To High-speed Rail or Not to High-speed Rail

Having spent a decent amount of time living and traveling throughout Europe I consider myself an avid enthusiast of passenger rail. Each time I return to the US I am almost disappointed that I have to climb back behind the wheel of a car to go anywhere instead of hopping a train. When President Obama announced his pursuit of high-speed rail expansion across the country, I was needless to say, jubilant but in the end unsurprised when Republican lawmakers crucified the effort and state governors refused their portions of federal funding. This refusal to invest in rail service, or public transportation in general, appears to be based on long-held inaccuracies about its performance, ill-informed opinions of its public perception and denial of its overall successes across Europe and Asia.

For anyone who has returned home exhausted from a long road trip, has grown weary of the hassle to even board an airplane or is tired of dealing with an hour long, bumper-to-bumper, 15 mile trip home from work, would you not relish the ability to simply step onto a train and let someone else do the driving? For those on the West Coast wouldn’t be nice to catch a train, leave L.A. and head to San Francisco for the day or hop a late train for an overnighter and spend a 3 or 4 day weekend in Portland or Seattle? Those options are already available for people on the East Coast along the Northeast Corridor. It’s an easy way for someone in Connecticut to head up to Boston for a couple of days or to take a trip down to Washington DC. It also services thousands of commuters heading to all points in between and offers connections to Chicago. I worked on the electrification project of that railway and was able take a number of non-stressful weekend trips on that line. It is well worth the public investment and the benefits of cross-country travel are enormous for everything from job creation to local community growth to tourism.

The editorial here delves into some more detail of the benefits of high-speed rail;

High-speed rail’s many benefits

Even as Congress looks into a new surface transportation bill, U.S.  transportation systems confront daunting challenges of overcrowding and  disrepair. Delays and waste cost the nation more than $100 billion per year in  lost time, productivity and energy.

The U.S. needs modern public transportation not dependent on oil or traffic  patterns. Most developed nations now have high-speed rail, sleek trains that  reach more than 200 mph. Here, this option would be most viable in two distinct  corridors on the East and West Coasts – the Northeast Corridor, from Boston to  Washington, and California.

Read more…

Whenever the topic of public transportation or passenger rail is broached the usual suspects of reasons not to pursue it are marched out. CNN compiled a list of the inaccurate perceptions and addressed them here in this article from April 2011.

U.S. high-speed rail ‘myths’ debunked

Are proposed multibillion dollar high-speed railway projects in the United States a smart move or a huge waste of taxpayer dollars? users are challenging politicians, policymakers and each other about whether the Obama administration’s push to build high-speed rail lines in the Midwest, West Coast and elsewhere is on the right track.

Many users want proof that high-speed rail can be a profitable, efficient job generator to help raise the sagging U.S. economy when compared with other types of transportation.

Experts — including the two most powerful congressional lawmakers on rail issues, think-tank specialists and policymakers at the Department of Transportation — have directly responded to user comments.

Read more…

18 Comments to “To High-speed Rail or Not to High-speed Rail”

  1. Our governor here in Florida, Rick Scott, decided to thumb his nose at the Obama administration by rejecting federal money for the development of high-speed rail lines last year. Everybody piled on when he did that, Republicans and Democrats alike, because it was one of those “cut off your nose to spite your face” things. It was meant to go across the state, west coast to east, and would have made travel to and from Orlando easier for both residents and tourists. It would have provided jobs and invigorated tourism to the Central Florida area, but Skeletor (in his infinite wisdom) decided not to take the money that the guvmint was offering. Dumbass.

    High-speed rail makes sense for a lot of reasons, and hopefully we will see it being pursued more stridently across the US sooner rather than later.

    • Chris> I knew there was some consternation about Scott turning down the funds but not to that extent. It’s disheartening for those people who would have benefited from those projects, from the jobs and extra travel to the communities.

      Do you think Skeletor (I like that 🙂 ) will be re-elected? Is he running this time around?

      “hopefully we will see it being pursued more stridently across the US sooner rather than later.”

      So do I. It makes so much sense especially with the hassles of flying and all the problems we’re seeing with the air industry. It’d be a great alternative.

      • Oh, he’s a-runnin’ alright. Already rolling out campaign messaging even though he’s still got a couple of years on the clock. Right now he’s about as popular around here as ants at a picnic, but I never underestimate the ability of Republicans to spin his miserable record into a winning narrative by the time polls are open. And we also know about the amnesia epidemic that GOP voters tend to suffer during election yers, so anything’s possible, I’m afraid.

      • You mean people are regretting they voted for him? Oh no! 🙂

        But yes, you’re right, that GOP spin machine and voters’ short-term memories turn reality on its head far too often.

  2. Calif has proposed a high speed rail thru the central valley, but with stops planned in every hoobuckey town along the way, it’s doubtful how “high speed” it would be. Ah politics!

    • Barney> Well with the overall restrictions on train speeds anyways in the US, we wouldn’t have true high-speed rail like they have in Asia and some place in Europe. But even with those stops, which aren’t very long, it’ll still be better for commuters and other travelers than having to deal with the stresses of driving.

      It’s a start, right? 🙂

      • No argument there. I’ve worked for many years in the far east, and have seen the wonders of efficient public transportation. Our oil industry is the biggest enemy to public transportation.

  3. Hi there, I am intrigued by your love of European trains because, being born and bred in the UK, what I love about going to Europe (or France at least) is that the roads are empty and a pleasure to drive on. However, I agree with you, as in the Energy market so with Transportation: If we want people to use alternatives, investment will be required to make them attractive. However, the attraction of HSR in the UK is that it provides a potential solution to a looming capacity problem; whereas (correct me if I am wrong), HSR in the USA is a pragmatic response to the fact that people will not use trains unless they are fast(?).

    Back in January this year, I applied for a job with HS2 (the arms-length company the UK government has set up to build phase 2 of our HSR network from London to Birmingham). In order to put my application together I did quite a bit of research and was eventually able to convince myself that HSR was environmentally-sound but only if the electricity for it can be provided from renewable sources (because doubling the speed of trains quadruples their power usage). However, as with everything else, the problems of scale in a country the size of the USA, will make this a very expensive investment (not to mention risky with cars and planes so well embedded in the American Dream).

    For my view on the UK’s HS2 see

    • Martin> “HSR in the USA is a pragmatic response to the fact that people will not use trains unless they are fast(?).”

      Uh, well not sure. Yes, speed is an attraction for longer distance travel here but as far as commuter rail goes, I’d say the reasons people give for not using it would be a lack of flexibility (i.e. they feel they need their cars to stop off for errands if they need to), there may be a general distaste for public transport because the stereotyped user is poor and is seen as not being able to afford the luxery of the car. Having said that, perceptions are changing.

      “the problems of scale in a country the size of the USA, will make this a very expensive investment (not to mention risky with cars and planes so well embedded in the American Dream).”

      True, true. But I’d say access to it will change minds. I think the development of regional lines will convince people of the need for longer distance lines. I know many people who live in cities that have more public trasnport options, they are well liked. I was just in Seattle, Washington and was surprised at the availability and use of busses and the light rail the city had. They even allow dogs on board…surprise!! It’s going to take time but I see this paradigm shift progressing.

      • With respect, if people still use their cars to commute into large cities that must be because parking cars in them is not sufficiently expensive to modify their behaviour: Cities like Chicago and New York have well-developed transit systems, there should be no reason to drive into them unless you are delivering something heavy. If you live in the country and commute to and from a smaller city, things are much harder to judge (especially from here in the UK).

      • “if people still use their cars to commute into large cities that must be because parking cars in them is not sufficiently expensive to modify their behaviour:”

        That’d be one reason… another is that they just don’t have any other choices. NY and Chicago do have significant public transit ridership and should be examples for other US cities that are concerned as to whether or not to invest in commuter rail. If it’s made available people will use it.

        “If you live in the country and commute to and from a smaller city, things are much harder to judge ”

        On the East Coast people do travel in on trains. There are commuter lots where people drive to and leave their cars while they catch a train in the rest of the way. In Central California, there is a good sized population of people who work in San Francisco and commute in from inland areas on trains.

        I think it’s growing a demand trend. Gas is not going to drop much lower. The baseline price has shifted too high for public transportation not to expand. I just hope it gets moving faster. If not then maybe I’ll just have to move to Europe. Got my eye on a nice little place in Brittany, France 🙂

      • Brittany is a good option but strictly north coast only: Waves may be smaller but beaches are sandier (and Lorient is likely to be a target in WW3)… 🙂

      • North coast was the area I’ve been keeping an eye on just because it seemed to appeal to me more. Good to know about Lorient just in case right? 🙂

        So I have to ask… why is it a target? A military base? Missile silos? Submarine base?

      • Although I was not being entirely serious, there is a massive Naval Base there. My opinions are probably skewed by the fact that I was on a geology field trip to Brittany and staying near Lorient the night the USAF bombed Libya in the late 1980s. Hearing large numbers of jet planes flying overhead really freaked us all out – we thought WW3 was starting there and then. Keep away from Roscoff and St Malo too! 🙂

    • it is the 2nd sentence (not the 3rd) that is missing the word…

      • Thanks for pointing that out. I wasn’t clear what you noticed. I see what you’re talking about now but I think “hopping a train” works phrasing-wise. Feel free to point out other errors in the future. I know I don’t always catch them in re-reads.

  4. My “esteemed” governor, Christie in NJ is another one of the brilliant Republicans who rejected federal money for the rails which were already started, btw. I’m positive we will look back on the idiotic moves by these governors as a blight on our growth.

    • Blithering> I heard about that. I think you’re right, once new leaders come in and realize the benefits of such development, those who came before will be viewed as holding up progress.

      Just gotta keep our fingers crossed that the progress comes sooner rather than later.

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