These were some of the messages to emerge from the International Union of Railways’ (UIC) 10th Global High-Speed Rail Congress staged in Ankara on May 8-11.

“In the last part of the 20th century, this amazing innovation helped to restore rail transport, and in the first decades of the 21st century it is a backbone for mobility,” says UIC director general, Mr Jean-Pierre Loubinoux.

According to the UIC, 14 countries around the world have high-speed railways and the total network has expanded by 20% since 2015 to 42,000km today, of which well over half (26,869km) is in China. Another 15,115km are under construction, including 10,738km in China, and around 4000km of new lines are due to open by the end of the year. The world network could double in size if all lines currently planned are built.

High-speed passenger traffic has increased from 248.2 billion passenger-km in 2010 to 715.7 billion in 2016, but the bulk of the increase has been in China where traffic has risen 10-fold from 46.3 billion passenger-km in 2010 to 461.1 billion in 2016, while traffic in the rest of the world has grown more modestly over the same period from 201.9 billion to 251.6 billion passenger-km.

Mr Jian Zheng, deputy administrator with the National Railway Administration of China, says that high-speed has accelerated urbanisation. “One-hour journey time circles are being created in areas such as the Pearl River Delta and Bohai Sea area,” he says.

“High-speed rail has reshaped the demographic and geographic landscape in China, and had an effect on regional developments,” says Mr Ma Fuhai, vice-chairman and secretary general of China Rail Corporation. “One region has had a growth rate of 10% since the arrival of high-speed rail. The government has promoted the idea of one-hour and four-hour economic zones.”

Professor Andrew McNaughton who is strategic technical adviser to Britain’s HS2 high-speed project, outlined the objectives. “We are building 560km of high-speed railway. It will be a high-speed metro because we will connect eight of our city regions. We intend to carry 85 million passengers a year. We have chosen the maximum speed of 360km/h because we want every city to be within one hour of every other city so that their economies can come together - we are shrinking the country. This is an economic project, not a transport project - it just happens to be with rail.”

McNaughton also pointed out that HS2 is already having an impact through the planned development of new city-centre stations, which will become mini-cities in the own right. “Land values in Birmingham have doubled eight years before we run our first train,” McNaughton says.

Mr Iñigo Izaguirre Guerricagoitia, from Spain’s national operator Renfe, says that 34% of Renfe’s high-speed traffic is new demand. On the lines from Madid to Seville, Malaga, and Valencia, rail now has 80% of the rail-air market. “Between Madrid and Barcelona, rail has a 60% market share compared with 40% for air due to stiff competition, but air used to have 80% of the market before the high-speed line opened,” Izaguirre told delegates.

Mr Maurizio Gentile, CEO of FS subsidiary Italian Rail Network (RFI), says Italy’s 1000km high-speed network serves 25 million people accounting for 42% of the population. One of the main benefits has been the huge reduction in journey times, for example from 4h 30min from Rome to Milan to just 3 hours today. “In 10 years, the offer has increased from 2 million train-km per annum to 33 million provided by two operators in a real free market,” Gentile says. “Traffic has grown from 15 million passengers in 2009 to 40 million.” He says 41% of traffic has switched from car and plane to train, 13% has come from conventional rail, and 46% is induced demand. “There has been a 20% rise in tourism because high-speed trains connect the four main tourist centres of Venice, Florence, Rome and Naples.”

However, many speakers felt that high-speed operators need to do more to improve last-mile links. “We need to preserve the high-speed effect; the time gained on a high-speed train should not be lost at the destination,” says Mr Mohamed Mezghani, secretary general, of the International Association of Passenger Transport (UITP).

“You need a PhD to plan a door-to-door journey with public transport,” Mr Renato Mazzoncini, UIC chairman and CEO of Italian State Railways (FS), observes, which is why FS has developed an app called Nugo. “It is a digital travel agency,” he explains. “We had to sign 1200 commercial agreements with bus, rail, air, ferry, and car and bike sharing companies in Italy. People can buy all the tickets they need for one journey, and with this we will be able to compete with the car. The only solution was to realise a digital platform ourselves.”

This is the kind of thinking that needs to be adopted if high-speed is to prosper in an increasingly-competitive world.