The Downside of High-Speed Rail

by Laurent Vermeersch

High-speed rail is generally regarded as the pinnacle of attractive and green transportation. But all too often, it makes train travel more expensive and less flexible. In the end, costly high-speed lines may just push more people into cars.

Since Dec. 9, a new high-speed service called the Fyra connects Brussels and Amsterdam. It is controversial in both Belgium and the Netherlands because there is already a fast train connecting both capitals and the popular Benelux train was axed after more than 55 years of service.

A Benelux train in 1981. Source: Wikimedia Commons

The Benelux took nearly three hours but connected more cities (including The Hague) and ran every hour, 16 times a day. The ticket price was based on the distance, so it didn't matter when you booked. If you missed a train or decided to stay longer, you could simply take the next one with the same ticket. On the other hand, you could end up standing in the aisle at busy moments because there were no reservations.

The new Fyra takes only two hours and makes only three intermediate stops, just like the Thalys. If you want to pay a reasonable price for your ticket, you have to book a seat weeks ahead. Reservations are compulsory, and switching dates or trains comes with an additional charge. On top of that, the Fyra only runs every two hours.

The futuristic Fyra. Source: Belgian Rail

Result: less choice, more expensive tickets, less flexible traveling and fewer trains.

Don't get me wrong: I love high-speed trains. Nothing beats traveling from the heart of Paris to central London in less time than I need to read the Sunday paper. But, too often, the introduction of high-speed trains is accompanied by the cancellation of existing lines. Fast trains may attract more business clients and long-distance travelers, but expensive trains also push many of the old customers into cheaper and more flexible forms of transportation, such as cars and buses.

It's no coincidence that long-distance bus companies are blooming with the proliferation of high-speed rail across Europe. Even SNCF, France's national railway company, recently started its own bus company. It looks like they're trying to recover some of the customers they lost when regular trains made way for faster ones.

It's understandable that railway companies are trying to increase profits. But if railways are not reducing our carbon footprint and easing congestion, do they still have a raison d`être? If high-speed rail eliminates cheaper and slower alternatives, we should wonder if it's really worth the investment.

Laurent Vermeersch is a Brussels-based historian and journalist. He works as a staff writer for and keeps a blog called Connect with him on Twitter @thecitygeek.

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  1. In theory, there is nothing wrong with using long-distances buses for the cheaper and slower service. Now, not only does the slow service still exist, but there is also a fast option. Often buses are less comfortable and the station location less convenient, but in many cases these are minor losses, easily offset by HSR's gain in mobility.

    Of course, in this case the fast option is not much faster, so the cost-benefit analysis looks much worse.

    The reservation system would be OK if it were limited to a "first class" car on the train.

    1. what about the environmental effects of bus versus train?

  2. I don't have the figures with me, but I read in the past that there's an evironmental threshold somewhere around the 250km/h. European high speed trains run at 350km/h. Moreover, the environmental impact and economic costs of the infrastructure of high speed trains are far larger as they don't admit curves or slopes, fully affecting the environmentally sensitive areas they cross on highly complex structures.
    While the poverty rate in Europe has been fastly growing since 2009, it is difficult to understand how governments spend such huge amounts of public money in relatively inefficient transport systems.
    I also read that a full bus is less polluting than a half-full speedy train.

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