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.