Over the last 10 years a significant shift has taken place in the world of high-speed train travel. As recently as 2008, Europe operated the majority of high-speed railway lines in the world. Today, its high-speed network is small compared to that of China.

Not only is Europe’s high-speed network smaller than that of China, it has fallen behind in each of these three categories:

High-speed rail

The International Union of Railways, or UIC, keeps track of railway developments around the world. In a report from 2009 they predicted that China would become the largest high-speed railway operator in the world by 2025 with more than 11.000 kilometers of high-speed lines that were either planned or already under construction, adding up to a total of 13.126 km to be in operation by 2025.

In reality this turned out to be a gross underestimation. Today, over 35.000 kilometers of high-speed rail is in use in China.

This graph shows only 2008 to 2018, because data for 2019 is not readily available.

High-speed railway traffic

The comparative growth of China’s high-speed rail network is also reflected in its traffic numbers. In 2018, China Railway’s high-speed trains transported a greater number of people over a greater distance (measured in passenger kilometers) than the rest of the world combined.

Travel time

To really understand how far Europe has been left behind though, we need to look not only at volume, but also at the effectiveness of the train as a mode of transport. To gain some understanding of effectiveness, I compiled a dataset containing the amount of time it takes to travel between the five largest cities in the EU, China and Japan by train.

This dataset shows that travelling by train between those cities takes much longer in the EU than it does in China or Japan, even when accounting for the difference in distance. Covering the same distance between those cities costs almost twice as much time in the EU as it does in China, and almost 30% more than in Japan.

Why did Europe fall behind?

The question that arises is how Europe came to be in this situation. Why has it stayed behind, while China grew its railway infrastructure on a massive scale? One factor that could explain this difference is political will. China’s central government has made it a priority to build a fast and efficient railway network, whereas this has not been high on the agenda for the EU.

Another factor is cost. By committing to build a massive number of high-speed lines in a short period of time, China has managed to keep development costs relatively low. According to a report by the World Bank, the cost per kilometer of high-speed rail is as much as 40% lower than it is in Europe.

A possible reason for this, besides the lower cost of labour, is the standardisation of the design of various construction elements.

The existence of a credible plan for building 10.000 km of high-speed rail over a period of 6-7 years has allowed Chinese construction companies to create what is essentially an assembly line process for laying high-speed rail. Even complicated, expensive elements such as tunnels and viaducts have been standardised; greatly reducing construction costs.

That’s not to say there wasn’t significant spending involved. China invested about 340 billion euros in its high-speed rail network between 2005 and 2015. It should be noted that the economic feasibility of some high-speed lines which cover less populated areas is questionable as well. That being said, the World Bank estimates the overall network to be economically successful.

“an ineffective patchwork of national lines”

In the EU, the political will to create a high-speed railway network seems to hardly exist — resulting in “an ineffective patchwork of national lines”, as stated by the European Court of Auditors in a report from 2018. Member states build their rail networks in isolation, without proper coordination across borders. A comprehensive plan for the EU to expand its high-speed rail network does not exist.

A good example of poor collaboration between EU member states is the European Rail Traffic Management System (ERTMS). This system promises a significant cost reduction for international train traffic by standardising signalling systems between countries.

National governments however, have been slow to adopt ERTMS because of the cost associated with the switch. Because of this, international trains need to be equipped with several systems; pushing up the cost of each train set by as much as 60%.

A failure to act could be costly

In order to meet the goals of the Paris climate agreement, the EU will have to find a way to reduce the number of flights within Europe. High-speed rail, with its ability to connect large metropolitan areas in an efficient and environmentally friendly manner, could be a prime candidate to help solve this problem.

Constructing high-speed rail systems is expensive, but when it comes to reducing CO2 emissions, a failure to act could end up costing even more.

Without a comprehensive plan for expanding Europe’s high-speed rail network, catching up with China’s rapid developments will be impossible. It’s difficult to predict the long term economic ramifications, but one thing is for certain: if the EU wants to regain its position as a leader in high-speed railway transport, it needs to get its act together, and fast.