10/13/2010

Geneva-London: train or plane

In just a few years we might be able to go to London in 5 hours on a high speed train: explanations and reflections on the response of the airlines, plus a connection with the miners in Chile


There have been a number of newspaper articles suggesting that by 2014 we might be able to go from Geneva to London in under 5 hours by high speed rail. Other European destinations might equally be feasible (in much less time than when I recently took most of the day to get from Geneva to Berlin by rail). It is interesting to look at this possibility from two aspects: the technical challenge and the possible response of the airline companies.

On the technical level, the problems have already mostly been solved. Thankfully, although many European countries have some narrow-gauge lines (not always the same gauge), there is one universal standard gauge, sometimes also referred to as Stephenson gauge after the railways pioneer George Stephenson (he of the Rocket and the Stockton and Darlinton Railway).

The real problems arise from the different power supplies via the overhead power lines. For the first high speed trains (TGVs) in France, the trains had to run on the 1.5 kV DC power as used in much of France, plus the newer 25kV 50 Hz AC on the newly constructed high speed lines. Thus, the first TGVs were bi-current, with separate pantographs for AC and for DC power.

When the TGVs came to Switzerland they also had to accept the 15 kV, 16.7 Hz AC supply common to Switzerland, Germany and Austria. Thus, the French industry converted 9 of their trains to be tri-current. However, the story does not end there, because there is also a 3 kV DC supply used in Belgium. Thus, there is the need to have quadri-current trains. Then, just to add a further complication, Swiss trains use narrower pantographs than those in Germany and Austria.

There is currently a dispute raging over the choice, by Eurostar,of trains to be built by the German company Siemens, whereas the French Government would much have preferred their own company, Alstom. Power politics and big business make difficult bedfellows!

For the section into London, there is no problem because, although the United Kingdom has long used diesel-powered trains or electric trains powered from a third (live) rail, the line from the channel tunnel to London uses the more standard overhead power line. Of course, a continuation inside the UK might take much longer.

So, if this does actually come to pass by around 2014, what might be the reaction of the airlines. In terms of fares and service, they could probably respond adequately, though there might be some dependency on whether the UK Government increases airport capacity, either by more runways at existing airports or by building a new airport (possibly in the Thames estuary, though that is a longer-term development).

It is equally true that the actual journey time (the time inside a moving transport object!) will remain much less for the airlies than for the trains. However, given the extra delays involved in airline journeys (security, baggage storage and collection, waiting inside lounges and the transport from airport to city centre), the overall door-to door journey time might not be much different.

There is a parallel here with the time when the Channel Tunnel actually opened, at which time it was predicted that the cross-channel ferry companies would suffer a lot. This did not in fact happen, since these ferry companies reacted by increasing frequencies, streamlining the operations and offering special deals to registered customers: it is also true that the overall number of people crossing the Channel has greatly increased.

Could the airlines do the same? Maybe, but they have some corners that they cannot cut. The main one would probably be that security considerations will remain more important on aircraft than on trains, since the consequences of any terrorist action, though frightening, are more limited on trains than similar actions on aircraft.

And the connection to the miners in Chile (I woke up at 5am this morning, just in time to see the first of the miners come up to the surface)? Well, although the lamps used by miners are sometimes called Davy lamps, in 1818 George Stephenson independently designed a safety lamp not dissimilar to that of Sir Humphry Davy. There was then a bitter dispute as to who first had the idea: history suggests that Davy won out, but history tends to be written by the winners!

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