Some countries are facing problems with their high speed railways

This is a guest article by Andrew Bodman.

There are those that suggest we should build more high speed rail in the UK to keep up with other countries. Let us look at a few of them before returning to the UK.


The Portuguese government has decided to suspend construction of its €3.3bn Lisbon-Madrid high speed rail link. This was debated in their parliament on June 30th and July 1st, following their €78bn bailout by the International Monetary Fund and European Union. Suspending this project is not a requirement of the bailout, but the idea is to guard against possible external and internal risks. Portugal’s debt as a proportion of GDP was 93% at the end of 2010. In the UK the figure was 52% at the end of last year, and is now believed to have risen to 60%.


From July 1st, Spain will be axing the high speed train running between Toledo, Cuenca and Albacete. This high speed line, which cost €3.5bn, was opened last December; however only 9 passengers (on average) used this route per day. The failed route was costing €18,000 per day to operate. This is one of several austerity measures intended to drastically shrink public spending and reduce Spain’s borrowing costs.

Edited to add: Christian Wolmar points out on his website that
“The line to Albacete is a spur off the main high speed route to Valencia, and similarly, Toledo is a branch on the line down to Sevilla and Malaga. AVE, the high speed service, was running services between the two via Madrid but they proved little used, so the service was broken into two halves, cancelling one of the three trains per day between Albacete and Madrid.”


France’s plans for TGV expansion are running into financing problems because of the recession and the county’s high budget deficit. “We risk having longer and longer high-speed lines which are used less and less“; so said the president of the SNCF, Guillaume Pépy. He thinks that France is going too fast in its further construction of high speed lines. TGV fares have increased by 100% in the last decade compared to about 30% for car travel. Pépy went on to say: “The whole basis of the high-speed rail revolution – that the TGV should be the “normal” means of travel, not just something affordable by the business elite – is under threat”. The SNCF president also described the state railways as: “Decaying… facing a financial impasse… and heading for the wall”. He should know better than most.


Earlier this year Reuters reported: “The Dutch high-speed train operator could face eventual bankruptcy unless steps are taken to boost its viability, after little more than a year of full services”. However passenger numbers have increased, from a low of 15% occupancy on some trains, following the decision by the operator to reduce its price premium for high speed rail tickets.

Plans for a high speed line from Amsterdam to Germany (HSL-Oost) have been suspended. The scope of the project has been reduced, and the Dutch have no plans to run high speed trains on this route in the near future.


In 2009 it became necessary for the Taiwanese government to take over the running of the Taiwan High Speed Rail Corporation as it was almost bankrupt, two years after it first started running its high speed trains. One of the contributing factors to the financial problems was that passenger numbers were approximately one third of those that had been forecast.


China has incurred a vast amount of debt during the building of its high speed rail network. The debt was estimated to have reached 2 trillion yuan (US$304 billion) by the end of 2010. The Chinese Railways Ministry is required to pay interest of up to 120 billion yuan (US$ 18.26 billion) each year. Apparently the railway system is currently only able to pay interest on the debt, and is unable to repay any of debt itself.

One comment reported by Reuters may strike a chord: “Professor Zhao cited the line from eastern Henan province’s capital Zhengzhou to the Shaanxi city of Xi’an as the perfect example of a white elephant rail project.”It is basically empty,” he said. In the first six months after its launch in February 2010, the railway reported 1.98 million passengers. It was designed for 37 million a year.”

Following some safety concerns, the speed of the trains has been reduced from 380 kph to 300 kph.


In February this year, Florida’s governor Rick Scott turned down a $2bn government incentive to develop a high speed rail link from Tampa to Orlando. He believed passenger numbers to be overestimated, and that the state would have to pick up the bill for subsidies because the line would be unable to pay for itself. His decision follows very similar decisions made in Ohio and Winsconsin.

United Kingdom

We only have the experience of HS1 to draw on. Some may remember that 18 Javelin carriages were taken out of service four months after the line was completed in 2009 due to low passenger usage. In April 2011 a Telegraph reporter noted there were more than 200 empty seats on a peak time train leaving St Pancras at 6:10pm. Off peak usage was described as 90% empty.


What can we learn from this? There is a tendency to overestimate demand for high speed rail lines.  Aalborg University found that nine out of ten rail projects overestimated passenger demand, the average overestimation being 106%. Serious financial difficulties have been experienced on some of the more recently constructed high speed lines. A government with a high level of debt finds it prudent to suspend further investment in a high speed rail project.

12 comments to “Some countries are facing problems with their high speed railways”
  1. Why are you making such a fuss over the withdrawal of srvices to Toledo? Trains still run to Toledo, it’s just the high speed service that has been withdrawn. And no wonder, Toledo is a small town, the equivalent of Berwick-Upon-Tweed. The High Speed line, AVE, stil runs between Madrid and Seville, and Madrid and Barcelona.

    As for France, the TGV is the only part of SNCF that runs without a subsidy. The rest of the French network generally makes a loss, hence the Presidents plea for more money for his services.

    I see that despite the fact you have been telling us that the UK is different, so special that we don’t need HS2, you are now telling us we are exactly the same as other countries. Make up your mind! You cannot have it both ways.

  2. hmmmm – i wouldnt put much stock in a decision made by a republican as they dont believe in any form of transit apart from planes and cars ! they want to reduce the debt (apart from the odd £18 billion here and there on so-called defense spending) but oh no cant have tax increases ! scott’s decision was wrong simple as that.

    france already has most of its major population centres connected by hsr and has just announced another new line. the state railways also face problems with many lines in sparse areas which need levels of subsidy that TGV does not. Pepys also recently said that with hindsight Paris Lyon would have been built with 4 tracks and suggested the same for HS2.

    Portugal has put the current hsr construction on hold not cancelled it. They have worse debt problems then we do and we are not in any case building HS2 yet either !

    The Dutch line had problems with the new signalling and is still waiting on the appropriate domestic trains.Direct trains from London to Rotterdam and Amsterdam will commence in 2013.

    The story about Spain makes it seem as if the new line has been mothballed but in fact it is one of the services on the line that has been withdrawn according to the link provided.

  3. Some countries are facing problems with their high speed railways.

    Well that’s ok, because as the anti campaign is always reminding us, the UK is different to everywhere else.

    Nothing to see here, move along.

  4. Do please at the site disagree that the existing rail network is reaching full capacity and that Hs2 is designed to help the capacity issue. Or do you disbelieve this, but if to do you are wrong, the capacity is one of the reasons why we need Hs2. The capacity is not only rising for people but for fright too. DB Schenker Rail UK has moved 15% moved more cars by rail than the same period last year and they have operated the first fright on Hs1 on 27 May 2011. The increase in fright is just a myth then, I believe not . So the capacity issue, do you agree you are wrong. The rail growth for people is also growth, so where do you think that the extra capacity will be from, if not from Hs2.

    Regarding the time saving, this a big benefit from Hs2 and therefore make travels from Birmingham to London an easy option for day to day business, and I not a fat cat just normal business person who has to work in London. The time saving of Hs2 increase the business travel to London / Europe and therefore allow jobs to grow. People are this site say that the time save will not brig job growth but you are so wrong, that like driving at 40mph on “A” road to 70mph on the M6 which will get your there first.

    Why does most of the big companies and councils in the Midlands agree that HS2 is need, are they all wrong or it is you that is wrong

    • So you want an ultra fast rail line to give more capacity to freight! … and the line doen’t even go past DIRFT.

      The time saving is a nice to have, no more than that.

      Most of the councils are not for it. Just the ones who think they will benefit at the expense of other councils who will lose out. They are against it.

      • Councils for Hs2 – bimingham, staffordshire, soilhull that three off the top of my head, so they are all against it, again NOT. I see that you dont disagree that fright will you it and a 15% increase in one year for Hs1. Also frights depto will also be built on Hs2 which will increae the damand, again how do you disgree. if not saying not in my back yard?

            • Of course they did , as would any council with half a collective brain where the trains fly through without stopping. People living in those authorities will be adversely effected by the line, adversely effected by the construction of the line and still have to pick up their share of the bill.

              We know about Birmingham and Solihull ( the only places in the Midlands with a stop — with the likely exception of East Midlands Airport ). They think they will steal a march on Coventry, Wolverhampton etc in terms of Business Rates income.

              Anybody else notice that the person appointed to head up the group of MPs pushing HS2 is Gisela Stuart MP. Spent the first 19 years of her life in Germany, originally from Bavaria. The Head Office of Siemens ( them of Thameslink fame ) is in Munich. I’m sure this is just a coincidence , but what were the odds on that !

    • capacity capacity capacity

      trouble is in the economic system we’re in there is always pressure for growth in transport. more transport capacity = increased travel by car, train, air (more people on trains creates more space on roads and runways to be filled yet again) = increasing population whether by birth or immigration = eventual complete urbanisation of britain

      why not do something different\? why not say lets slow down capacity growth. lets get stability and a measured , sustainable way of living our lives as humans.

  5. I trust a certain Mr Hammond will be made aware of these facts?? It will be interesting to see what spin will be put on this but it is clear that high speed rail is not the cure all that some would lead us to believe but indeed may turn out to be an expensive white elephant. Sounds like what right minded people against HS2 have been saying all along!

    • No need to put any spin on it…….the facts are already there. We already have high speed rail trunk routes, of which the WCML is very profitable. But the glaring fact is that it is very nearly full……and wont accomodate the current rates of growth. Lets also not forget the UK operates some 25000 trains a DAY, its pretty much one of the most intense networks in the world, in fact there are more train operating in Kent than there is in Holland, Belgium and Portugal combined. Add in the fact that UK population growth is now at 500000 per year…….

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