High-speed challenges

Mark Reutter writes in the Wilson Quarterly about the challenges–technical and financial–of building high-speed rail systems in the USA.

He starts by highlighting just how far behind we are, noting that the original Japanese Shinkansen trains are now in museums, while their successors have continued to run at faster speeds and have gained in popularity. And the technology continues to be implemented all over the world:

Today, trains doing 125 m.p.h. or more zip across 13 European countries as well as Russia, South Korea, Taiwan, and Turkey. In the Middle East, Saudi Arabia recently let contracts for a European-style supertrain between the western port of Jeddah and the religious centers of Mecca and Medina, while Israel has a new Tel Aviv-to-Jerusalem line in the works and Iran is upgrading its main lines out of Tehran to standards exceeding 120 m.p.h.

Meanwhile, Amtrak’s Acela averages 67 MPH between Boston and New York City. It does reach 150 MPH on one short segment and 125 MPH on a few other segments. Nothing else in the USA comes close to these top speeds.

Compare this with the 217 m.p.h. maximum and 146 m.p.h. average of Spain’s 386-mile line between Madrid and Barcelona, and the gap between U.S. and European railroads becomes apparent.

Reutter notes, “Without a doubt, fast trains attract more passengers,” and that they recover “a high percentage of their costs when carefully planned.”

The needed investment can be put in perspective by reference to the Interstates.

In 1955, as plans for the 40,000-mile Interstate Highway System were taking shape at the Eisenhower White House, Fortune magazine pointed out that “the administration has a highway plan with but one major flaw—it costs money.” A huge amount of money, in fact. First estimated at $27 billion, the price of the interstate system soon ballooned to $40 billion (about $280 billion in today’s dollars).

Measured against the needed investment, the eight billion dollars in seed money that was inserted into the stimulus bill in February at President Obama’s insistence, is a pittance, as is the nine billion dollars in bonds authorized by California voters last November. It is a start, but we have a long way to go to catch up to the modern world of mobility.

Update: Stephen, at Cold Spring Shops, adds his thoughts. Recommended.

One thought on “High-speed challenges

  1. Rail has higher up front costs but greater operating efficiencies than other forms of transportation. In the US right now, we are all about lower up front costs, even if it brings higher costs in the future. This is not a good environment for rail or any infrastructure improvement. Nor is it a good mentality to have when dealing with environmental issues.

    New track also has a problem that if its built in a densely populated area, then you have to deal with rights of way, plus the standard overruns and delays when building anything in an urban area (look for example at just about every infrastructure improvement or even repaid project in New York for the last thirty years). And rail makes the most economic sense in densely populated areas.

    The Acela demonstrates that in the US, to get real high speed rail at some point you will have to put in new track.

    I support high speed rail, but given these problems, I think a strategy of augmenting and improving existing commuter rail systems and mass transit systems makes more sense. This could be coupled with introducing commuter rail to cities you don’t have it. Something like two thirds of the US population lives in metropolitan areas, so this approach could be quite effective in giving people an alternative to driving.

    Intercity passenger rail competes with the airlines, and intracity passenger rail (commuter and mass transit) competes with the private automobile. Both planes and private automobiles create problems in terms of fuel consumption or the environment. However, intracity rail will likely be politically easier and affect more people.

    Also, its too bad about the span attacks. I’ve not seen a website close due to them, but I’ve seen websites come close. The comments might have to be disabled for awhile before the problem can be cleared up.

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