A video, taken from a helicopter in early September, of the construction site of a short stretch of high-speed rail line in France. (Source: the contractor’s website.)

The existing LGV-Méditerranée line line runs from Paris to Avignon, where it forks. One branch runs SE to Marseille. The SW branch will eventually go to the Spanish border, linking up to the Spanish line to Madrid, but it currently stops at Nîmes. (French TGV trainsets run perfectly well on electrified legacy track, at under half the top speed.) The extension under construction will take it to Montpellier.

The line consists of 60km of high-speed track, plus 20 km of cheaper ordinary links. It will cost €1.8bn, or €22m a kilometre. You can spend that much on a road, but only in mountains. The Nîmes-Montpellier bypass is on flat land. The cost does not include a new railway station outside Montpellier. It is driven up by the many roads and watercourses to be crossed in the densely populated coastal strip between the Massif Central and the sea. It is also raised by the decision to make the line dual use, for fast freight as well as passenger traffic, requiring wider spacing between tracks and heavier-duty foundations. Freight also calls for flatter gradients, which doesn’t apply here, and wider curve radii as freight trains can’t tilt.

Would the cost have been lower under under direct public financing rather than a build-and-operate contract? Yes. Governments pay a lower rate of interest: interim financing costs are €230m of the total, and the contractors will get a rent when it’s finished that is presumably higher than servicing a state loan would have been. The German-drafted EU Stability Pact probably ruled this out.

The video is impressive, but should also be sobering for Californians. Construction has started on the HS rail line in the Central Valley, the easy bit, but far away from the conurbations the line is intended to serve. There is no proper financing plan for the whole thing, or even a fixed route. This is a recipe for exploding costs as communities near LA and San Francisco will demand ever more expensive amenity fixes like trenches and tunnels.

[Cross-posted at The Reality-Based Community]