FOCUS: Global rail revival - why and where?

Peter Newman, professor of sustainability, Curtin University asks why is there a reversal in the historic transport patterns, where is it happening and will it continue?
Peter Newman, professor of sustainability, Curtin University.
Peter Newman, professor of sustainability, Curtin University.


SEE ALSO: Etihad Rail DB runs 1000th train

SEE ALSO: Oil prices impacting GCC rail sector

SEE ALSO: Tests begin on Haramain Rail project

There is a major rail revival around the world, including light rail, metro rail, heavy rail, and high speed rail. At the same time car use has peaked and is in decline in most cities. Why is there a reversal in the historic transport patterns? Where is it happening? Will it continue?

Every city is now full of traffic as cars take up a lot of space. Congestion has meant travel times are going down and we are desperate to save time as time is money. So, we are putting our money into fast trains that can go around, over or under the traffic and take up about 1/20th of the space. We are also not so keen on living in far distant suburbs where very little happens so the trend is to build back into the city, especially for young people and those no longer with children in the house.

In Europe, 68 cities built new or expanded light rail systems between 1980 and 2014; 160 European cities have light rail with France doing most to create new systems and Germany converting old street-running trams into sleek light rail lines in separate right of ways. Metro rail systems in Europe are the best in the world with new lines under construction in many of the larger European cities. Europe has also rapidly expanded its network of high speed intercity rail lines.

Perhaps the biggest surprise has been the growth of rail in the Middle East where cheap oil meant the car was king. But traffic has outgrown capacity and so new rail lines are going in everywhere.

SEE ALSO: Bahri supply logistics services to Saudi Rail Company

SEE ALSO: GCC dominates rail with $240bn planned projects

SEE ALSO: UK-China rail link provides third way over air freight

In Saudi Arabia, Riyadh’s metro network of 6 lines will be open in 2019 with a major Hi-speed Rail linking Jeddah International Airport to Mecca and Medina. In Dubai, there are now 2 lines of metro with 45 stations (3 extra lines are being planned) and an integrated light rail and bus system is largely completed. A metro is being built for Kuwait and will be open in 2023.

Light rail is emerging in small cities - there are now 118 cities with less than 150,000 people who have adopted light rail. This trend is also very obvious in the US where the transit patronage is now 23% higher than in 1993, and is growing faster than car usage.

All of the growth in US transit patronage since 1993 has been on rail-based modes. Rail modes have increased their shares of total patronage, particularly heavy rail (from about 25% to 35% of the total); bus share has significantly declined from 65% to 50%. The patronage on light rail has increase rapidly from a relatively small base of 168 million to 481 million over the same period.

If this trend to urban rail was just a fashion it would be likely to stop and revert to the old kind of car dependent urban planning. However the signs are that there are serious structural limits and economic changes setting in that will continue to drive the on-going switch to more sustainable urban transport systems.