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December 15, 2017

Swedish high-speed faces date with destiny in 2018

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Sweden’s proposal to build a new Y-shaped high-speed network between its major cities continues to progress, albeit very slowly. But could the project be about to take a significant step forward? Kevin Smith reports.

HIGH-speed train travel between Sweden’s major cities of Stockholm, Gothenburg, and Malmö has long been touted by proponents of rail in the country. Journey times of two hours between Stockholm and Gothenburg, compared with a non-stop time of 3h 6min today, and 2h 30min rather than 4h 33min between Stockholm and Malmö, are promised. This would cut the number of planes in the sky and cars on the roads significantly, and go some way to help the country achieve its greenhouse gas emissions reduction target.

 

Despite a 2014 mandate from the government, the start of construction on the project has been pushed back. Hang-ups over cost and the time it will take to implement have served to delay a firm commitment from the government to provide the funding required to push ahead. This has left rail advocates frustrated, and those working on studies for the lines unsure of whether the proposed 730km network will ever come to fruition.

SJ X2000Sweden’s national transport administration Trafikverket attempted to appease these fears by presenting a scaled back version of the project in its draft National Transport Infrastructure Plan issued at the end of August.

Rather than operate at 320km/h as originally envisaged, trains would run at a maximum speed of 250km/h on the initial East Link project between Järna and Linköping west of Stockholm, and the Lund - Hässleholm section, north of Malmö. Among the other cost saving measures included is switching to ballasted from slab track, which is expected to help reduce the cost of the East Link by up to SKr 10bn ($US 1.19bn) to SKr 54bn, and if replicated elsewhere, could trim the overall cost by SKr 15-30bn. The price of the complete 320km/h project is estimated at SKr 200-260bn.

Funding method

Completion of the initial phases of the network, the only two new rail construction projects included in the draft 2018-2029 plan, is still expected between 2032 and 2035. Yet with Trafikverket retaining an annual appropriation model, which has been the government’s preferred funding method for the project so far, it is still not clear when work on the remaining sections that make up the railway will begin, leading some to lament that it might not be completed until the 2070s.

A further set of recommendations outlining specific routes, stations and funding for the high-speed project will be submitted by the National Negotiation on Housing and Infrastructure on December 31. The government organisation is taking into account Trafikverket’s recommendations while working with the regions through which the proposed network will run to identify station locations, new housing developments, labour market opportunities, and potential joint funding agreements. Its findings will help to inform the government’s decision for the overall 2018-2029 transport budget allocation, including for the high-speed project, which is expected next spring.

While 250km/h is seen as a compromise in order to get the project over the line, it has been criticised in some quarters, and many are still talking up the benefits of 320km/h operation.

“Our problems can be solved by the construction of new main lines,” said Mr Hans Gustaf Wessberg, who is leading the National Negotiation and is a former government minister and member of the European Court of Auditors, during a panel session on high-speed rail in Sweden at the Nordic Rail exhibition in Jönköping on October 10. “But if we build a new generation of railway, we should build it with the most modern technology available, which for this line is 320km/h plus.

“We have agreements with 17 municipalities which promised to build 100,000 homes. This is based on the fast delivery time and the higher speed. Under this revised plan, these agreements will fall.”

The government has so far seemed reluctant to go beyond its means, indicating a preference to continue funding the project through year-on-year allocations. However, Wessberg argues that with finance cheap in the current economic climate, it makes sense to take out a loan to cover the project’s costs upfront, which could also help to complete the line more quickly. Furthermore, with the government expected to run a surplus of SKr 130bn between 2017 and 2019, some argue that it could even afford to borrow from itself.

This view is shared by Sweden’s opposition Centre Party, which entered the debate on November 6.

Questioning the current structure and claiming that it would only deliver high-speed rail by the 2090s, the party confirmed that it would support a model similar to that used to construct the Öresund Bridge whereby a publicly-owned company is set up, which can borrow the necessary funds with the Swedish state acting as a guarantor.

The party argues that by removing the project from the usual budget process, decisions can be made on the basis of building the lines as quickly and cheaply as possible. It says this is justified for this project which is a “once in a century” investment, while it would help existing projects by freeing up funds in the transport plan.

“Because some of the new investments are loan-financed, other important projects around the country can be carried out more quickly than they otherwise would,” says the Centre Party’s economic policy spokesman Ms Emil Källström.

While firmly backing high-speed rail as a solution desperately needed in Sweden, the president of the parliament’s transport committee, Ms Karin Svensson-Smith was uncommitted during the discussion in Jönköping, stating that the government is awaiting the National Negotiation’s findings. This indicates that the debate is likely to continue right up to the government’s spring decision. And with the opposition now openly questioning the government’s position, there is also the likelihood that high-speed rail could become an election issue ahead of the national vote next autumn.

Consensus

For Mr Peter Uneklint, Trafikverket’s programme director for high-speed lines, while the uncertainty persists over financing and the final design speed, there is a consensus among all parties that some solution is required. Generally, he says politicians recognise that Sweden’s rail infrastructure was neglected for many years, which led to the current reliability problems caused by operating a saturated network, and that something has to be done.

For now, work is progressing on the different sections that make up the complete project. Feasibility studies are underway for the Jönköping - Malmö, and Linköping - Borås sections. However, the 160km East Link project from Järna to Linköping, which will include five new stations as well as more than 200km of bridges and 20km of tunnels, and the Gothenburg - Borås section, are more advanced.

From a group of 10 people working on the project four years ago, the East Link team has now expanded to around 140. Ms Anna Forslund, deputy project director, says Trafikverket has been developing land acquisition plans for the project since 2014 as well as the relevant Environment Impact Assessments. The transport administrator has awarded four consultancy contracts to Sweco, Cowi and Systra, WSP, and ÅF/Tyréns. In addition, it is also consulting with operators and maintainers of mature high-speed networks, including Spain, France, and Japan.

“It is important for us to get experience from those who have been running high-speed rail for a long time,” Forslund says. “We can extract knowledge. And while we don’t have any TSIs at the moment, we are finding that many of the questions and challenges we face are the same.”

Forslund adds that this work is taking place under the presumption that the network will be designed for 320km/h operation “until the government decides otherwise” at which point the plans will be revisited and updated, a situation which Uneklint admits could pose problems.

Under the draft National Transport Plan, construction of the East Link is due to start in 2020-2022 and railway planning should be completed in 2021. Trafikverket is also in the early stages of the land acquisition process, which along with legal documentation, will be completed in 2023.

“Land acquisition takes time so it is important to establish a good dialogue with stakeholders at an early stage,” Forslund says. “This is as important for them as it is for us. It is also important to do it carefully to show responsibility for the people that this is affecting.”

Work on the railway plan, environmental assessment study, and preliminary design documents is also underway for the 60km Gothenburg - Borås section, although the start of construction, which was previously slated for 2020 in the 2014-2025 plan, is now unknown. With the project only rated as tentative, there is hope that it will secure funds in the 2022 revision to the transport plan. However, the lack of a firm commitment following the work that has taken place, reflects frustrations with the overall project’s progress.

While the draft Transport Plan calls for the use of conventional ballasted track to reduce costs, Trafikverket is continuing to explore the possibility of using slab track, which would be a first for Sweden. Supplier dialogue meetings for the Gothenburg - Borås and East Link projects are scheduled for December 21-22 during which issues such as drainage, operation in winter conditions, noise, and future maintenance, will be discussed.

“We think that using slab track is a good idea for the high-speed system,” Uneklint says. “Maintenance costs are much lower, and when we weigh these against the investment costs, we will have a much lower lifecycle cost across the 120-year life span of the asset. We have looked at what other European countries have done, including Germany and Austria, which have used slab track, and France, Italy and Spain, which have used ballast, to look at their experiences and the costs of these projects.”

With Sweden new to high-speed, significant work is underway to develop and introduce technical standards for the new railway. Trafikverket is collaborating with Systra to develop design and technical standards for high-speed rail, and with Arup on standards for high-speed systems.

This lack of experience extends to the Swedish population. With 75,000-80,000 people expected to work on the project throughout its duration, more must be done to equip Swedes with the skills required.

Uneklint refers to Britain’s National College for High-Speed Rail and National Skills Academy Rail as examples of what Sweden might introduce. He says work is underway to address this challenge through consulting with relevant companies, and commencing a feasibility study to identify the optimal solution.

In particular, with high levels of unemployment among its growing immigrant population, Uneklint says the project might be one way of creating the jobs that Sweden badly needs for these newer members of its society.
“We need to do something to get them into the system,” he says.

The political ramifications for the project therefore stretch beyond whether the government is going to accept the lower operational speeds. One way or another, what promises to be the country’s biggest railway construction project since the establishment of its main line network in the 1850s will take a major step forward next year. Everyone involved is eagerly awaiting the government’s verdict.