1. Transport
August 3, 2015

High Speed Rail is popping up all over the world. Here's why that's a good thing

By Edward Meng

Developments in high-speed rail (HSR) have had a great deal of exposure in recent months, from the launch of the California High Speed Rail system to the possibility of the world’s longest HSR line between Beijing and Moscow. Cities, regions, and countries around the world are considering HSR as a viable option for passenger travel.

High-speed rail, commonly known as “bullet trains”, are rail transport systems that are significantly faster than traditional rail, reaching sustained speeds of up to 350km(around 200 miles) per hour. Originally introduced in Japan, these systems, where they exist, are already extremely popular. Robust HSR networks are already in place within Europe and East Asia, most notably in France, Germany, Spain, South Korea, Taiwan and China.

The benefits of HSR are numerous. Rail stations, as opposed to airports, are located in city centres, which can make travel between cities, up to a certain distance away, much faster once time to get to the airport, security, and boarding time are factored in. Furthermore, high-speed trains travel faster than automobiles and are not subject to traffic congestion.

Added to that, HSR lessens the demand on roads and crowded airports, and are statistically safer than cars. For example, the French and Japanese high-speed systems have been operational for over 30 years and there have been no passenger deaths as a result of a high-speed crash in either country.

Rail stations can also boost land value, as the areas around stations suddenly become more accessible to a larger number of people and therefore, more attractive to development and real estate interests. Japan Rail East, the largest of the seven companies operating Japan’s HSR network, requires no public subsidy because it owns the land around its stations and is able to capture the added value of that land and reinvest it into its system. Nearly one-third of JR East’s revenue comes from commercial developments along the railway route.

In order to seize these many advantages, Saudi Arabia is planning the Middle East’s first high-speed rail line. The Haramain High Speed Rail project is expected to connect the Muslim holy cities of Mecca and Medina with Jeddah and King Abdullah Economic City (KAEC). The line is expected be over 450km and serve a population of nearly 7m. In addition, the HSR will provide efficient transport to the millions of Hajj and Umrah pilgrims that visit the region each year.

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A map of the Haramain High Speed Rail route. Image: Google Maps/CityMetric’s own extremely high quality work.

Having lived in King Abdullah Economic City for the past five months, I believe the city has a tremendous opportunity to capitalize on the value of its planned high-speed rail system.

The new high-speed rail station, planned to be operational by 2018, represents a major infrastructure project within the city. It will enable easy connection between KAEC and greater Western Saudi region. Moreover, the area around the high-speed rail station has the potential to become an important physical and symbolic gateway to KAEC, expressing the values and aspirations of a modern Saudi Arabia.

The current high-speed rail station, designed by Foster and Partners, in King Abdullah Economic City. Image Source: Edward Meng. 

It is evident that a new city such as KAEC has a clear advantage when it comes to building a high-speed rail system, namely, the site is not currently developed. This comes as a contrast to the challenge faced in already developed areas, such as London, where old or existing infrastructure needs to be adapted or even destroyed to accommodate HSR facilities. As an emerging new city with vast swathes of untouched terrain, the opportunities for development in KAEC are abundant. The types of use, architecture and overall urban experience around the train station should be considered carefully.

High-speed rail can significantly decrease travel times within cities. It also offers wider economic benefits, such as improving accessibility and mobility across regions and increasing land value along its route. If planned strategically, high-speed rail can help new cities around the world attract the citizens they want, while also positioning themselves with the region and within the global community.

Edward Meng is an Impact KAEC Fellow with the New Cities Foundation. He has worked on sustainable transportation and technology projects in Saudi Arabia, China, the San Francisco Bay Area, Boston, New Orleans, Phoenix, Seattle, and Southern California.

This article was originally published on the New Cities Foundation’s blog

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