Written by Damiano Scordamaglia
High-speed rail (HSR) started developing in Europe in the late 1970s, first in France and Italy, and subsequently in Germany, Spain and the UK, among others. In the early stages, its development took place largely at national level. The EU started providing specific support to European rail projects with the establishment of the trans-European transport network (TEN-T) in the early 1990s, some priority projects of which concern HSR. The EU also promotes HSR development through other means, including technical harmonisation measures, security systems and funding instruments. The importance of high-speed rail has increased over time in the EU in terms of network length, number of passengers carried and modal share. Nevertheless, EU Member States each have their own specific characteristics in this regard.
The impact of HSR on economic growth and sustainable regional and urban development is not easily measurable, each project having to be analysed individually. HSR can contribute significantly towards meeting some of the objectives – notably on energy efficiency and reduction of emissions – set by the 2011 European Commission White Paper on Transport. To this end, specific targets for developing the HSR network are set out in the Roadmap to a Single European Transport Area. Worldwide, the development of HSR lines could also provide commercial opportunities for the technological know-how of the EU rail industry on foreign markets. However, the sector’s future depends on a diverse range of political, economic and technical factors or challenges, among them the increasing costs of rail works and infrastructure, varying rates of investment returns, and the adverse impacts of the recent economic crisis. In the context of budgetary constraints, public authorities in some EU countries have questioned HSR’s overall added value.