Page last updated at 15:20 GMT, Thursday, 11 March 2010

The opportunities and challenges of high speed rail

By David Miller
BBC Scotland's Environment and Transport correspondent

High speed train
High speed rail could bring major business opportunities to Scotland

The government says it is determined to push ahead with plans for a high speed rail link between London and Birmingham.

But it will be decades before trains capable of travelling at 250 miles per hour arrive in Edinburgh or Glasgow.

In France, it's called the TGV.

In Germany, it's the ICE.

And in Spain, rail passengers rely on the AVE to whisk them at high speed between key cities.

European lessons

British tourists travelling by train on the continent often spend much of the journey lamenting the fact that the UK has fallen so far behind its European rivals.

So what can we learn from our nearest neighbours?

Here in Scotland, it's the Spanish high speed rail network which provides the most pertinent lessons.

Madrid's giant Atocha rail terminal is 385 miles from Barcelona. That's roughly the distance from Glasgow or Edinburgh to London.

But in Spain, the journey from one city to the other now takes just two and a half hours. It used to take as much as seven hours.

The Spanish government believes political will and huge investment has delivered economic and environmental dividends.

Examples? Take Zaragoza.

TGV High speed train
France has had a high speed rail link for more than 25 years

It's emerging as an important new business hub. Why? It's the only station between Madrid and Barcelona and has reaped the rewards which radically improved transport links have provided.

The new high speed line may have been good news for travellers but it has been bad news for the airlines.

The route was once one of the most profitable air routes in the world.

Today, more passengers choose to travel by train than plane.

That has helped cut greenhouse gas emissions.

Of course, the economy and the environment are high on the political agenda in Edinburgh and London too.

Funding issue

But who would actually pay for a line to be extended northwards to Scotland from Manchester? Holyrood or Westminster?

The Scottish government believes a high speed rail network can be achieved and says it enjoys a "close and productive" relationship with the Department for Transport.

But the vast sums which will be needed mean there will, inevitably, be political tensions when it comes to deciding how much Scotland should contribute.

There is no doubt. High speed rail offers major opportunities for Scotland but there will be major challenges too.

Any major controversy during construction of the first section of high speed line between London and Birmingham could see politicians shelve more ambitious plans for a full network.

The huge costs involved in building high speed rail lines also mean Britain's answer to the TGV, ICE and AVE may never reach Dundee, Aberdeen or Inverness.

And it will certainly be decades before that new generation of high speed trains can travel at full speed all the way to Edinburgh or Glasgow.

In the meantime, Scotland will remain, quite literally, at the end of the line.



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