The construction of high-speed railways has been seriously considered in the Czech Republic since 2017. Not only would it comply with international requirements for carbon neutrality, but it would also respond to the current energy crisis. How many people could use high-speed railways, and would they willingly swap their cars for a high-speed train? These are not the only question Martin Kvizda of the Institute for Transport Economics, Geography and Policy discusses in this interview.
Does the Czech Republic need high-speed railways?
The capacity of the main railway lines in the Czech Republic is currently exhausted. It is therefore necessary to increase it significantly, either through major reconstruction or by building completely new connections. Given that most of the lines in this country were built in the second half of the 19th century, and in completely different geopolitical conditions, building new ones is probably a rational decision.
According to the current plan of the Czech Railway Administration, high-speed lines should form the backbone of the transport system in the Czech Republic in the future. The planned route corresponds with the main transport flows and must be built in some form. Firstly, because of the obligations arising from European agreements such as the Green Deal, which require a huge part of passenger and freight transport to be moved from roads to more sustainable modes of transport, which in our conditions is only rail. Another reason for this shift is the current energy crisis.
How many people could use the high-speed railway line in the future?
In the project called New Mobility, we tried to map and quantify the current demand for transport on the Prague-Brno route as accurately as possible. We were interested not only in how many people travel daily between the cities, but also in the time distribution of these trips, where people travel from and to, or whether they travel by trains or by cars. We counted all the journeys that were made in a way that could potentially be made with the help of the planned high-speed railway – there are 57,000 journeys per day in one direction on average, of which less than 9,000 are by train.
How did you arrive at these numbers?
We monitored SIM card movements using residual signalling data from mobile operators. It was challenging to compile a complete database of all the trips made in a way that included all the necessary data while meeting the requirements for strict anonymisation. In addition to the start and end of the journey, the data we wanted to know included, for example, whether the traveller was repeating the journey, whether they were returning on the same day, in which region they resided, their nationality, etc. In reality, we now have more than 1 300 000 tables with many columns and several hundred thousand rows with all the necessary data.
Are people who currently travel by car on the Prague-Brno route willing to travel by train if the high-speed railway line becomes available?
The willingness of current passengers to use the planned high-speed line was determined by means of questionnaire surveys, individual interviews, and guided group discussions. We found a relatively high willingness to use the high-speed line as an alternative to car transport, although the speed of transport is certainly not the only factor of choice – the price of transport, travel comfort and, above all, reliability play an equally high role.
What impact would high-speed railways have on regional development and labour markets?
There is no simple answer to this question, and certainly no clear-cut one. Better transport links generally increase economic activity and quality of life, but the inherent development potential of areas and cities is always key. International comparisons show that such expectations have not always been met. Just because a high-speed train occasionally stops somewhere does not mean that the surrounding countryside will start to develop in any significant way.
Can high-speed rail earn its keep?
That depends very much on the demand for transport – which is why this quantification was key in our research. High-speed rail is a very efficient transport system with a large capacity and, given sufficient demand, is capable of generating a profit. Similarly, in air transport, at high transport speeds, an expensive vehicle with expensive cabin crew is able to make many journeys and replace multiple standard slow vehicles. However, if demand is not sufficient, there is a problem.
The cost of building a high-speed railway line is a second problem. The huge initial investment could only be repaid if the charges for using the route were high enough, which would increase the price of fares. Again, this could only work with sufficiently high purchasing demand. In the Czech context, therefore, I cannot imagine a purely commercial operation of a high-speed line without operating subsidies.
Is building high-speed rail an effective response to the environmental crisis?
Yes, if such lines have the necessary potential. This depends not only on the destinations they connect and the price and quality of the services they offer, but also, and perhaps above all, on the transport system as a whole. People do not travel from a train station to another train station, so there has to be a comfortable, reliable and accessible transport system to get passengers to their final destinations.
The name of the project, 'New Mobility', refers to the idea that truly environmentally neutral transport cannot be created by changing technology, but by changing behaviour. Replacing the internal combustion engine in cars with electric motors and batteries does not really solve anything – the environmental burden of battery production and disposal and, in particular, the high energy consumption of individual transport still remains. The new mobility means a return from individual to mass transport, but at a qualitatively different level. Not on the basis of dictates and administrative regulations, but on the basis of a rational decision and greater benefits from such transport.
This article was written as part of the project "New Mobility - High-Speed Transport Systems and Transport-Related Human Behaviour", Reg. No. CZ.02.1.01/0.0/0.0/16_026/0008430, which is co-financed by the "Operational Programme Research, Development and Education".