High Speed Rail in America

By announcing $13 billion stimulus package aimed at the development of the groundwork for a high-speed rail (HSR) network, President Obama has catapulted intercity transportation to the front of infrastructural spending.

After peaking during the Second World War, passenger rail travel languished as America was connected with an impressive highway and aviation network.  A thinly scattered population paired with government subsidies for road and air travel suppressed rail’s role even further.

It’s clear that something has to be done with respect to passenger mobility between urban centres.  Once seen as the world’s most advanced highway and aviation systems, the primary modes of intercity transportation in the U.S. are facing increasing levels of congestion and, not unrelated, rising environmental costs.  Mr. Obama recently stated that highway congestion costs the country $80 billion each year in lost productivity and wasted fuel.  Along similar lines, the country’s current transportation system consumes 70% of the nation’s oil demands.  According to Mr. Obama:

“What we need, then, is smart transportation system equal to the needs of the 21st century…a system that reduces travel times and increases mobility, a system that reduces congestion and boosts productivity, a system that reduces destructive emissions and creates jobs.”

While there are some overlaps with the challenges faced by the transport revolutions of the 1960s, Obama’s transportation vision needs to address a set of new issues:   promoting energy independence and efficiency, building foundations for global economic competitiveness, and supporting interconnected, livable communities.

With all this in mind, HSR seems to be an obvious choice.  Recognizing that the US transportation system is the lifeblood of the economy, a HSR network can help support national and regional trade in a cost-effective and resource efficient manner.   In addition to supporting existing commerce, new investment in HSR will create high-skilled construction and operation jobs.  Along similar lines, manufacturing jobs will also emerge as essential components such as rails, control devices, and the train cars themselves will be required.  Secondly, HSR hits the mark with respect to energy efficiency and environmental quality.  It’s estimated that the implementation of the pending plans will result in an annual reduction of 6 billion pounds of C02.

Obama’s strategy focuses on ten rail corridors that move through regional population centres across the country.  The plan calls for a combination of investments in existing rights-of-way in order to permit running higher speed trains and the creation of entirely new routes.

The major criticism of the rail-based solution to transportation issues is cost – start-up, operational, and end-user.  In terms of start-up costs we’ve seen that a recent HSR construction in Spain averaged $22 million per mile. Other start-up costs include acquiring land and rights of way privileges from land owners.   Operational costs are significant in that the government would need to pay the private freight companies that own the tracks in order to run the new passenger lines.  Further, the high speed trains would be sharing the rails with the freight trains limited to significantly slower speeds – undoubtedly lowering their efficiency.   These governmental, tax-supported, expenses don’t offer a free ride for the end-users either.  A ticket on the only high speed rail route in the US, the Acela Express, connecting Boston to Washington D.C. via New York City, costs close to $200.

A secondary criticism deals with the actual speed of the trains.  It turns out the US high speed trains will not be as high-speed as their Asian and European counterparts. US trains will peak at 240km/h while HSR trains in Japan, Germany, and China are running at 300km/h or more.

While the financial weight of this proposal should not be overlooked, it’s important to consider the implications that these new systems would have on the ground.  How will these new corridors relate to existing fabric – both urban and rural (and everything in between)? Will a new pattern of development emerge? What is the relationship of these new corridors to already existing conduits such as highways? What type of spin-off development can be expected?  What will the relationship of these new developments be to smart-growth principles?

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