Hubs and Linkages: The Keys to Successful High-Speed Rail

Chia-Lin Chen
17 Dec 2020

Dr Chia-Lin Chen introduces Issue 46.3, and the study of international HSR cases.

The Keys to successful high-speed rail: hubs and linkages

High-speed rail (HSR) networks continue to grow globally, in effect shrinking ‘time–space’ and transforming personal travel. Although HSR is often regarded as critical to national policy, the anticipated effects on wider economic fortunes are neither automatic nor universal, due to the complexities of technology, society and geography and how they interact in a particular place. In Impacts of High-Speed Rail: Hubs, Linkages, and Development (Built Environment, Volume 46, No 3) we take a holistic approach to HSR. We look at the hubs, outward and inward linkages, and the different urban and regional development opportunities. We show how people experience and respond to HSR, and how new opportunities such as inter-city commuting change their everyday lives. We give examples of good practice in HSR planning where station design and location of associated developments support long-term strategies for places, and consider impacts beyond the hubs themselves to support wider regional development.

Image 1: Guangzhounan Station

The seven papers in the issue contain recent case studies from China, Spain, France, the Netherlands and the UK. China’s rapid development of HSR networks over the last decade offers a significant site for new research and comparison with European experiences. The first four papers come from studies in China and provide evidence of the latest developments. The last three papers examine cases in Europe and offer insights from experiences over the longer term as well as ongoing challenges. Together this new set of studies expand existing knowledge of the phenomenon of HSR within different political systems and its impacts at different scales and stages of development.


HSR Hubs: Inter-City Commuting, Interchange, and Agglomeration

In light of new job prospects and HSR’s time–space shrinkage effects, Chung et al. show that commuting time is closely associated with travel modes and commute frequency. However, no association is found concerning the density of public transport facilities. The authors argue that the varying functions and scale of the cities (in this case, Suzhou and Shanghai) contribute to the differences identified between home and workplace cities. In the case of HSR hub interchanges, Bo Wang et al. offer a framework for assessing the intermodal integration of HSR with the local public transport systems, identifying both excellent (ticket purchase, time coordination and interchange signage) and unsatisfactory services (walking environment cleanliness, congestion-free waiting areas and luggage delivery).

Looking at HSR hubs from both national and regional perspectives, Wang conducted two analyses to evaluate the impact of individual HSR hubs on spatial-economic changes. The first shows that spatial inequalities between HSR and non-HSR cities have reduced in advanced urban agglomerations but widened in less advanced ones. The second analysis illustrates the way HSR connectivity has given cities varied levels of centrality and reinforced the role of hub cities on the network. Both analyses highlight that HSR may result in either concentration or diffusion of development within urban agglomerations, depending on developmental trajectories and context.

Image 2: Waiting area in Hangzhou Station

To capture the essence of the Chinese phenomenon, Hickman and Chen illustrate the key features and lessons of the HSR experience with a photo essay covering the three themes: hubs, linkages and surrounding development. They highlight how HSR is used by both national and local government as a strategic development tool for rapid urbanization and integration of urban agglomerations at the regional scale.


Good Station-Area Planning and Long-Term Urban Development

Major HSR developments in Europe started in the 1980s. Using four widely praised case studies of successful European stations: Euralille, Lyon Part-Dieu, Rotterdam Centraal and Utrecht Centraal, Loukaitou-Sideris and Peters illustrate vital elements for good station-area planning: ‘attention to context’; ‘balance of the dual nature of station and station-area’; ‘land-use coordination’; ‘quality of place’; and ‘accessibility through increased intermodality’, built on three types of connectivity; namely, spatial, intermodal, and operational.

Image 3: Gare Lille Europe

With 25 years of Spanish experiences, Ribalaygua et al. offer a comprehensive examination of the evolution and effectiveness of urban development around three types of HSR station location: central, central-edge, and peripheral. They identify three major groups of factors that are commonly considered, namely spatial structure (population, density and nodal connectivity); socio-economic context (projects and development; real-estate market evolution); and local actions (planning decisions, functional strategies and governance strategies). They show that the socio-economic situation is the most decisive factor for growth in the short term. HSR plays a crucial role in long-term urban development. The conclusion is that HSR is a suitable catalyst for urban development, but that local conditions and actions are crucial in harnessing its potential.


Intra-Regional Rail Network Improvement for Rebalancing Effects

The final paper comes from the UK, the country where railways began but now immersed in an ongoing controversy over building a new high-speed rail network (HS2) for rebalancing regional inequality. Wray et al. revisit ‘the Hall Plan’, arguing that for critical regional development, there should be no delay in the improvement of regional connectivity, Northern Powerhouse Rail, linked to HS2. With insights into the British planning culture, they propose pragmatic incrementalism in five stages, including a combination of the construction of new sections, electrification and progressive upgrades.

These papers confirm that the technological advance of high-speed rail can shape our cities and lives positively and can help in the drive for a sustainable and inclusive future. Regardless of planning culture and stage of development, the papers highlight three key common messages.

First, socio-economic changes and the transformative effects brought about by infrastructure require a long-term and proactive development process, countering ‘path dependency’ where needed. This concerns not just economic opportunities for cities and regions and for personal job prospects but also people’s wellbeing (quality of life and travel experiences).

Second, development is context-specific and dynamic. There is no one formula which fits all in this continually changing world. The developmental impacts of HSR investment are not automatic. Rather, they depend on myriad factors, including the local and regional urban planning approaches that are taken. Integrated urban planning and transport investment can help develop stations as part of new urban neighbourhoods and as an engine for powering wider regional development.

Third, both new and well-established experiences are inspirational. European experiences illustrate that, if planned at the right scale, even a very high volume HSR station does not necessarily overwhelm or destroy the character of the adjacent neighbourhoods. Meanwhile, Chinese experiences show a strong commitment to infrastructure investment, implementation and relatively inexpensive travel cost.

A key lesson from these papers is that a wide-ranging perspective embracing HSR hubs, linkages and surrounding development is essential for attaining a fuller picture of the complexity of HSR and its potential. Future HSR research should encourage in-depth examination of more case studies from different contexts so that we can learn more about strategic planning and innovative design and their associated urban dynamics.



As ever we welcome further Built Environment blogs & tweets on this theme!    

Image 1: China Railway Guangzhounan Station Platform 23 (Source: Washaw via Wikimedia, CC BY S-A 4.0, )

Listing Image/Image 2: Hangzhou East Station (Source: Zhangzhugang via Wikimedia, CC BY-SA 3.0, )

Image 3: Lille Europe Gare (Source: Velvet via Wikimedia, CC BY-SA 3.0, )