Unlike America, where the dominant position of the automobile remains unchallenged, in the past few decades the most crowded European and East Asian countries have come to appreciate the merits of high-speed (HS) railways. In the forty years since the opening of the first Shinkansen in Japan, the growth of this mode of transport can be likened only to the dramatic advances of railways in the second half of the 19th century.
In 1999, high-speed railways in Japan carried 277m passengers (as against 147m in Europe). In 2003, the Japanese network topped 2000 km and is growing further. In France, the first dedicated line opened in 1981; today the total length of the French HS network approaches 1400 km, with 400 more under construction. The other west European countries with rapidly expanding HS networks are Italy, Germany, Spain and Belgium.
In the past 15 years, the share of HS traffic in all rail traffic in Europe (in terms of pkm, or passenger-kilometres) has grown from year to year: from 5.7% in 1990 to 22.4% in 2002. Even so, Europe is still a way behind Japan.
The efficiency and comfort of high-speed trains has convinced people that distances of a few hundred kilometres can be conveniently covered by rail. The ongoing Air/Rail competition has already caused some airlines to cancel all flights between places as far apart as Paris and Brussels. The impact of HS trains has been felt also on the 750-km route from Paris to Marseilles, which the train covers in exactly three hours. Indeed, why bother to take the train or bus to the airport, submit to the check-in procedure, find a seat on the plane, experience the discomfort of sudden ac- and deceleration and of the varying air pressure, descend from the plane, collect your luggage, proceed to the metro or bus station or taxi rankin order to arrive eventually somewhere near the railway station at your destination?
The success of HS trains is also due to the fact that shorter travelling times encourage people to travel more often.
Initial statistics on the modal split between Air and Rail indicate that over distances of 500 km, the train takes 90% or more of the market. The share of air traffic tends to grow with distance, reaching 90% for trips of more than 1000 km.
This apparent Air/Rail competition takes on a different dimension as we look at what is a very recent development: travelling to/from the airport by (long-distance) high-speed trains.
The first dedicated HS station under an airport terminal was commissioned at Charles de Gaulle ten years ago. Passengers arriving there by TGV take an escalator to the terminal(s) above the station (this principle cannot be consistently implemented at an airport as scattered as CDG is).
A model solution is envisaged for the new Berlin airport, BBI, where local, regional as well as long-distance (ICE) trains will stop at platforms right under the main terminal.
This model should result in a symbiosis of Air and Rail in the sense that HS trains will make airports more easily accessible, while relieving them of the burden of short-haul (and relatively uneconomic) flights.
Recently, the Air/Rail modal split has been impacted by terrorism. Even the most stringent safety regulations will not avert the dangers. The advantage of an airport in the open, purpose-built to take account of the problem, is apparent.