Europe on a fast track to high-speed rail

/ Source: Business Week

It's no secret that Europe's passenger train system is far superior to America's. The trains run on time, they're comfortable, they're affordable, and they have well-stocked dining cars. Most important, however, they're fast.

Starting with the birth of France's TGV (Train a Grand Vitesse, or High-Speed Train) in 1981, the European train industry (led by Alstom in France and Siemens in Germany) has been on the forefront of high-speed innovation. Streamlined design, underfloor traction systems, and tilting technology have brought the European high-speed train up to speeds of 186 mph (300 km/hr). The limiting factor now is no longer the trains themselves, but the tracks on which they run.

Although the TGV, Germany's ICE, Spain's AVE, and Italy's TAV (see our slide show to learn what all these abbreviations stand for) all maintain respectably high speeds within their own countries, the moment a train crosses a border, things tend to get a little complicated.

Although each of these countries has its own system of high-speed tracks, their neighbors often don't share it. For exactly this reason, both the Eurostar (which connects London to Paris and Brussels) and the Thalys (which runs between Paris and Amsterdam and Cologne, stopping in Brussels on the way) have had difficulties maintaining the high speeds promised by their TGV designs.

Off the tracks
Neither Britain nor The Netherlands has kept pace with the aggressive advances in rail technology made by France, Belgium, and Germany. The current travel time for the Eurostar's route between London and Paris is 2 hours and 35 minutes -- 20 minutes slower than it should be, given the train's technical specifications. The Thalys' situation is even worse, taking 4 hours and 11 minutes to go from Paris to Amsterdam, when it should be closer to three hours.

A similar problem inhibits high-speed trains in the U.S. Amtrak's Acela Express, which connects Boston, New York, and Washington, D.C., is technically capable of speeds upwards of 150 mph hour -- it runs on an Alstom-designed TGV engine -- but the tracks aren't up to par, and there's little support for initiatives to improve them.

And the Acela is the fortunate one: A number of proposals for other high-speed train routes — most notably the Texas TGV and California Senator Diane Feinstein's proposed Los Angeles-San Francisco connection — have never moved beyond the drawing board.

Floating along
Due to legal opposition from Southwest Airlines, the Texas TGV, which proposed to connect Houston, Dallas, and San Antonio in 1991, was discarded in 1994. The California line, on the other hand, is still an official possibility, but Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger conspicuously omitted any funding for the California High-Speed Rail Project in his recent 10-year, $222 billion Public Works Bond.

In comparison, therefore, the Eurostar and the Thalys don't have it so bad. Britain has already completed the first half of its Channel Tunnel Rail Link, and the other half is slated to finish by 2007, which will shave 20 minutes off the ride. Plans for a new high-speed track for the Thalys in Amsterdam are also in place, but the anticipated completion date isn't until 2008.

Even as these updates are under way, a new technology could soon render them obsolete. Engineering companies are working to perfect magnetic levitation, or maglev for short, which uses electromagnetic energy to let trains literally levitate a few millimeters above the track. Because there's absolutely no friction between the train and the rails, maglev has the potential to push trains up to near jet speed.

Upgrade expense
Currently, Shanghai has the only high-speed maglev railway in operation -- running from the airport to the city center -- but its record-breaking high speed of 311 mph (501 km/hr) has attracted the world's interest, and now there are small-scale high-speed maglev projects in development in Munich, Pittsburgh, Baltimore, and several other cities across the globe.

Once again, however, the track is the limiting factor. Much like conventional high-speed trains, maglev trains require their own specialized tracks -- and, although construction costs are comparable to those of standard high-speed tracks, the price is sufficiently high (about $53 million per mile) to make potential investors think twice.

So for the time being, high-speed maglev projects probably will remain small, serving primarily as commuter rails. But don't be surprised if you end up riding a train without wheels several years down the line.