to earthquakes at least in Japan.

      Are there any segments with very steep grades continuing for several kilometers in LGV Sud-Est or some of the HSR lines in Germany like Hokuriku Shinkansen near Karuizawa (2.1 percent for 30 kilometers)? I am curious because Clem Tillier is also talking about the potential need for speed limit on the continuous steep downhill in the California system:

      Click to access truth_about_tejon.pdf

    • Phake Nick

      In China, at least before HSR, passenger movement are deemed unprofitable due to the low fare and thus the railway companies focus on freight rail on the traditional railway network.
      On the other hand, while the railway authority would want to get all the intercity passengers onto HSR trains, which although charge less fare than other countries, are still more expensive than conventional railway intercity train and thus they still have to keep those intercity trains for conventional railway running across the nation for people with less money.
      The way China Railway authority neglect passenger railway might also explain why regional rail isn’t being developed in China.
      A number of 200km/h line in China HSR network are actually constructed with potential plan of shared use with freight if I recall correctly? Even if none have been doing so now.
      HSR station co-located with airport seems to be a new trend in China now will a number of cities planning such thing
      As for seat reuse, China HSR system’s booking actually have seats pre-allocated to different destination pairs to try to force seat reuse, and sometimes passengers can only buy empty seats on the day of departure if those empty seats still cannot find buyers.
      And one thing being noteworthy is that there are constantly a number of trains in China HSR network that would sold out well in advance and thus cannot allow ad hoc trips on those trains.

      • Sassy

        > And one thing being noteworthy is that there are constantly a number of trains in China HSR network that would sold out well in advance and thus cannot allow ad hoc trips on those trains.

        Is there some reason why China can’t have people standing? It would make sense, because I think China has the same self inflicted ultra peak tourism problem that Japan does, but you can still do ad hoc trips on Shinkansen, even during peak Golden Week times, if you’re willing to stand.

        • Phake Nick

          Standing is allowed, but they need specific seatless tickets, and is limited on each trains.
          In peak season on Chinese trains there is a problem that people tried to buy a ticket for short trip but stay on the train longer than ticket allows and try to pay for the extra section by using on-board ticketing, but have resulted in load on the train exceeded limit (reportedly is a limit due to axle load restriction?) and thus ticketed passengers on intermediate stations aren’t able to board the train
          China’s peak is considerably more voluminous than Japan’s peak due to difference in population and the large amount of workers in large cities from rural area.

  8. Roger

    > Swiss connections are never fast: the country is too small for 300 km/h trains to make large differences in door-to-door trip times.

    Is there no need for faster travel on the Zurich – Geneva axis? For a distance of ~230 km, I personally feel that 2h43 is a little disappointing. It could be done in around an hour, but perhaps it is not worth the investment given the populations involved?

    • Max Wyss

      But there is no reasonable market for that. The Genève – St.Gallen ICs via Bern are full between Bern and Winterthur, and to some extent between Genève and Lausanne. Beyond that, quite a bit of air is hauled around. And even with the assumed single hour, there would not be much more market.

      • Herbert

        Why not?

        The market might emerge with the 1h travel time. Granted, there might be arguments against building something that will induce a lot of its demand, but I don’t think it’s crazy to think that a 1h train between the same cities attracts more pax than a 2h30 one

      • R. W. Rynerson

        @Max Wyss – thank you for your always helpful info from Switzerland. I just came across a print-out from our CompuServe days and was reminded of your contributions.

        • Max Wyss

          You’re most welcome, Robert.

          Yeah, CompuServe was Social Media way before that term got invented. And it looks as if I were an influencer (without knowing it), because it is not the first time I hear that someone printed out my responses, and still has them around somewhere…

          • Richard Mlynarik

            Max Wyss has been providing excellent and accurate and on-topic information in many forums and several languages for decades! His patience and depth of knowledge are amazing — if he contributes something you just know is both relevant and accurate.

            The hard thing with “modern” blogs and captive “social networks” is that the good stuff gets drowned out. If only we could bring back KILL-files and SCORE-files to mute the blather and highlight the good stuff.

          • Max Wyss

            Thanks for the flowers, @Richard… but you are exaggerating a bit…

      • Roger

        @Max Wyss, thanks for your reply. I can see how Zurich-Geneva might underperform, especially given the linguistic difference. I am interested in hearing your thoughts about speeding up international connections between Zurich and Munich, Stuttgart, Frankfurt or beyond. Are those links more viable or less so? I understand there is some difficult geography going northeast from Zurich that might be a factor.

        • Max Wyss

          The connections to Germany have some issues…

          • Zürich – München: There is a little lake (aka Bodensee) in the way. This means that there has to be a detour. In order to get sufficient traffic, that had to be via Austria (stop in Bregenz). That leads to additional detours, as the most direct line would have to climb up to 800 or so meters altitude, and have a steep descent down to the Rhine valley. In Germany, it would follow more or less the current line. Currently, the Zürich – München route is operated with SBB Class 503 tilting trains, and it takes roughly 4 hours. By end of this year, the ETCS software will allow system switching while in motion, and that will allow 3:30 (these trains are squeezed in Takts in Switzerland AND in Germany, and imposes serious requirements on the rolling stock). This timing is not too bad, and, because of the remoteness of the airport in München, even competitive to flying.

          • Zürich – Stuttgart: If a HSL could be built, it has to be part of a route; traffic would not really justify one (comparable to Zürich – Genève). The topography is difficult, and even with Stuttgart 21, accessing Stuttgart can be a pain… IMHO another candidate for tilting trains, maybe with a Singen bypass (but then it would lock itself out of some traffic). In fact, they did run tilting trains on the line, and had a very attractive schedule. Currently, it is a mess because of DB rolling stock issues.

          • Zürich – Frankfurt: Could be the best candidate for a HSL. However, I could only see it as a part of a Frankfurt – Milano route, using the Gotthard and Ceneri Base tunnels. But then, that route has way more importance for freight. Currently, the Rhine valley line is a bottleneck, because Germany is dragging their feet with the quad-tracking (despite a bi-lateral treaty, where they agreed to have the work done by the time the Base Tunnels open… Switzerland is now looking if something could be done via the French Alsace main line).

          There may be some potential, but I do have some doubts whether it can get a sufficient ROI…

          • Herbert

            The Gäubahn (Stuttgart Zürich) is a favorite cause celebre among train advocates in Baden Württemberg. Apparently in the course of Stuttgart 21 there’ll be a “cutting off” of that line from central Stuttgart for years…

            As for Munich-Zürich… There is non negligible flying NUE-ZRH. Granted, much of that is hub feeder traffic (the flights are operated by Swiss) but I think a train connection faster than ~ 4h30 (3h30 for Munich Zürich and 1h for Nuremberg.Munich) could capture some of that market as well…

          • Max Wyss

            Currently, there are no direct flights between NUE and ZRH… For some dates, the SWISS website offers a connection via PMI (yes, that’s Palma di Mallorca)… and the only decent connection leaves at 07:15…

  9. Henry Miller

    The real killer would be if they could go Lyon-Stuttgart via this route (both cities picked at somewhat random to make the point – feel free to substitute other cities on a somewhat straight line extending beyond each – ideally considering geography and city populations – something I didn’t). The cities are far enough apart that any trip between them isn’t a “lets do lunch there” type event, so people will be planning a head. Once it isn’t a regular trip the difference between 1 hour and 3 hours is mostly about how you might choose between train/car/plane. However if you have the complete line the slow section in the middle can be enough to make someone making the Lyon-Stuttgart route fly when the total distance is within the distance where in general the train beats a plane.

    That isn’t to say speeding things up wouldn’t be nice anyway. That trip would be possible in less than an hour if the Swiss investing in it. That is enough to turn a lot more trips into day trips that people will take more often, so I think ridership would respond. A proper study would have to be done to say for sure, but my suspicion is that the population just isn’t large enough to make it worth it.

    Of course international links under perform in general and the lack of a shared language isn’t going to make this total trip very popular. Still if European politics wants to change things more international trains like this make sense.

    • Herbert

      The only airline flying Stuttgart to Lyon is operating only Beechcraft 1900 D

      They’re probably expensive as hell

    • Alon Levy

      Stuttgart-Lyon is a pretty bad example – it’s already getting upgraded on the French side, using the LGV Rhin-Rhône. Stuttgart-Zurich is a horrifically slow line, Germany preferring to invest in Karlsruhe-Basel as its main route into Switzerland. In general, I don’t think Switzerland is a good place for lines between two other countries to pass through, unless they’re crossing the Alps; direct France-Germany and Germany-Austria connections are better.

  10. michaelrjames

    Excellent post. And I am so grateful that your video failed! Let there be more such failures:-)

    This knits together your various posts and themes on HSR. I’ve only read it quickly once thru. While it is hard not to be convinced by your arguments I am still inclined to think the evolution of the different systems and strategies has been influenced as much by geographical and geo-demographic realities; though the point about grades and curve radii in France is a good one but isn’t this largely due to using its extensive existing rail routes rather than building entirely new, expensive, ROW? i.e the geographical factors that determined 19th century routes turned out–in France, not so much these other places–to be adaptable to optimal HSR (ie. up to ≈300km/h)?. Similarly, while it may be unarguable that SNCF has been too influenced by its managers recruited from the airline industry, the pattern was surely established right at the beginning (Paris-Lyon) long before those changes two decades later. And if one looked at the relative size of cities served in France–versus say Japan, China, Germany–would it not be much different? That is, France has its superdominant prime city and a limited number of smaller provincial cities of a size that could justify a TGV, and its strategy from the beginning (? seems to me) was to prioritize linking those. Isn’t it rather by accident, or by inevitable convergence, that this looks like an “airline” strategy*? For example, no matter who was in charge or who designed it, it never made sense to run the LGV-Sud-Est via Dijon which is almost exactly 1/20th the size of Lyon (and of course is not a direct route). Isn’t the German system more or less the same and only looks different because it has many more geo-dispersed cities of relatively greater size (and with shorter distances between them)? However, before you clobber me with same, I acknowledge the point about Lyon to Avignon, Marseilles etc. and lack of seat multi-usage etc; but since the tracks exist, cannot the strategy be modified easily–almost without cost or physical works–to one that is closer to one of these other models and that you say would lead to resumed growth and better network, operational efficiencies etc?

    *also, doesn’t this characterisation totally ignore that those smaller towns still benefit from the LGV. Example, the upgrading of the Paris-Bordeaux to LGV a few years back achieved it via building bypasses of 3 to 4 towns, however there are still TGVs that serve those towns and they benefit from the other upgrades to the line? In this sense it is not quite accurate to claim building the LGV l’Ocean as an exclusive ‘airline’ strategy. And–while still grappling with understanding the issues–is this not similar to the different services (Nozomi, Hikari, Kodama) on the Tokaido corridor?

    • Herbert

      Germany built a couple of relatively straight, relatively level lines equipped for heavy trains in the last years pre WW1 for military reasons (colloquially known as “Kanonenbahn”) as those rail lines bypassed nearby population centers however, they were largely abandoned before the hsr age.

      Furthermore, Berlin was as dominant for Prussia as Paris is for France. But after 1945 Berlin was a divided city in the midst of the east (still the Hanover Berlin line was planned during partition which partially explains its bypassing Magdeburg and Potsdam) and the Prussian heartland had been lost one way or the other, so the Prussian system couldn’t be built on. Instead a new network from one focused on east west links to one focused on north south links had to be built. It is no accident that the Hanover Würzburg line bypasses what was before that Germany’s busiest long distance line and is a bit to the “interior” of the BRD compared to the legacy line…

      • R. W. Rynerson

        @Herbert — I agree with most of your concise history of Germany’s complex rail development history but one point is confusing. Before 1945 the line from Lehrter Bahnhof to Hannover via Stendal was already the fast route for the Reichsbahn. Only a few through BerlinRuhr/Köln trains ran on the old line through Potsdam and Magdeburg.

        In the post-war period the old line was chosen to become what some called the “Main Line of the Cold War” with military trains of all four occupying powers plus the remaining Berlin Ruhr/Köln traffic plus local traffic plus complications in getting through Berlin suburban traffic. As an added feature, the old line was single-tracked by the Soviet Army. Perhaps you meant that the rebuilding of the Lehrter line was studied during the division eras.

        • Alon Levy

          In the 1980s, there was a plan to use the Lehrter line for a nonstop train between West Berlin and the rest of the West, which after the Cold War turned into the ABS currently used for Berlin-Hanover trains. Because of this history, the line skips Magdeburg.

          • Herbert

            The German Wikipedia article on the high speed line says that basically planning was finished before the GDR collapsed and nobody wanted to change the plans afterwards…

    • Alon Levy

      The airline strategy isn’t exactly the skipping of Dijon. I think the most glaring example of this is that Paris-Marseille trains don’t stop at Part-Dieu. The dominance of Paris is not that relevant – Tokyo is even more dominant going north, but the Hayabusa never skips Omiya, Sendai, or Morioka. It’s just a point-to-point thinking, which accreted over the decades because of the need to bypass Paris and the fact that France had never developed regular takts so that SNCF kept thinking in terms of individual trains and not lines.

      The strategy for France can be modified, yes. Trains from Paris to points south can and should all stop at Part-Dieu, reducing Saint-Exupéry to special trains (=hourly, not daily), which has the effect of slightly lengthening Paris-Marseille trips but vastly increasing frequency on Paris-Lyon and Lyon-Marseille connections. Going southwest, it’s a bit more complicated; the passing loops for Angoulême and such are annoying but it’s fine, just run local trains that stop at all of them and express trains that stop at none. Maybe open a Tours-TGV station as close as practical to the current Tours station – there’s a location just west of E5 that’s 1.5 km from the current station, which is less separation than Kassel-Wilhelmshöhe or Shin-Osaka.

      To give credit where due, they’re proposing a Marseille 21-style project including underground through-tracks as part of the LGV PACA; Marseille and Nice both run TERs on takts.

      • michaelrjames

        Trains from Paris to points south can and should all stop at Part-Dieu, reducing Saint-Exupéry to special trains (=hourly, not daily), which has the effect of slightly lengthening Paris-Marseille trips but vastly increasing frequency on Paris-Lyon and Lyon-Marseille connections.

        Right, but looking at France it really is Lyon the odd one, because as you said, elsewhere there is Marseille-21 planned, and Paris-Toulouse is going to pass thru Bordeaux (and eventually thru Toulouse to Narbonne-Montpellier etc) as will the extension to Spain. In turn this comes down to distances. Paris to Marseille is 660km which is 32% more than Tokyo-Osaka, and the bypassing of Lyon saves 20 minutes, reducing a 3.5h trip to 3h07m. This would not change much even with super-efficient Japanese dwell times, saving a few minutes of the 20. Clearly this prioritises connecting Paris to the #1 and #2 cities in France, and remember the concept is to compete with planes for day trips (so really it adds ≈40min). I agree it might seem practical to have some, maybe half, of Marseille trains stop at Lyon (Part-Dieu) though I don’t know what the real demand is for Lyon-Marseille? In fact one in five trains do stop at Lyon (but I can’t see immediately if those are at St Exupery or Part-Dieu); your persuasive argument makes it seem there has to be unmet demand but is it really true?

        Incidentally doesn’t the building of Chūō Shinkansen validate the French choices (and for that matter the UK’s HS2 which will free up the old WCML to serve more intermediate cities), ie. no matter how super-efficient the design to give short dwell times etc. there is no avoiding the penalty in stops and time. That is, it comes back to certain inevitabilities based on geo-demography: Japan has huge population spread along that corridor so optimized its trains (no cafe cars, no duplex, 2+3 seating, subway operation with v. short dwell times) whereas France–in fact most of the world–simply has nothing comparable and didn’t need to.

        As to the constant cacophony of complaints about the awfulness and incompetence of the French and SNCF, not clear the travelling public agree:

        Passenger traffic on selected global high-speed rail networks in 2019, by national rail operator (in billion passenger kilometers)
        Nation ….. paxkm (bn) ….. paxkm/cap

        • Phake Nick

          ? The number of stops made by express trains on Chuo Shinkansen will only be a bit less than the number of stops made by Nozomi on Tokaido Shinkansen, with the main reason for Chuo Shinkansen’s construction being capcity limit, and also the low max speed on the old Tokaido high speed line
          As for dwell time, consider like if you have 8 minutes dwell time and stop at 4 stations you would have already wasted half an hour which isn’t really something acceptable for high speed train. Meanwhile in China and Japan it is not uncommon for trains that are not the quickest one to make dozen of stops along the corridors before reaching the destination and the time needed is not that much slower than faster trains.
          As for lack of population on linear line, other than Lille to Paris to Lyon to Marseille, to the north there are also Benelux which line up nicely if the railway systems can coordinate with each other
          And even Japan’s Joetsu Shinkansen line, which other than Tokyo only serve one larger city uniquely served by the line is Niigata, still have many of the features and run about 3x hourly trains on the line

          • michaelrjames

            @Phake Nick

            You’ve actually confirmed what I wrote. HS2 is being built because the old WCML is at capacity, plus is also under severe maintenance stress, requiring long closures at weekends to keep up (and in fine British style it’s not keeping up). At the same time there is demand for more stops, presumably part of the same fact of increasing demand/capacity limits. HS2 will be much more of an express which will take a lot of the capacity pressure off the old WCML allowing more orderly maintenance and modernisation without the kind of disruption being experienced today. Equally more stops will become possible. It isn’t covered much at all by the MSM but some say the biggest advantage of HS2 don’t come from making the big point-to-point journeys (Lon-Birm etc) marginally quicker but what happens with the WCML that will have a much wider and more local impact. This is pretty comparable to the Japanese situation as described in the comment I responded to, and what you implied. Yes?

            It is “paxkm per capita” for each country. Despite France, SNCF managers and the TGV service being so terrible it happens to be the world leader in intensity of use of its HSR (ie. normalised to population)! Even Alon mentioned this in passing in one of his recent comments on this thread. (To those talking about increasing hsr traffic in Germany versus apparent stagnation in France, my question is, in which decade will Germany finally catch up?)
            That link can get you the data but it can be a bit arbitrary when the commercial Statista site chooses to give you limited access. I was faced with a paywall when I tried to recover Korean data … But you can independently verify the data and calcs which I did for Japan–since it does seem a surprise; especially given the higher private car ownership/usage, lack of restrictions on their use and excellent national autoroute network in France. But I suppose TGV journeys are longer and also aided by France’s international travellers. And before anyone says it, one would expect Japan–and probably China–to exceed any western country before long.

          • Phake Nick

            @michaelrjames I don’t understand how what you said lead to this conclusion. And note that of the current Tokaido Line, 80% trains are the fastest one that only stop in the major cities, hence the Chuo Shinkansen can also give direct speed benefit to most travellers.
            As for Japan’s data, data I found from year 2010 indicate the pax km of the Shinkansen network is 77 billion people km. It probably rose to the data you mentioned following the opening of a number of new lines including Hokuriku Shinkansen, Hokkaido Shinkansen, and the connection of Kyushu Shinkansen over Kumamoto. In other words it also reflect why Japanese high speed rail could underperform compares with population – Many large Japanese cities are still not connected to the national high speed rail network yet, as a consequence of the oil shock in 1970s and JNR financial difficulty significantly slowing down the construction pace, and also capacity limit along Tokaido corridor causing cities along the line being somewhat underserved. Note that, the fourth largest city in Japan, Sapporo is still not being served yet. So is rest of Hokkaido outside Hakodate, the entire Shikoku, western part of Hokuriku, Eastern Kyushu and Nagasaki, and on, where all of these lines have been planned but aren’t open yet. And as you said, the shorter distance between Tokyo, Osaka and Nagoya, which is only 556km, would translate to lower passenger km even when the usage intensity is comparable.

          • borners

            @michaelrjames This passenger/km per cap measure is misleading since France gets nearly 3 times the numbers of tourists as Japan (30million to 83 million in 2019) with about half the population. Furthermore Japan does not have rail connections let alone through-running HSR connections to major tourist markets because its an island. Almost all inbound tourists come by plane which means convenience/transfer penalties are working against trains (that’s why the JR rail pass exists). Add in East Asia’s holidays/workaholic culture and weaker 2nd homes culture, its just a less mature tourist market compared to EU. And yeah Schengen.

            And finally TGV’s funding structure is designed to allow it to have dramatically lower prices than the Shinkansen, whereas Shinkansen operators have to pay off construction debts, subsidise loss making rural lines, making various incremental improvements (rolling stock, signaling, stations, retail) and keeping shareholders happy. The one exception JR Central is reinvesting its profits in the Chuo Shinkansen. If its cheaper its gonna get more users so Shinkansen has another weight in the passenger/km per cap (ps. lets leave of the distribution of costs debate for the moment shall we its distinct ball game). Which suggests the Shinkansen is killing on convenience and frequency. And the Taiwanese adoption of Japanese HSR operating procedures seems to be working pretty well.

          • michaelrjames


            Well, I mentioned some of the reasons why that statistic was higher for France and that included tourism and of course that many adjoining Europeans use the network. But those are valid reasons and don’t invalidate the measure. They are just part of the rationale for building the TGV network and the likes of the Eurostar, Thalys links etc.

            As to ticket prices, that is an even more valid variable that a nation can use to encourage what they want as a national good. Brownie points to France and demerit points to Japan (and the UK) for making their rail based transport expensive. In fact, some of the factors you mention work counter to rail usage, such as the long French vacations in the south (the vast majority of families are going to take their cars). Unlike Japan, France (and most western countries) doesn’t have a public that is essentially captive to rail or non-car transport so the low price is to compete, even with fairly high tolls on autoroutes in France. I think they get it about right (which won’t stop me grumbling about TGV tickets etc) and it only takes a trip or even a website visit, to the UK to appreciate SNCF!

            As to capital costs etc I really don’t think many want to revisit that issue here! … but not me; as Alon himself said, due to budgetary constraints and conservative scepticism (esp. conservative President Giscard d’Estaing who inherited an already approved TGV program, from Pompidou, which he would have cancelled if he could have) so from that very first Paris-Lyon line, they forced SNCF to self-fund its construction including borrowing on international bond markets. They still carry debt for building the network (and interest payments to this day are a significant item re profitability) though of course the politicians do various debt restructurings to fudge it (and evade EU econocrat bean-counters). Just like Japan and JNR->JRs. In fact, I believe this issue has held back the TGV network which should have been much more complete by now; I think Macron understands that and why he approved new funding to get the PACA, Toulouse and SW-Spain links underway (but too slow), and the policy goal of rail replacing all domestic flights.

            So yes, there are too many singular factors in Japan and its Shinkansen that I have always said it is not a model that I think we should use to promote HSR in the west, ie. other than rail geeks. Despite–or because of–its unarguable success. By contrast, despite Francophobia, France is much closer culturally, politically, geographically to other western countries that its model is more useful and more convincing. Heck, even Clint Eastwood made a movie set on a French (Thalys?) train …

          • Phake Nick

            The main high speed rail corridor in Japan have no extra capacity, thus it have no room to lower the price to attract more travellers.

          • borners

            @michaelrjames That measure properly accounting for imported tourist capita for population and higher fares suggests that Shinkansen operators are kicking SNCF’s ass in operations to get to basically the same passenger km/capita. And the success Koreans and Taiwanese have had from learning from Shinkansen operations of treating HSR like urban rail in frequency and stop patterns is better than treating HSR like airlines. And getting rid of emotive boondoggles (cafe cars).

            Also Japan definitely does not have a captive rail users. There are domestic flights, cars, and highways buses (I know I used one a week ago). And the 3 megacities have competing private/public train operators. Mode share stabilization and partial recovery from 1980’s lows has been on the back of decades of hard work. JNR screwed up in so so so many ways including the Shinkansen which actually lost passengers in JNR’s last years. But I understand Hankyu and Tobu are horribly frustrating to your worldview.

            Yeah Japan is more culturally different than France to the Anglosphere. But overall mode share performance in rail and bike is better in Japan than France as is megacity housing affordability despite worse geographic constraints. But there are always “singular factors” that includes France with its relatively poor connections to neglected conventional rail lines etc. Naive copying is bad, learning is good. But our food is more Asian than French so that tells me learning is possible.

            Sticking to the UK example, a Nozomi pattern to Manchester would be a really really good idea. And the North could learn a lot from Kansai area style special rapid services and through-running. And commercializing stations and their surroundings too. I would not emulate Japanese construction costs whether HSR or subways. Or their neglect of light rail.

          • anonymouse observer


            I hope you know TGV was not the only one going through the same path for the international financing. JNR (not the government) used 20-year loan from the World Bank for the Tokaido Shinkansen construction:

            The loan was paid back in full and on time by 1985 (or before 1990, the year all Japan-bound World Bank loans were paid back in full).

          • michaelrjames


            Yes, I am aware of that. As I recall it was cleverly used as a kind of blackmail by the politician-bureaucrat promoting the project, ie. that Japan’s international reputation was now interlinked with the project being completed successfully. Also, the cost doubled during construction but it seems a lot of that was to do with deliberate underpricing, again in the interests of getting the project off the ground (ie. to fool the austerity-minded beancounters). So of course the World Bank loan was repaid on time and in full as there really was no alternative no matter what happened.
            I am pretty sure this is covered by Anthony Perl but I am refreshing my memory by browsing Jacob Meunier’s history of the TGV (published same year as Perl; a golden year for rail history!):

            [Meunier] TheWorld Bank was convinced of the project’s financial viability but remained skeptical of its technical viability; in the end, it agreed to fund the new line but imposed a 210kph speed limit. Although the track would permit speeds up to 250kph, the mediocre quality of the rolling stock would not, and the bank was anxious to protect its investment.

            The French often get accused (perhaps true sometimes!) of insularity but they were taking careful note of the Shinkansen and its history, as they did of Tokyo rail transit when designing the RER in the 70s. It was two-way: Japanese engineers studied France’s post-war application of high-voltage power supplies (and 100% hydro sourced) for SNCF that by itself had allowed average speeds to be substantially boosted, and adopted it.

            [Meunier] The complexe du Tokaido, which manifested itself in the form of eager praise for the outstanding success of the train, caused great pain around the gare Saint-Lazare [SNCF HQ]. Over and over the question was asked: Would France have its own Shinkansen some day? If the TGV project came to fruition rapidly beginning in 1965, it is because the SNCF, like so many others, found direction: in Japan.

            This agonising was a response to the success of Shinkansen (Meunier) despite impressive SNCF tests: “”You who went 331 kph in 1955 in the Landes, where are you now?” demanded Edgard Pisani, the ministre de l’Equipment, in a letter to the SNCF administrative committee in April 1966.”

            Lots of interesting background history here but in the context of Alon’s post:

            The greatest surprise (to French observers, at any rate) was the large number of “end to end” passengers. Some 34 percent of travelers rode the Shinkansen the entire length of the line between Tokyo and Osaka (or between Tokyo and Kyoto, only a few dozen kilometers from Osaka). This meant that the new train’s success was based less on the population density along the Tokyo-Osaka corridor than on the direct connection it offered between two large urban conurbations.

            I’m not sure that interpretation of Shinkansen end-to-end traffic is really supported, since two thirds of traffic was not end-to-end, but it was no doubt to reassure themselves that it could be viable in France where there was simply no alternative, being no large intermediate population catchments to support the HSR.

            Incidentally on the ticket price issue, [for clarity I should say this is my recollection/interpretation as I can’t immediately find a reference in Meunier], I believe the TGV advocates were looking to provide an alternative to the historic luxury trains in France such as the Mistral (Paris-Nice) and Nouveau Capitole (Paris-Toulouse; 200kmph in 1968) though the TGV retained the restaurant car for which those predecessors had been renowned. That is, prices were to entice all types of travellers including private car drivers as well as airline market. Note that in Japan the ticket prices of the newly ‘privatised’ JRs was set by the government (or proxy) and was higher than the JRs preferred, but to try to ensure profitability or at least economic viability.

          • anonymouse observer

            “Note that in Japan the ticket prices of the newly ‘privatised’ JRs was set by the government (or proxy) and was higher than the JRs preferred”

            Where did you find this from? It doesn’t sound right.

            Since 1990s, passenger rail fare in Japan are actually set by each railways. The only approval the regulator makes is the upper limit of the fare, and it is based on the yardstick method with actual O&M cost taken into account. Each railways can set the fare freely as long as it is below the upper limit (railways can set the fare and file it; no approval necessary):

            Click to access f04_oka.pdf

            As others said, the only fare increase made by 3 JR companies in Honshu since the privatizations are for the adjustments for the sales tax/VAT increase, and they have raised only for the amount of sales tax/VAT increase amount. I haven’t seen any large private railways hitting the yardstick-based fare upper limit including JR companies until a couple of months ago when some of the big 16 private railways raised their fare to the approved yardstick-based limit due to revenue decrease from the COVID-19 pandemic.

            By the way, those railways subject to the yardstick-based upper limit approval typically set the fare below the approved upper limit, and the upper limit is raised only when the passenger rail segment of a railway is in deficit for 3 straight years due to the way the yardstick calculation works:

          • michaelrjames

            Almost everything you are talking about is later. My comment was only about the conditions at privatisation. I remember it because it seemed curious, however I understood it was to guarantee a known farebox recovery re investor confidence in the privatised entities income, ie. leading up to stock listings. Logically I thought this would have been Cevero but I can’t find the reference, though I have come across many mentions of the regulation of fares. Also that while fares had been steadily increasing up to privatisation, they remained stable without increases for 9 years post-privatisation. At the beginning any change to fares needed the transport minister’s signature –this is because they were being extremely careful about keeping the new entities steady, not to frighten their future investors.

            Cervero also notes that”Japan’s central government further promotes transit riding through tax incentives. All Japanese workers receive a tax-free commuting allowance as high as US$500 per month from their employers (that is fully deductible against corporate income taxes.” So high fares combined with these tax breaks are a means to ensure high farebox recovery. Cevero notes that in the US (and I’d say the Anglosphere) it is the opposite where parking and road use has tax deductibility but any employee transit benefits are treated as taxable income. The Japanese system reminds me of France where there is government subsidy for the monthly travel cards (employees paying 50% of cover price deducted automatically off salary; at least when I lived there and it was called a Carte Orange).

  11. Pingback: Coordinando horarios de tren, edición Zaragoza » Politikon
  12. Benjamin Turon

    Great overview of the world’s HSR systems. On the German ICE system, I have read (including in the book “Modern Railways” by Geoffrey Freeman Allen, 1980) that DB was heavily influenced by British Rail’s “Intercity” services, so much so that it borrowed the actual name “Intercity”. British Rail seems to have done very well speeding up and increasing the regular-interval frequency of intercity services on its legacy mainlines, and wonder if they should be included as a major influence? In reading Mr. Allen’s book you see the stark contrast in the 1960-70s between British Rail and the SNCF in their approach to what was then considered “high-speed rail”. I know as an American rail advocate BR’s Intercity is a major example from overseas of what we can do in the US on legacy track, although given our freight network “Passenger Dedicated Lines” may be the way to go for most of the nation. Sadly most US rail advocates seem to want to go back to 1950 passenger rail, hence the obsession on dining car service on overnight trains.

    • Benjamin Turon

      At least for me, the Shinkansen is the other major influence along with BR Intercity early on when I decided to get into passenger rail, the geography of the Empire Corridor with its string of cities — like beads on a necklace — seems very conducive to a Shinkansen model of rail service, with some TGV branching to serve destinations in the Adirondacks, Vermont, and Finger Lake regions.

  13. R. W. Rynerson

    “China displays clear Soviet influences but has diverged sufficiently that it must be viewed as a separate tradition now.”

    The Soviet influences were in turn influenced by North American practices. Also, until the Republic consolidated railways, American managers were common in a Chinese environment that also included diverse colonial railways of the European powers focused on ports. The first head of the unified system was a Chinese veteran of U.S. railroading. This background should help to explain the heavy freight priorities of China’s legacy network, even before HSR.

        • Herbert

          I think a cut and cover metro and separate air raid shelters would be cheaper than trying to use a metro system as ramshackle ersatz air raid shelters

          • Phake Nick

            It would not just be shelter but also be underground transportation route, for material, weapon, transportation of VIP, soldiers, and such

          • R. W. Rynerson

            Sometimes civil defense expenses are imposed on projects. The Nord-Sud S-Bahn in Berlin was realigned after construction began in order to incorporate an air-raid shelter. Edmonton’s downtown LRT subway was originally proposed to have a bomb shelter function (long ago when it might have been the first stop for manned bombers coming over the Arctic).

        • Alon Levy

          I’ve heard that excuse, and in Singapore as well (all stations are supposed to be air raid shelters), but Britain was building deep-bore tubes before WW1.

        • yuuka

          It probably came about as a side effect of tube stations being used as adhoc shelters in the Blitz (Bethnal Green, anyone?), turned out to be a good idea and was kept as a requirement.

          The first stage of Moscow Metro had several cut and cover stations, and even postwar you have the Filyovskaya line.

  14. fjod

    Great post but I think you misdiagnose the reason Birmingham New Street (the current main station) is not being used for HS2. The number of platforms at New St is totally adequate for HSR service. The difficulty comes from two other factors.

    First is the decision to use 400m trains, which means the current longest platform at New Street is 50m too short. Due to the constrained site, these can’t easily be extended – there are tunnels on either side and a junction/points immediately west of their end, and the surrounding area is heavily built up. Any extension would have to grapple with this, causing significant demolition of the station itself and some of the highest-value land in the city *and* a reduction in the number of platforms at New St (not the biggest worry but does put something of a limit on future service expansion).

    The second factor is track capacity on the approaches: to the east, there are two tracks each way carrying around 40tph at peak between them at the moment. Of course this often end up delaying trains (especially as New St is the hub of the British rail network so delays propagate from all corners), so the addition of 9 hourly high-speed services is not feasible without cutting service from other routes or widening the tunnel (again considerable expense).

    For the record, I think the proposed new Curzon Street station is phenomenally poorly planned, due to its unnecessary size and overbuilding, lack of westward connections (or conceivable addition thereof) and poor connections to the Cross-City line (~S-bahn). But I think significant expense is unavoidable however you try to solve it. This is not a comment on the rest of HS2, for which costs are overblown as you have acknowledged.

    • Eric2

      I don’t see the issue with Birmingham New Street. The tracks are just below street level, the buildings nearby do not seem particularly historic or valuable. Lengthening the platforms for HSR should only cost in the tens of millions of dollars, as any buildings demolished could be replaced by equal or more valuable buildings. Adding two more tracks to the east approach looks similarly simple. Adding to the western approach is more complicated, but still should be cheap by HS2 standards.

      (I would actually like to see Alon propose how HS2 should be “done right” – there seem to be examples of bad planning throughout the line)

      • fjod

        Eric2 – Agreed that the more surmountable problem is the New Street platforms; you could probably just about get 4 of them at 400m by demolishing the Odeon cinema and maybe the postmodernist office building to the north-west, but you would have to introduce more platform curves where they don’t already exist. You might even be able to get away with leaving the existing station building intact. That’s probably doable and definitely less expensive than building a whole new station, and 4 platforms (maybe even 3?) should be enough with tight management.

        Unfortunately to the east of the station, the buildings are incredibly valuable, as the line passes underneath the main square in the shopping area Birmingham and as a result the retail and office value of the land is high. The buildings are also somewhat historic; the Rotunda and Moor Street station are both grade II listed and their prominence and heritage value mean it would be very hard to demolish them. These are not insurmountable problems, but they are costly in terms of time, money and local goodwill. At that point I really question whether it is worth it; it would definitely take longer and probably be costlier than just building a new station elsewhere (perhaps a little more along the lines of the Birmingham Grand Central linked above – but far less grand). And with your plan, you end up with curved platforms and no meaningful ability to through-run trains west out of New Street, where the problems with the approaches still exist.

        I would also like to see Alon cover how to do HS2 right!

        • Matthew Hutton

          I might be completely wrong but my image of HS2 would be that you cut and cover under the A34 until the B4217 and then you bore under the middle before doing more cut and cover on the other side under the A41

  15. anonymouse observer

    I bet Phake Nick and other regular commenters knows more about this, but one of (probably) many reasons of the security theater and sheer size of the high-speed rail terminals in Mainland China seems like to make sure passengers don’t bring fireworks and gun powders on board according to an article I found (an interview with a person who publishes timetable of passenger trains in Mainland China in Japanese timetable format). The security screening requires separation of passengers between those who have been screened and others who hasn’t, and because of the speed (takes only 3 seconds per passenger) and volume of passengers who need to be screened, the waiting room needs to be bigger.

    The article says:
    – Back in days, fires and explosions on rail and transit vehicles ignited/triggered by the fireworks and firecrackers carried on by passengers occurred fairly frequently;
    – The security screening of the luggage are tightened in 1980 when a firecracker in a passenger’s luggage exploded on board and killed 22 passengers;
    – Lack of freight rail capacity (they made people to bring fireworks on board on the passenger trains as carry-on to transport instead of shipping), poor quality of fireworks (easy to explode), and ease of ignition (some firecracker could be ignited without fire) made it difficult to deal with the onboard fire/explosion issue;

    Here is the link to the article/interview:

    • Phake Nick

      @anonymouse observer From my understanding the security screening rule for Chinese high speed trains and metro aren’t being executed tightly. Hence they need double security screening for train stations in Xinjiang, as well as for trains bound for Beijing when important political events are held at Beijing in some specific periods which occurs every few times a year. Many in China see it as simply an employment program, much bigger scale than US’s airport security, that is setup to benefit the security contractors and allow them take a share of money out of the process, which are often affiliated with government officials.
      When Chinese HSR got extended to Hong Kong, the to-the-book execution of Chinese railway rules in Hong Kong have caused many teething problems, until they learned that those rules aren’t meant to be executed strictly, and relaxed their execution (Although they soon need to get a second layer of security outside the train station, barring any non-passengers from entering the station, in order to prevent protestors from affecting the train station operation)

  16. michaelrjames

    This is out of left field but I have had this “idea” before and not found a place to put it. (PO has no dropbox for suggestions?).
    It is provoked by an interview on our national broadcaster this morning (ABC-RN*) with David M. Levinson. For a millisecond I thought it was Alon (because RN have broadcast you previously) but Levinson is an American engineer and transport specialist who moved to the University of Sydney in recent years. (I see you are on the advisory board of his (Transport/Urban) Findings journal.) He was discussing exactly what interests me about transport, ie. how it shapes land use, and how land use shapes it or its effectiveness. There was discussion of 30 minute cities etc. Sydney, and Australian cities in general, is horribly sprawled but without even a fully developed rational American-style freeway network let alone a good public transit system (though it has highest mode share by far in Oz, largely due to the luck of being built in the 30s just before the car took over).
    Anyway, of course I googled him and saw a couple of his books that looked interesting, particularly:

    Elements of Access: Transport Planning for Engineers, Transport Engineering for Planners,
    by Wes Marshall, David M. Levinson;
    (2017) ISBN-13 978-1981865185

    (At first glance I thought the cover was a map of Melbourne but on second glance, probably of Copenhagen’s finger plan?)

    But of course it is an academic tome at academic prices; worse, because there must be very few copies in circulation it is even more expensive on Abe (≈$150 and even one at $450 IIRC, the algorithmic curse). Maybe it is too technical and arcane for the general reader, even one interested in urbanism etc? I can’t know and our state library doesn’t stock it.

    So, here’s the “idea”. I use quote marks because I am guessing you have thought of this. PO should have a book review section.
    Now, Alon being genXY or whatever, plus being a peripatetic nomad, is not interested in burdening their life with piles of dead trees, a.k.a. a library, but you’d only need to create a webpage for each book worthy of mention, perhaps beginning with those in the canon, and comments could do the heavy duty. Over the years Amazon has become useless or worse than useless with dominance by ideologues, and their star rating has been bastardised to be meaningless. Publishers might even start sending you books; and while you may not want such stuff you could divert them to willing readers/reviewers from your PO readership. Getting a book from a publisher is usually accompanied by an obligation to provide some kind of review …
    *RN (Radio National) encourage listener feedback. After the interview, the very first txt they read out on air was someone commenting on the tortuous multi-seat ride problem one has in Sydney, that Paris was a dream by comparison and shows how it doesn’t have to be (though not really true–yet, before GPX is built–for the banlieu where most ‘Parisians’ live). It wasn’t me but could have been:-)

    • Sassy

      Maybe I’m being a bit presumptuous, however I would expect Alon to have access to a public library, so needs not burden their life with the maintenance of a private library. The usage of public libraries is extremely useful when trying to access academic tomes, as the cost burden can be shared amongst many people instead of being borne solo.

      That said, the particular book you mentioned seems to be available for $66.26 on Amazon as a paperback, or a mere $8.88 on Kindle. I might be mistaken, or you might be only looking at the hardcover version, or maybe through the power of liberty, unfettered capitalism, and Jeff Bezo’s personal crusade against unions, the book is just cheaper in the US.

      • michaelrjames


        But the Amazon-US price is $74, shipping to Oz is $15 and GST is $7.40 (Oz sales tax, added by Amazon at checkout) for a grand total of US$96.40. (AUD $125).
        That $66 priced book you see is not available to everyone: on clicking it gives the message that that vendor doesn’t deliver to my location, or something like that.
        There are only 2 copies on Abe, one at US$121 and one at $146, with shipping at US$35.00 and US$75.00 respectively. Some vendors gouge on postage because they don’t really want to bother with international orders. So yeah, we’re used to paying more for such things.
        It is “unavailable” on Bookdepository (another Amazon-owned seller based in the Channel Islands UK).
        The Amazon-US site doesn’t show Kindle at all, and these days one is directed to the Australian Amazon Kindle store, but in fact it is not shown on the Oz site either. Presumably some publishing copyright thing. In any case I don’t buy Kindle books. Are sure that $8 was Kindle or just a rental option? In my recollection such books on Kindle tend to be very similar in price to the hardcopy.

        More to the point is whether it is worth the effort or money.

          • michaelrjames


            OK, I can see that page though there is this message: “Kindle titles are available for AU customers on
            Continue shopping on the Kindle Store at” It is on the Oz site (A$12.88 incl. GST). But it is odd that it is not displayed on the book’s main page, either in US or Oz, as they usually are. Not sure I have come across that before but then I don’t pay attention to Kindle at all.

            Also odd, is that I don’t like Kindle or eBooks. I was creating e-documents (including my first, my research masters (on an IBM memory-typewriter), and then my earliest publications–using the world’s first word processor on our institute’s mini-computer (probably Wordstar on a Wang?), then the Mac came just in time for my doctoral thesis; bliss with actual in-document graphics instead of all that literal cut-and-paste & artful photocopying) and reading and creating PDFs before half the commenters here, and PO’s author, were …. probably even born. When sci journals went online in the 90s I loved it because it definitely made life much easier with organising it all on your own hard disk and automating reference systems etc. Though I actually liked hanging out in libraries, that too soon enough fell away–not least because most institutes went over to online subs.

            But here’s the thing: for those critical papers that one really needed to analyse in detail, I always reverted to eco-vandal mode by destroying forests. I printed them out–however I always did double-sided printing! So I could annotate it, highlight, organise in related groups of papers etc in folders (sometimes having two printed copies in different files! and having all title pages, with abstracts, stapled together … etc). Of course one can do all these things for the best e-books/programs but it ain’t the same. There have to be good reasons why e-books never took off, at least nothing like Bezos wanted and this is a big part of it. The notion that it was just older gen/boomers like me who resisted this and genXYZ would embrace it in time, has proven untrue.
            In fact my ideal would be to get the e-book version as an add-on to the print version, at maybe a few dollars surcharge. That is a publishing model that publishers or retailers like Bezos have zero interest in!

            Incidentally my Parisian ‘patron’ was a mathematician-turned-statistical-geneticist who had the superior air of someone who didn’t need to have all that paper; yeah, clean-line office and desk (and mind) … except the hypocrite used to ask us to provide our files of relevant papers when the crunch came (writing papers together, preparing talks, grants etc)! Along similar lines I always remember when Sidney Brenner told a group of us how he disliked how today’s young scientists (he was gazing at us) were obsessed with so much photocopying. (This was decades before his Nobel but everyone knew he would get at least one.) He had a carefully crafted line of wisdom: “instead of spending all your limited precious time xeroxing stuff you should just neurox it!” Yeah, wonderful concept and maybe some people can do it. In Brenner’s glory days–sharing that office with Francis Crick–the entire output of the nascent area of molecular biology could have been held in one hand or one head. Today the tsunami of stuff on even the minutest subject makes it impossible. Heck, even knowing what is out there is nearly impossible let alone telling what is worthwhile. Which is why I would love a specialist reviewing site of the relevant lit. …. In fact of course it exists for science where there are “Annual Reviews in …X” and no end of summaries and reviews etc in weekly journals & newsletters.

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  20. itreb

    I think Italy definitely is operationally french-like, but has some infrastructural differences:
    •number of viaducts and tunnels, tendency to avoid grades is more Japanese or Chinese-like rather than the french slopes and curves approach. This is because most high speed lines were designed to accommodate also heavy freight trains (this never happened in reality)
    •population is denser, but less centralised and more spread out than France, and Italiangeography is more similar to Japan. So services aren’t big city (mainly Paris) to big city with only small towns in between (think of the most profitable route, Milan-Rome, which passes through the big metropolitan areas of Bologna and Florence), and the using historic stations in cities approach showed its limits, so now we have the Bologna high speed bypass and Florence is getting one too. These bypasses are different from the french ones because instead of going around the big city with a station in the outskirts they go below it in tunnels and the high speed station is close to the city center. This has some downsides though as there are many alignment limitations and even if traffic flow is much better as there are no conventional trains interferences, all high speed trains, even non stopping ones, have to slow down below 200 km/h

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