Fast trains are slowly but steadily becoming an increasingly popular solution to many of the challenges in the transport sector today. The development started in Japan in the 1960s but since then most advanced economies have invested heavily in rolling out similar networks of trains capable of travelling at higher speeds. The pace has accelerated in recent decades with the entry of China, South Korea and other contenders on the global market. Innovations in technologies as well as in institutional settings, business models and modes of financing have made this possible.
In a recent report from Trafikanalys¹ ten global trends in the High Speed Rail (HSR) sector have been identified, for example:
The report summarised here us based on these observations and tries to give more detailed answers to the questions of why and how fast train systems have developed in China and Japan. It also tries to show important factors shaping the future of the fast train development in these two leading countries, as well as in India, which is still in its infancy but has great ambitions and might become an increasingly important player. The purpose is to illustrate the challenges and success factors in the complex process of establishing and operating a high speed rail system, focusing on policies for and governance of innovation and technological development.
Historically, and even more so today, the mobility of passengers and goods has been a vital aspect of economic growth and doing so faster and over longer distances are aspects constantly being contested. For both Japan and China, connecting their major cities and increasing the mobility of their populations to vitalize business have been strong drivers to establish an extensive network of HSR. In China, the transport bottle-necks are today viewed as one of the major threats to continued economic growth – an expanded rail network and faster trains are seen as an important part of the solution. Also in India, rail transportation is very much in focus even though the huge, relatively poor country has yet to get off the ground when it comes to HSR.
Connecting major cities and then connecting smaller or less accessible cities that are currently accessible by air are intended to be realized by means of HSR. In Japan, in addition to its already existing Shinkansen lines, the network is to be extended with the last installation due in the mid-2020s. In January 2004, the State Council of China approved the mid- and long-term railway development plan, including the ambitious HSR strategy of a railway network of four vertical and horizontal corridors throughout the country by 2020 consisting of 25,000 kilometres of dedicated HSR. Again, India’s endeavour to introduce high-speed trains is still in its initial stages but the goal is to extend the network to approximately 4,000 kilometres over the coming years.
A driver that is not to be forgotten is the value of HSR in terms of national prestige, most clearly visible before international events such as the Olympic Games or the Expo. In both China and Japan this has been a very obvious reason to invest heavily in HSR.
Both China and Japan have been able to roll out their networks rapidly and so far with few incidents along the way. China has done it in a much shorter time, which likely has much to do with the strong commitment from the government. China has also had the important advantage of leap-frogging countries like Japan. In any case, the speed of implementation and R&D has been remarkable and policies to benefit from tech-transfer from innovation leaders have been successful. What will happen in the future, now that China has caught up, is a different matter and there are great concerns also within China that the speed of innovation will not be high enough to keep up with its competitors.
For Japan, the cost issue will be of paramount concern in the future. With a decreasing population, HSR is in constant competition with surface and airborne transport and attracting ridership is an important issue for further development. This demographic characteristic has also called for high ambition for exports. Japan’s HSR industry has suffered from gradually increasing competition (not only from China) and is definitely at the higher end of the price range, which is a challenge when competing in the global market.
A unique development has recently been initiated in Japan; a privately funded maglev line connecting Tokyo and Osaka will partially open in 2027 and be completed by 2045. The ambition is not only to shorten the travelling time but also to have the new, dedicated maglev line serve as a second artery between the country’s two economic centres, Tokyo and Hokkaido.
Mass transport of people and goods – further, faster and more sustainable - is the common goal for initiating implementation of HSR in all the countries studied. As HSR consists of many elements in one system, including manufactured products, the motivation to nurture domestic industry is evident in both China and Japan, though the same cannot yet be said of India. Government plays a central role as an initiator of the design and plan of the HSR network, however the extent of current involvement such as in finance, decision-making and operation differs greatly between the countries. The Chinese government still has the dominating power over railway operation while the Japanese government’s involvement has decreased over time.
What is hindering the further development and expansion of the system? Cost will be a barrier to domestic expansion and the financing scheme for Japan’s New Shinkansen lines will involve finance from both national and local governments, i.e. taxpayers’ money, and the legitimacy of some of the new lines will always be contested. Regarding export, long experience of running a safe, efficient system may fall short in the global cost competition. Additionally, successful introduction of a maglev line will bring unprecedented competitive advantage.
China needs to continue improving safety awareness, both to convince the domestic constituency and potential buyers abroad. There is much more than a fast train fleet technology in a high speed train system and the accidents in recent years were rather a good opportunity for China to slow down its high speed development of HSR and focus on system integration and institutional reform. If it can regain its trust in safety, China could continue to be one of the technology and export leaders in HSR.
 Trafikanalys rapport 2012:10, Höghastighetsjärnväg, en global utblick.
Serial number: WP/PM 2013:04
Reference number: 2012/205