If We Build High Speed Rail, Will People Use It?


Photo Credit: Adam E. Moreira

Is high-speed rail a good investment for Americans? That is what most leaders, political figures and advocates try to answer the majority of the time. Yet, that may be the wrong question. A better question is: would people use super fast public transit if it were built? According to American Public Transportation Association (APTA), the answer is yes.
Image Credit: American Public Transportation Association
People want More than Trains
A report released by APTA in October 2010 indicates that two-thirds (or 62 percent) of adults would definitely or probably use high-speed rail service for leisure or business travel if it were an option. Another 27 percent were not sure while only 11 percent responded with probably or definitely not. The results come from a survey conducted in the late spring of 2010 of more than 24,000 American on how they perceived high speed transportation. The report also reveals that simply building a modernized train system would not be enough, and that other factors must accompany it. For example, 91 percent indicated that the trains must get them to the destination faster than driving. Another 91 percent said that a train ticket would have to be less expensive than an airline ticket while 89 percent said that rail travel would have to be less expensive than driving to the destination.

People were not only concerned about the cost and speed of the alternative transit option. Of those surveyed, 85% said that the system must be integrated with local public transit systems so they would not need to rental a car, use a taxi or incur parking fees. Currently, that is a hard order to fill. Most cities and towns are not equipped with local transit services that are fast and reliable making passengers depended on private or semi-private means of mobility.

Air Travel is Not Easy
A media storm has been playing out over the last few weeks regarding the new safety measures at airports throughout the US. Over the past few years, you have been required to remove your shoes, belts, coats or other clothing item and step through a metal detector. Now, you are required to be x-rayed and/or frisked as if you're been arrested for a violent crime. This has cause massive lines and long waits at security checkpoints as well as delays for departure. Train travel is typically more convenient than air travel. You are not required to disrobe nor will you have to let someone put their hands on your more private parts. The APTA survey shows that 75% of people would choose high speed rail if it reduced security hassles. Interestingly, that was the same percentage that said environmental concerns would drive them to go by rail.


Image Credit: United States Department of Transportation
Cost is Not Cheap
The cost to build a high-speed system would not be cheap. The APTA recommends Congress invest $50 billion over six years. Leadership of the House of Representatives' Transportation and Infrastructure Committee recommends the same amount. Critics suggest this level of funding would only get things started, and about four times that amount is needed to construct all the corridors necessary for it to be effective. Advocates for speedier railways say the investment would create millions of jobs and save people money on things like gasoline, insurance and car maintenance. Moreover, trains would reduce pollution from automobile exhaust as well as jet fuel. Critics strike both these notions down pointing out that very few people currently use trains and that current realities of suburbanized development makes it impossible for a rail system to serve a large enough population to reduce emissions. That said, Amtrak is experiencing a revitalization of people seeking alternative methods of transportation and set a new annual ridership record of 28,716,857 passengers for the fiscal year ending September 30, 2010 . This resulted in the collection of a record $1.74 billion in ticket revenue. The increase could be due to the economic recession.


Photo Credit: mlcastle/creative commons
The Debate in Next Few Years
The debate of high speed rail is likely to get more intense over the next several years. Both sides will continue to argue they are right while the other is wrong. From the report by the APTA, it is clear that people see value in using a faster system as long as it is more convenient and affordable that other options. Current plans for faster trains do show that a new system connecting cities like Washington DC to New York, or New York to Boston or Los Angeles to San Francisco could compete in terms of speed. The cost of a ticket may not. Also, metropolises like New York or San Francisco do have local transit systems allowing passengers to easily access other parts of the area without the need for a car, but others like Los Angeles do not. And yet, all of this is null because the current political climate is divided on the question of to spend or not to spend? And it is not clear if Americans are willing to vote for leaders that vote to pay for transportation infrastructure. What is clear is that if a modernized high speed rail system is funded and built, and then does not meet the requirements potential riders see as necessary, it could be a big mistake. For the sake of a future with a strong public transportation system, that is a mistake we can't afford.

More on High Speed Rail:
Is High Speed Rail the Answer?
Is High Speed Rail Coming to a City Near You? A Guide to Obama's Plans
High Speed Rail Finally Coming to the US: A Look at the Plans (Video)
Fate of High Speed Rail Uncertain after Election

Tags: Air Travel | Public Transportation | Trains | Transportation

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