US High Speed Rail Is A National Embarrassment. A Global Comparison

The first series of this column was written on high speed rail in America. With an introduction to all the nation’s proposed corridors covered, this series will focus on the state of high speed rail around the world. An examination of already established high speed networks in industrialized countries and growing networks in developing countries will be compared and contrasted to what is being done (or just talked about then postponed) around the US. The purpose of this series is to highlight how far America is falling behind the rest of the world in giving its citizens mobility.

These articles are meant as alarm bells to policy makers in Washington, warnings that the current state of rail is both a national embarrassment and a detriment to the quality of life of its citizens.

Policy makers are not the only audience for these pieces. The series will also touch on why good public transportation is not a popular topic for average Americans, despite its fundamental importance in providing a vital freedom: the freedom of movement. Only progressives stump for high speed rail and they are in the minority. A poll conducted in 2008 showed that 60% of Americans consider themselves “conservative”.  Millions of these conservatives are the people who do not believe in supporting quality public transportation, but paradoxically use the words freedom and liberty in every topic of debate.  This will be addressed.

There are two requisites necessary for building such infrastructure:

1.) The money – Check. This country is rich…really, really rich. The US is richer than Japan, richer than France, richer than any nation, or any combination of nations, on the Earth. Money is there and can be redirected from wasteful expenditures such as war and corporate subsidies to something with more ROE for the voter, such as building mass transit and alternative energy infrastructure.

2.) The will to do so – Not there yet. For the past few decades freedom of movement has been pegged to the automobile. The turn of the last century was a time when municipalities where concentrating on destroying mass transit rather than expanding and improving metro networks. The urges of political leaders to gut mass transit to keep areas segregated or distort the transportation market towards a car based paradigm are gradually fading. Demographics and the critical mass of congestion are chipping away at these obstacles.

One factor that is stoking the political will to improve mass transit is that car ownership is becoming a large burden in this recession. Many car owners sacrifice a large chunk of their earnings monthly to keep their cars from being repossessed, full of gas and insured. A person of modest means can be severely set back by a car break down or accident that can suck hundreds or thousands of dollars out of a working class person’s wallet. As economic pressure increases, so will the calls for better public transportation.

Mass transit is in its dark ages in the US. Let us look abroad in order to usher in a transportation Renaissance.

[photo credit: clappstar]

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6 comments on “US High Speed Rail Is A National Embarrassment. A Global Comparison

Most promising post Alex !

If you need any help on the French railroad system, please let me know.

Last year trains enabled me to cut by a ton my carbon dioxide emissions (compared to going with my car). One metric ton !

(a) In the 1950s, the US made a strategic decision to develop commercial aviation and the interstate highway system. This was possible in part because the US had and still has very large domestic oil reserves.

Japan and France focused a lot of their infrastructure funds on trains and transit instead, partly because their cities are older and denser, partly because their domestic air routes are much shorter and partly because they do not have significant domestic oil reserves.

It’s fair to point to countries that have HSR to underline that this high capacity, zero tailpipe emissions technology is mature. It’s also fair to point out that many other nations have since or are now investing in HSR as well, including oil producers like Russia, Saudi Arabia and the UAE. Even Iran is planning to build one. These countries have figured out that HSR can yield fare box returns in excess of 100%, permitting cross subsidies of slower forms of transit. Even the very imperfect Amtrak Acela Express in the Northeast Corridor is profitable.

However, it makes no sense to imply that the US should be ashamed of its rail services just because other countries have made other choices. Infrastructure is expensive, so discussion on it has to be rational: does it still make sense for the US to base its passenger mobility almost entirely on internal combustion engines (piston + jet engines)?

(b) Last November, California voters did approve a $9.95 billion bond for capital investments in a full-fat HSR system and legacy feeder services. Congress has allocated $9.5 billion for HSR nationwide so far, with somewhere between $6 and $20 billion in additional funding over the next five years being written into the budget bill, which is currently in conference.

The $8 billion in stimulus funding was oversubscribed seven-fold, last not least because the bill allowed for a federal share of up to 100%. Usually, it’s limited to 80%. Ergo, the political will to invest in HSR in the US has never been stronger, there is broad bipartisan agreement that passenger rail upgrades are both popular and worthwhile, though the devil is of course in the details. In particular, none of the HSR projects in the country (with the possible exception of Tampa-Orlando airport in Florida) have completed environmental impact statements/reports. This isn’t China, bureaucrats can’t just build infrastructure by fiat. It takes at least a decade to plan and another decade to build a full-fat HSR line of meaningful length.

Services at 90-110mph top speed can be up and running much faster and at lower cost, but only the US congress considers that to be high speed. Everywhere else, the consensus is 125mph *cruise* speed and full grade separation are the minimum qualifications for a service that can operate without annual subsidies beyond debt service on the initial investment in the infrastructure. The new category of very high speed rail (VHSR) refers to speeds of at least 200mph.

Greg Steele

an interesting start to a needed article, i’ll looking forward to reading the finished item.

Ben Greenberg

I consider myself very progressive and all for public transportation. But high-speed rail concerns me a bit with respect to suburban sprawl in America. I am certain that if high-speed rail were put in where I live (Albany, N.Y.) to NYC the rural character of the outlying areas would be destroyed.

Of course, this may not be the case if the HSR simply existed between major cities and was not set up to be a commuter option.

Is there any data on how high-speed rail affected sprawl in other countries?

> Ben : in France high speed rail exists between major cities only.

For example : if you want to go from Marseilles to Paris you can take the local HSR system. After that, if you want to go the suburbs you will have to take another train or the bus.

I guess high speed rail would like major cities only in the US as well and that to cover the additional miles to the suburbs you would take another train / bus / taxi…

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