While the California bullet train system will run almost exclusively on brand-new, dedicated tracks, most other HSR systems (in the federal sense of the word) will require fast passenger trains to share track with heavy freight trains if dual tracking is to make economic sense. Sweden's national rail administration, Banverket, has essentially the same problem as many state DOTs in the US: large distances between cities, low population density, heavy freight trains (lumber, iron ore et al.) and on top of that, severe winter weather.
A particular problem is that high speed passenger trains (200+ km/h = 125+ mph in Europe) normally need tracks in very good state of repair to operate safely and with sufficient passenger comfort. Unfortunately, heavy freight trains with up to 25 metric tons axle load (cp. 17 for bullet trains) tend to chew up tracks pretty quickly. Without special train technology, the tracks would have to be repaired very frequently at great expense to maintain operational safety. Indeed, Banverket now wants to move toward a model in which train operators (from Sweden or other EU countries) pay trackage fees based on the amount of wear and tear they generate.
Safe, comfortable operation at 125mph on legacy tracks shared with heavy freight trains was achieved with the introduction in 1990 of rapid rail service based on the X2000 train, featuring a locomotive and up to 16 unpowered single-level cars (though 5 is typical). Designed in the 1980s by AdTranz, now a subsidiary of Bombardier, it features an array of technologies such as automatic train control, sensor-based active tilt control and an important innovation: soft bogies. In US terminology, bogies are called trucks; the standard configuration is two trucks of two rigid axles each underneath the car. What makes the X2000's bogies "soft" are special actuators that keep each individual axle perpendicular to the track, even in fairly tight corners. You can see them clearly in this video:
Note that Spanish manufacturer Talgo has long relied on a passive mechanism that links the single wheelset at the front of each short car with the body of the previous car to ensure wheels are always perpendicular to the rails, thus avoiding contact between the wheel flange and the inside of the rails. In addition to screeching, that causes wear and tear. The downside is that Talgo trains are by definition articulated trainsets that cannot easily be reconfigured into longer or shorter consists.
The X2000 trains are complex and therefore expensive to buy and maintain. However, that must be weighed against the savings achieved by using legacy instead of brand-new track. Passenger volume went up dramatically with the new service, as did public willingness to invest in major rail transportation upgrades, e.g. the Øresund bridge/tunnel to Denmark. They were also tested by Amtrak, along with first-generation ICE trains from Germany. In the end, the Acela Express contract went to Bombardier. Late in the development of the design, FRA insisted on ludicrous crash compatibility requirements that severely compromised the mean time between failure (MTBF) of the active tilt and other subsystems.
A few years ago, Banverket launched a new public-private research program called Gröna Tåget (Green Train) to build on the success of the X2000. Partners include top Swedish engineering universities and Bombardier. Key objectives include:
- improved reliability in severe winter conditions
- increasing top speed in commercial operation to at least 250km/h = 155mph
- exploiting the generous track spacing with five instead of four seats abreast
- improved passenger comfort in corners
- reduced wear and tear on the infrastructure
- lower electricity consumption
- no increase in noise over the X2000
The key innovation expected from the research program is active lateral suspension (ALS), which will reduce wear and tear on the rails and also improve passenger comfort in curves. Most other upgrades, including electric multiple unit (EMU) traction based on permanent magnet synchronous motor (PMSM) technology, triple brake system, wide car bodies etc. are already present in Japanese, German and/or French train designs. What sets the Swedish effort apart is the ambition to make all of that work very reliably in arctic winter conditions - a task that off-the shelf HSR train designs on the European market aren't quite up to.
In the summer of 2008, the Gröna Tåget test train set a new Swedish speed record of 303 km/h on a section of straight legacy track originally designed for 200 km/h. While that's less than modern bullet trains can achieve on dedicated tracks, it represents a major technical milestone for rapid rail. In spite of the inevitably high cost of train designs that will be derived from this R&D platform, they could prove a good fit for HSR in North America - especially for the frigid winters of the Midwest, Northeast and Canada. Interested readers may want to check out the technical documents.
In California, HSR train designs that get the most out of legacy freight track could make a lot of sense on the Amtrak Pacific Surfliner and Capitol Corridor routes, perhaps others as well. The idea would be to spend public money on adding a second track and upgraded signaling, while the freight operator upgrades his existing track. Then, both share both tracks via mutual trackage agreements or else, the infrastructure becomes the property of a public-private partnership.
However, it is imperative that FRA develop a regulatory path toward mixed traffic, i.e. allowing slow, heavy freight trains and fast, light passenger trains to share dual track alignments via appropriate signaling upgrades, timetables and bypass sections. Rapid rail will require close relationships with freight rail operators and substantially more public money that the US has traditionally spent on passenger rail, but it could make electrification and high speeds a reality for many existing rail rights of way in the designated federal corridors.