Why High Speed Rail Actually Needs to be, Well, High Speed

Photo via Inhabitat

When Obama announced plans to build high speed rail corridors in the US, it was some of the most exciting news I'd heard from his then-nascent administration. Yes, it was universally recognized that the $8 billion allotted in the stimulus bill (combined with an additional billion a year for the next five years in the budget) was hardly enough to build a rail corridor--much less complete the ambitious plans for rail around the country. Yet slowly but surely, the plans are getting ready to move from the drawing board to the action stage. But there still one glaring problem--the proposed high speed rail simply isn't fast enough. A post over at Climate Progress again outlines why high speed rail is a good idea, and how it's finally coming to fruition. Among the reasons, of course, are job creation (the line between LA and San Francisco is estimated to create 150,000 temporary and 450,000 permanent jobs), a curbing of oil dependence, a relieving of traffic congestion, and a major reduction of greenhouse gas emissions.

But in order to truly make high speed rail a viable alternative to other modes of transportation, it has to be, well, high speed. From the CP post:

If the United States is going to have a world-class rail system, however, it needs to focus on the "speed" part of HSR. President Obama said on January 27, 2010, "there's no reason why Europe or China should have the fastest trains." Yet plans for a network in the United States indicate that U.S. HSR trains will be slower than their European or Asian counterparts. European HSR trains operate in excess of speeds of 180 mph, but the U.S. HSR train speeds vary from express routes that serve major population centers traveling at least at 150 mph to regional routes at 110-150 mph to developing corridors topping out at 90-110 mph on tracks shared with regular rails.

In October 2009, Amtrak laid out a $10 billion plan that only reduces the 457-mile travel time between Washington and Boston from six and a half hours to five and a half hours, while China's 601 mile line between Wuhan and Guangzhou takes only three hours.

All of those speeds for trains would be drastic improvements on what's available, train-wise, now. But it does look pretty weak when stacked against high speed rail in Japan, China, and much of Europe. So why is it important to have "world-class" trains?

Mostly because they need to be exciting--and convenient--enough to start reshaping America's entrenched transportation paradigms. If high speed rail offers only a marginal improvement on existing rail, few would be convinced to forsake their cars and already-established transit routines. Modestly upgraded trains that run on the same rails at speeds of only 30 mph improvement are not likely to change any American's preconceptions about riding trains.

Shallow as it seems, shiny, new, wi-fi-enabled bullet trains capable of 200 mph may indeed may do the trick. In my estimation, high speed rail needs to be rolled out with a bang here, not only as a mode of transit, but as a new luxury afforded to the American people, that will change the way we travel for the better. Otherwise, Americans may continue to look upon train travel indifferently at best, regardless of actual improvements in travel times and CO2 reductions.

Put simply, if Obama wants high speed rail to catch on in the US, it's going to need to be fast.

More on High Speed Rail
Is High Speed Rail Coming to a City Near You? A Guide to Obama's Rail Plans
Will Stimulus be Enough to Bring High - Speed Rail to America?

Tags: Barack Obama | Transportation | United States