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The Economics of Investment in High-Speed Rail

image of The Economics of Investment in High-Speed Rail

High-speed trains can compete successfully with road, air and conventional rail services on densely trafficked routes where willingness to pay is sufficient at the relatively elevated fare levels needed to cover costs. High-speed rail investments can also relieve congestion on the conventional rail network, and the capacity for high-speed rail to provide fast city centre to city centre services creates new possibilities for day-return business trips and short-stay leisure trips.

The long cost recovery periods for high-speed lines imply government involvement in the financing of most investments. The high costs mean that governments can be exposed to accumulation of large debts, particularly if demand develops more slowly than expected. Where high-speed rail investments are designed to promote regional integration rather than meet commercial demand, significant subsidy from central and regional governments will be needed for the construction of infrastructure and possibly also for train operations.

This report examines the key factors that drive the costs of high-speed rail investment and reviews the economic benefits delivered by high-speed rail services on the basis of experience in countries that have developed large high-speed rail networks.

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The financial and economic assessment of China's high-speed rail investments

A preliminary analysis

International Transport Forum

China has suffered railway capacity constraints for more than several decades and the need for a large increase in rail capacity has been viewed as the primary challenge. The former Chinese Ministry of Railways believed that building a national wide high-speed railway (HSR) network was the most efficient solution to China’s rail capacity problems. By 2012, 9 000 km of HSR line has been completed which accounted more than half of the total in the World and the other 9 000 km HSR line is either under construction or in the planning stage. This paper attempts to discuss the initial operational, financial and economic result of such a large scale HSR investment in China where the establishment of an appraisal system for a HSR project is still underway and the public data in need are not available. Based on some trial studies carried out on several HSR projects, however, the paper shows that except for a limited amount of HSR projects in the most developed areas of the country, the initial financial and economic performance of most HSR lines are generally much poorer than expected. The scale of investment seems to be difficult to justify, given that investment in HSR lines is very expensive, especially for those with design speed of 350 km/h, and the high level of debt funding. Moreover the values of time of the ordinary Chinese are still low by European standards. For a developing country planning HSR projects, one lesson that can be learnt from China is that it would be ideal if a comprehensive appraisal can be taken into account before investing in HSR. Such appraisal includes examination of different options for technical and operational standards, timing of investment, construction scale and pace, train operational scheme and service level, pricing and regional development policy (political consideration). At the very least, a step by step development strategy should be adopted to cope with the huge uncertainties and risks.

English

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