Why high speed trains?

For a number of years there have been discussions about high-speed railways in Sweden.


Obviously to cut down the time to travel by train. But, that answer may not include consideration to other Why's that are important to various interested parties.

So, I ask the question again.


Here I will use this scenario as an example for some thoughts about more complex development situations.

Sweden is situated in the north of Europe. Besides a long land border to Norway and a shorter land border to Finland, Sweden is surrounded by water. Rail and road traffic to and from central Europe runs via the southern part of Sweden. There is one bridge between Sweden and the rest of Europe, and a number of ferry lines. Transports by planes and ships completes the picture.

There are three large cities that may be connected by high-speed trains:

  • Stockholm, the capital of Sweden
  • Göteborg (Gothenburg) on the southwestern coast
  • Malmö in the south, where there is a bridge to Denmark's capital Köbenhavn (Copenhagen)

    Sweden in Europe, simple map   South Sweden, sketch with possible high-speed railway lines, simple map

    The landscape in the south of Sweden is mainly flat lowland, with several watercourses and lakes. Railways in Sweden winds their way through the landscape, adapted to the nature and to towns and cities that were established before the railways were constructed.

    The first part of the railway between Gothenburg and Stockholm was opened in 1856 - 15 kilometres long between Gothenburg and Jonsered. The top speed was 40 km/h. In 1862 the first trains could travel between Gothenburg and Stockholm, a journey that took some 14 hours.

    Bifrost, made by Nyqvist & Holm AB (NOHAB) in 1882   A Vabis passenger wagon built in 1901, 2nd class this end and 3rd class other end

    Over the years there have been a number of changes that have cut down travel times. Examples are longer distances with two tracks for trains in opposite directions and improved safer signal systems that allow trains in the same direction to drive with shorter distance between them. Another change is that many railway stations have been closed down as the number of passengers that used them became too low compared to the costs to have a train stop at the station. A cost both in money and time.

    The Swedish X2000 trains with a construction where the carriage leans inwards in curbs, allow higher speed on traditional railway tracks. However their travel time is depending on among others slower trains and places where these can be passed.

    Basically though, it is the same old railway line. And in this part of Sweden the railway between Göteborg / Malmö and Stockholm is well filled with train traffic.

    Train used on the museal railway Anten-Gräfsnäs

    One solution - a new separate high-speed railway
    To achieve a short travel time with trains there are two important factors - railway tracks that are constructed for high speed and few stops along the way.

    With the purpose to get faster train connections between Stockholm and the two large cities closer to the continent, a natural solution is to construct new high-speed railways as straight as possible (like on the map above). Suitable stops can be near the cities Jönköping where the railway from Stockholm splits, and Linköping that is situated close to the new railway and at a suitable distance from Stockholm and Jönköping.

    This purpose includes a wish for cleaner transports. The amount of carbon dioxide from a X2000 train that runs 1000 metres is equivalent to a bus driving 15 centimetres (0.15 metres) or a car driving 7 centimetres or a plane flying 4 centimetres. Calculated on 'clean' electricity from among others hydroelectric power plants in Swedish rapids, and the fuels used in 2007. I don't know if this include factors like transports of fuel from oil plants to petrol stations.

    Some positive effects with this solution:

    • Much shorter travel times for passengers between Göteborg / Malmö and Stockholm.
    • Environmental benefits through reduced air traffic, when the travel times by train get down towards two hours.
    • Less congestion on todays railway lines improve the situation for local and regional passenger train traffic, and for cargo trains (that may take over some cargo that today go by trucks). Less congestion on airport runways.
    Naturally there are negative effects too, like:
    • High construction costs. This have to be considered in a whole, with all aspects of costs and benefits for the society. One factor is that these three cities doesn't have so large populations compared to other cities on the planet where high-speed trains are used or planned, even though Stockholm also is a destination for politicians, business people and tourists.
    • Fewer stops where passengers can get on and off the high-speed trains.
    • A new railway line will have a large impact on nature and social life. More people will be disturbed where the new railway pass populated areas. To place the tracks in tunnels, on bridges and pillars, and use sections with covered ditches (with vegetation on the top) reduce the barrier effect.
    • A new railway line may also have larger negative effects on local extra sensible natural areas. This ought to be seen in the context of the total environmental changes from the new railway.
    Some other thoughts:
    • A high-speed railway may be used for high-speed cargo trains with cargo like fresh fruit from the port in Göteborg to Stockholm, to reduce road traffic with trucks. However this also requires cargo terminals, and a higher risk of accidents and wear on the tracks that give traffic stops.
    • To construct the high-speed tracks and vehicles with standard sizes allows these vehicles to be transported on normal railways if needed, and allows usual maintenance vehicles to be used on the high-speed railways.
    • It is a challenge with the Lake Mälaren between the central railway station in Stockholm and the south area of Stockholm that is situated on a higher level with railway and other tunnels through the rock. After decades of discussions, construction work is now going on with a new tunnel for normal trains - partly on the bottom of the lake and partly through the rock under the south area of the city. To find a good solution for a separate high-speed railway too, may be a challenge. One solution is to let the high-speed trains use the normal railway through the south of Stockholm, but that will be low-speed traffic. Another is to (like one of the French TGV high-speed lines that passes Paris) let passengers change to a commuter train in one of the southern suburbs, but that will probably have too many negative effects in this case. A third solution may be to let the high-speed railway go west from Stockholm, past Västerås, around the lake and then head south.
    With the purpose to get faster train connections between Stockholm and Göteborg / Malmö, this ought to be a good solution.

    X2000 high-speed train for use on normal railway tracks

    But ...
    However, there are more interested parties that often have other purposes and ideas.

    Some examples:

    • There is not an unlimited amount of fundings for the transport infrastructure, and there are various parts that may contribute if they see positive effects for their businesses. Other geographical areas in Sweden have no interest in a high-speed railway between Stockholm and Göteborg / Malmö, but they may well need and want other investments that will improve their situation.
    • There are parties that want better communications between Stockholm and communities in a larger area around Stockholm. Shorter time for travel will expand the area where people live and work. For example increase the possibility for people to live in Norrköping and commute daily to their work in Stockholm. A separate high-speed train may not stop in Norrköping, so that solution will not be a direct help. But, to remove the passengers who travel between Stockholm and Göteborg / Malmö from todays railway will improve other possibilities for shorter travel times between Norrköping and Stockholm. Maybe that improvement can be arranged without large investments, and local interested parties be willing to contribute to the high-speed railway even if it doesn't stop in the area.
    • To decrease the long-distance passenger traffic on todays railway lines may open possibilities to increase shorter distance traffic. An improved regional railway service with more stops near larger cities may reduce commuter car traffic.
    • There is an airport south of Stockholm, where some people think a new high-speed railway ought to have a stop. In such cases it is good to refer to the main purpose of the investment, and ask - Why? It may well be a suitable place for a high-speed railway stop for passengers between Stockholm and the airport, but is it positive for others too?
    • Individual persons and smaller groups of persons may oppose to parts of the solution, and use democratic ways to try to change the plans. They may have many reasons, from more personal to objections connected to sensible natural areas.
    So, what to do?

    A normal speed passenger train

    A kind of conclusion
    Situations like this are complex, and there are not any simple solutions. But they are interesting and challenging situations, so I'll write a little about it in simple words.

    What is the main purpose for the investment? How to find it? How will the choise of main purpose affect other functions?

    I think it is important to identify all 'the problems' first. Identify what doesn't work so good today, and also what may become problems in the near future. Describe the problems (not any solutions). Do you understand these problems? Why others see them as problems?

    One way to create an overview, is to make a simple list of solutions to each problem. What effect will each solution have, both positive and negative? Maybe one solution gives ideas to solutions that can solve more problems? Which problems and solutions seem to have connections, that may found a base for the main purpose?

    When a main purpose is chosen, test it to the problems. How many may be solved? How many will remain as problems, maybe as different problems? Will there be other positive or negative effects for items that haven't been identified as a problem today?

    And so on ...

    Remember that it is often much more pleasant to focus on the positive effects - but don't neglect the other effects and the risks. Let's say that the high-speed railway has a stop in Jönköping. What happens if there is a local power failure in Jönköping?

    To handle challenges like this will be a heavy load, but often these heavy tasks concern large and long-lived constructions. They have to be handled in a good way.

    X2000 high-speed train for normal railway tracks

    Yes, I like thoughts like this.

    5 October 2010   AG Informice www.granfoss.se/aginformice   Arne Granfoss ©