Here’s why high speed trains don’t always save that much time

A train zooms through China. Image: Getty.

It’s not often you hear anyone say people had it easier in the old days, but there is one group for whom  perhaps things have got a bit harder: transport pioneers.

In 1731, the first stagecoach from London to Birmingham took two and a half days. A decade later, simple improvements to the poor quality roads meant that journey time had been reduced by 12 hours.

Today, a train from London to Birmingham takes about 1hr20. In a decade, if the construction of High Speed 2 goes to plan, the most expensive and technologically advanced railway project in British history will have reduced that by… 30 minutes. You can’t help feeling a bit short-changed.

Italy last week rejected a plan to increase the speed of its high-speed Milan to Rome line from 300kmph (185 mph) to 350kmph (220 mph). This would have been a fairly big speed increase – but the trains would only reach Rome 10 minutes earlier, and the transport ministry decided it simply wasn’t worth the cost of the extra power needed and the damage to the tracks caused by faster trains.

This all comes down to a cruel twist of mathematics: a small improvement to a slow mode of transport saves far more time than a much bigger improvement to fast one. If you double your speed then, ignoring complications like acceleration and corners, you halve the journey length. But each doubling requires a bigger increase in speed, while each halving results in less time being shaved off.

Here’s a quick example. Let’s say you want to go 640 miles – that’s roughly the straight-line distance from Paris to Vienna, or from London to Edinburgh and back. How long will that take you?


On foot, your average walking speed without roads would probably be about 2-3 mph. Let’s assume 2 mph for now. Walking those 640 miles would take you 320 hours, or about 13 days (not taking into account time to sleep or rest).

With a fit horse, your walking speed could be a sustained 4 mph. That tiny 2mph increase doubled your speed, and halved your travel time, cutting the journey by an incredible 160 hours – almost a week.

With a few more horses, good roads and some regular coaching inns, a stagecoach could do 8 mph. That lets you cut another 80 hours off the journey.

Once railway technology arrives, we can double the speed again to 16 mph – roughly the limit on early lines like Stockton-Darlington or Manchester-Liverpool. At this speed, your journey takes 40 hours. The savings aren’t as great as they were before, but cutting nearly 2 days off the journey isn’t bad.

Double the speed to 32 mph, the journey now takes 20 hours. Double again to 64 mph, it takes 10. At 128 mph – just about the highest speed possible on the British train network outside High Speed 1 – those 640 miles can be covered in just 5 hours.

But now things start getting difficult.

To double the speed again means increasing by another 128 mph, to 256 mph. No regular train runs at this speed anywhere in the world, but there is one contender: the Shanghai maglev. This can reach speeds of 270 mph but at a huge cost. The line is incredibly expensive, and makes a loss every year. If you travelled those 640 miles at 256 mph, the journey would take around 2.5 hours. For all that effort, you’ve saved 150 minutes. It might still be worth it – but it’s a lot of investment for a small gain.

Finally, we can double it one more time to 512 mph. This is roughly the cruising speed of an Airbus A320. Flying all the way, those 640 miles are covered in 75 minutes. The time savings are getting very limited now.

Speed (in miles per hour) and time taken (in hours) to cover 640 miles. The introduction of the horse was probably more important than maglev. Sorry.

Take into account the time needed to accelerate up to top speed and stop at stations along the way, and all this explains why the benefits of exciting high-speed rail projects can be underwhelming. Most intercity transport in the western world is already quite fast: eking out a few more miles per hour makes little difference to journey times except on the longest journeys.

This doesn’t mean there’s never a case for high-speed rail – its convenience can attract air passengers, and the (relative) glamour of express trains can attract passengers who wouldn’t otherwise use railways. But saving time is not necessarily a major advantage.

There is an exception: very long journeys. Over thousands of miles those small time savings can still add up. France and Germany have highly successful intercity high speed lines, because their routes stretch right across the country and beyond into neighbouring countries. If the government ever extends High Speed 2 into Scotland, or manages to integrate cities like Manchester into the Eurostar network, rail passengers might get to enjoy some really good time savings.

For an extreme example, see China, where the 1,400 mile long Beijing-Guangzhou high-speed line more than halved journey times between the two cities. Given that the slower train took over 21 hours, shaving 13 hours off meant it was well worth it (even if many people prefer to fly). Just don’t expect anything quite so dramatic on our little island.

 
 
 
 

How can cities become more bike friendly? The Netherlands offers useful lessons

(Aurore Belot/AFP via Getty Images)

It might seem like cycling is in the DNA of the Netherlands, a country where even the prime minister takes his bicycle to work. But the Dutch haven’t always lived as one with their bikes. In the Amsterdam of the early 1970s, cars were considered the wave of the future. They can be seen filling up squares and streets in historical photographs, and killed an average of over two Amsterdammers per week, including many children.

It is nothing more than an “accident of history” that the Netherlands embraced cycling, says Marco te Brömmelstoet, the director of the Urban Cycling Institute in Amsterdam and a man better known as the city’s cycling professor. Today’s bike rider’s paradise was created after parents and activists took to the streets to protest “child murder” by car. A Saudi oil embargo, rising gas prices, concerns about pollution and anger about the destruction of entire neighbourhoods to build motorways did the rest. 


Amsterdam, 1958. Not a cyclist's paradise. (Keystone/Getty Images)

What’s important about this history is that it can be replicated in other cities, too. Of course, the Netherlands has certain advantages – it’s flat as a pancake, for example. But in the eyes of traffic reformers, the rise of e-bikes (and even cargo bikes) means there’s no excuse for prioritising cars everywhere. 

So how can cities, flat or not, follow Amsterdam’s path to creating places where cycling is a pleasant, safe and common way to get around? The Dutch have some tips. 

Separate bikes from car traffic

Any city could start painting dedicated bike lanes on the streets. But in the Netherlands, those white marks indicating space for cyclists are considered just a minor first step. 

“A line on the road is not enough. Motorists will ignore it,” says Frans Jan van Rossem, a civil servant specialising in cycling policy in Utrecht. If other cities want their residents to choose bikes instead of cars when dodging pandemic-era public transport, protecting them from fast-moving car traffic must be the priority, Van Rossem says. 

The Dutch research institute CROW developed a widely praised design manual for bicycle infrastructure, full of tips for creating these protected lanes: A row of vertical white posts or a curb can serve as a physical separator, for example. Still, cyclists tend to feel safest in a "solitary" path, separated from the road by grass, trees, or an elevated concrete island. 

“The main bottleneck, the main reason why people don’t cycle, is that they don’t feel safe,” Van Rossem notes. “To start, construct separate paths.”

Turn those bike paths into a network

Many cities may have some bike lanes on some streets, but leave cyclists to roll the dice everywhere else. Will conditions still be safe when they turn left or right? Often they have to continue their way without any protected facilities for cyclists. 

“In many cases, cities take fast action, without thinking it through very well,” says Lucas Harms. He leads the Dutch Cycling Embassy, a partnership between the Dutch government and several companies, which promotes Dutch bike knowhow globally. “Don’t build small pieces of bike lane from nothing to nowhere. Think about a network of cycling infrastructure.” 

Utrecht aims to have cyclists within 200 to 300 metres of a connected path anywhere in the city, Van Rossem says. Avoid constructing those paths in sketchy industrial areas, he warns. “A connection through an unattractive area may be fast, but won’t be used a lot.”

Embrace the ‘fietsstraat’, a street where bikes come first


On some streets, drivers have to give up their privileges. (Rick Nederstigt/AFP via Getty Images)

A peculiar Dutch invention called "fietsstraat" (cycling street) holds strong potential for the rest of the world, Kevin Krizek says. He’s a transportation professor from Colorado who spent three years at Radboud University in Nijmegen. 

On cycling streets, cars are “guests”, restricted by a speed limit of 30 kilometres per hour. Drivers are not allowed to pass, so cyclists comfortably dominate the road. In the Netherlands the fietsstraat is usually paved with red asphalt, to resemble a bike path and notify drivers of their secondary status. But creating a cycling street can be easy. “All you need to do is put signs at intersections,” Krizek says. The effect is revolutionary in his view. Drivers have to give up their privileges, and cyclists can take the lead. 

Some Dutch traffic experts worry the cycling street won’t work if a city doesn’t also have a robust cycling culture. In the Netherlands, drivers are aware of the perils of urban cycling because they too use bicycles. Moreover, Dutch cities use sophisticated “circulation plans” to direct cars away from city centres and residential areas, onto a few main routes. 

Without “calming” traffic this way, the cycling street could be a step too far, Harms says. “In a city like New York, where all roads are equally accessible and full, it’s better to separate bicycles and cars,” he says.

Redesign intersections for cyclists' safety

If cyclists have to cross intersections “at the mercy of the Gods”, you’re not there yet, says Harms. When he travels abroad, he often finds clumsily designed crossings. As soon as cars turn, cyclists may fear for their lives. 

Harms recommends placing physical barriers between cars and bikes in places where they must cross. The Dutch build elevated islands to direct traffic into separate sections. The golden rule: cars wait behind bicycles. That way, drivers can see cyclists clearly at all times. Barriers also force Dutch cyclists to turn left in the safest way possible. They cross the street first and wait for their turn again before making their way left.

“You can create that with simple temporary measures,” Harms says. Planters work fine, for example. “They must be forgiving, though. When someone makes a mistake, you don’t want them to get seriously injured by a flower box’s sharp edge.”

Professor Krizek points out how the Dutch integrated cycling routes into roundabouts. Some are small; some are big and glorious, like the Hovenring between Eindhoven and Veldhoven, where cyclists take a futuristic-looking roundabout lifted above the highway. Most of those traffic circles move high volumes of cars and cyclists through intersections efficiently and safely. For a simpler solution, the Dutch manual suggests guiding cyclists to quieter streets – crossing a block up or down may be safer. “Nobody knows how to do intersections better than the Dutch,” says Krizek. 

Ban cars, or at least discourage them


A man rides down from a three-level bicycle parking garage near Amsterdam's main train station. (Timothy Clary/AFP via Getty Images)

The quickest, most affordable way to make a city more bikeable is to ban cars, says Ria Hilhorst, cycling policy advisor for the City of Amsterdam. It will make streets remarkably safe – and will most likely enrage a significant amount of people. 

Amsterdam doesn’t outlaw cars, but it does deliberately make their owners feel unwelcome in the historic city’s cramped streets. Paid parking is hugely effective, for example. Many car owners decide to avoid paying and use bicycles or public transportation for trips into the city. Utrecht, meanwhile, boasts the world’s largest bicycle parking garage, which provides a dizzying 12,500 parking spots.

To further discourage drivers from entering the city’s heart, Amsterdam will soon remove more than 10,000 car-parking spaces. Strategically placed barriers already make it impossible to cross Amsterdam efficiently by car. “In Amsterdam, it is faster to cross the city on a bike than by car,” Harms says. “That is the result of very conscious policy decisions.”

Communicate the benefits clearly

Shopkeepers always fear they will lose clients when their businesses won’t be directly accessible by car, but that’s a myth, says Harms. “A lot of research concludes that better access for pedestrians and cyclists, making a street more attractive, is an economic boost.”

Try replacing one parking space with a small park, he recommends, and residents will see how it improves their community. Home values will eventually rise in calmer, bike-friendlier neighbourhoods without through traffic, Van Rossem says. Fewer cars mean more room for green spaces, for example.

“I often miss the notion that cycling and walking can contribute a lot to the city. One of the greatest threats to public health is lack of exercise. A more walkable and bikeable city can be part of the solution,” says Ria Hilhorst. “But in many countries, cycling is seen as something for losers. I made it, so I have a car and I’m going to use it, is the idea. 

“Changing this requires political courage. Keep your back straight, and present a vision. What do you gain? Tranquility, fewer emissions, health benefits, traffic safety, less space occupied by vehicles.” 

Again, she points to Amsterdam’s history. “It is possible; we were a car city too.”

Karlijn van Houwelingen is a journalist based in New York City.