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High Speed Rail: A Vision for the Future

High Speed Rail: A Vision for the Future

The U.S. owes much of its early growth and prosperity to the railroads, and if the visionaries of our country persevere, they may once again regain their prior glory attained during the “Golden Age” of railroading.  Railroads enjoyed the height of their popularity for more than a half-century during the 1880s to 1920s, before other modes of transportation, such as automobiles and airplanes, began to compete in moving goods and people across vast distances.  According to American-Rails.com, “…1916 saw peak mileage at over 254,000 [miles of track] and railroads held virtually 100% of all interstate traffic, both passenger and freight.”

By the end of WWII, the railroad industry was in serious decline, and by the time the 1970s arrived, railroad operators had to cut back so severely that the trains, and even the tracks themselves, were in serious disrepair. Many of the famous railroad companies collapsed during this era, and out of the ashes arose what is now Amtrak (National Railroad Passenger Corporation), a government owned corporation.  The industry was deregulated in 1980, and has slowly been making a comeback ever since. Today, the industry is experiencing a rebirth as many industry leaders and politicians are pushing for the advent of a high-speed US rail system equivalent to those now operating in the European Union, and parts of Asia.

While our passenger system is lacking, our freight rail system is widely held to be the best in the world. The freight rail system, surprisingly perhaps, is running out of capacity as the demand has surged in the last decade to levels that have not been seen since WWII.  Other factors contributing to the revival of the railroad industry are:

• our aging infrastructure
• roadway traffic congestion
• eventual depletion of fossil fuel reserves
• a growing eco-consciousness to reduce our impact on the earth

The challenges facing the industry are great, yet many believe they can be overcome.  These include the varying interests of policy-makers, land rights, the financial obligation of project development and construction, and the lack of connecting local public transportation in many metropolitan areas. Visionaries see the need today to build a passenger rail system that can free us from our utter dependence on the automobile tomorrow. America has long been a world leader and it is, therefore, somewhat baffling that the installation of a high speed rail system is not a higher national priority.

Passenger routes in the US, both current and proposed, are a patchwork of many private regional systems. California is in the midst of long-term planning to build a high speed rail corridor through its central valley that will connect northern cities to southern cities with trains that will travel at 200mph. The northeast is host to the fastest trains currently in operation with the U.S. Amtrak’s Acela service traveling from Boston to Washington at speeds up to 150mph. Improvements are planned that will take the top speed to 160mph.  In comparison, most high speed trains in Europe travel at approximately 110 to 185mph.  The Chinese Shanghai Maglev Train, operating via magnetic levitation, has a top speed of 268mph.

European rail companies are wrestling one another for future control of the industry and the lion’s share of billions in profits, while back in America, we continue to argue whether high speed rail should even exist. One organization, US High Speed Rail Association, an independent, nonprofit 501(c)(6) trade association is focused on “advancing a state-of-the-art national high speed rail network across the country.” The organization hopes to “organize and mobilize the industry with a shared vision for a 21st century, 17,000 mile national high speed rail system built in phases for completion by 2030.” The map below depicts their vision.

While the future of railroads in the US is unknown, one thing is certain – how people will travel in the future impacts long term strategies for many businesses. In the heydays of Route 66, many businesses popped up overnight along the popular east-west corridor. However, as the new Insterstate Highway System eventually bypassed the road, many businesses either closed down or relocated. A national high speed rail system will certainly change the face of America in much the same way, disrupting traffic patterns businesses currently rely upon.

Businesses in large cities with well-established public transportation will fair better than those in metropolitan and suburban areas that are predominantly car-dependent. As local markets develop public transportation to support high speed rail traffic, consumer shopping behaviors will change as well. People who rely on public transportation tend to shop more often and purchase smaller amounts of goods compared with people living in suburbs and driving large vehicles who tend to make fewer trips but purchase greater amounts.

2 Comments

  • Van Hamlin December 14, 2012 at 11:00 PM

    High speed rail cannot travel at the speed of jet aircraft. The Miami to Seattle run will always be faster in a jet plane. The added costs associated with accommodations on trains when traveling for extended periods makes flying a real bargain. Commuter trains must first prove that they can make a profit before we invest in the roadbeds and trains associated with moving people at very high speed. It’s not fair to subsidize commuter mass transit travel and not subsidize personal transportation too.

  • Michael January 4, 2013 at 2:55 AM

    Long trips on high speed rail are already competitive with flying. When you add up the door to door travel times, high speed rail is faster in many cases. Airports are always located out at the edge of the region, which requires getting to and from the airport – usually always traffic jams. Then add that you have to get to the airport more than an hour before the flight, plus security delays, flight delays, then delays on the runway waiting to take off, etc. Then you have more delays at the other end including waiting for a gate, slow unloading of the plane, waiting for your luggage, and then you have to get in to the city – which in many cases is another 45 minutes to more than an hour. None of these hassles and delays are part of high speed rail.

    The statement in the other comment about rail having to show a profit BEFORE we invest is absurd. We built an entire national highway system that not only didn’t show a profit BEFORE it was built, but after 60 years has still NEVER shown a profit, and never will. Yet we keep pouring tens of billions of dollars each year into the black hole money pit of our road system with no end in sight.

    Every high speed rail system in the world is highly successful, and most are also highly profitable, and once up and running cover their own overhead and also create billions in profits to their operators. Not a single road anywhere is profitable, and have to be continuously subsidized forever. When you add up all the hidden costs and hundreds of billions of subsidies to roads, our car culture and never-ending quest for securing more oil all over the world is all quickly bankrupting us. We spend over $500 billion each year in America purchasing foreign oil – a huge drain on our economy. In addition, we spend over $300 billion each year on military operations to protect the flow of oil – a direct subsidy to our road/car culture. These costs will continue to rise because oil is getting more and more difficult to find in the quantities that our car and airplane culture require (20 million barrels of oil per day just in America – 70% of which is for transportation).

    What kind of ridiculous measure is it to say transportation must be profitable anyway? Transportation is a public service that enables an economy to function. Saying rail systems should be profitable is as ridiculous as saying before we build other public services they have to prove they are profitable. Imagine saying that when a new high school is proposed “shouldn’t be built unless it shows a profit”. Or a library, a police station, a courthouse, a government agency, the military, etc. A good transportation system enables businesses to be profitable, and our economy to flow and function. Without our transportation, our economy would not function at all – no one could go anywhere, and no goods would go anywhere either… which includes food arriving to the grocery store.

    The final statement from the other comment is really ridiculous: “It’s not fair to subsidize commuter mass transit travel and not subsidize personal transportation too.” How do you think personal transportation works? People don’t build their own roads, the government builds them, and has spent several trillion dollars doing so over the years. That is a massive subsidy for personal transportation. Who do you think pays for all the police, fire, and emergency services related to the operation of the roads, and all the millions of accidents that constantly happen? All paid for by the government and tax payers…. another massive subsidy for personal transportation! Who pays for the massive military operations all over the world securing the flow of oil to our SUVs? The government! Another massive subsidy for personal transportation! Who pays for the constant road repairs, repaving, and widening? The government! Who pays for New York City flooding from climate-change induced maga storms? The government! Another massive subsidy for personal transportation. Climate change is a huge external costs of years of fossil fuel burning – most of it from personal transportation. So now the hundreds of billions spent in the last few decades repairing damage from the series of mega storms is one more massive subsidy for personal transportation. It’s high time for ALL of this to change!