It seems to me….
“We are also ignoring and underfunding high speed rail which is one of the best ways to move citizens and improve congestion on our highways.” ~ Corrine Brown.
All aspects of the U.S. infrastructure need immediate repair and modernization. The American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) grades the current state of various categories of the U.S. national infrastructure on a scale of A through F. It has determined that the U.S. infrastructure has persistently earned low grades since 1998, currently a D+, and has failed to close the investment gap with needed maintenance and improvements. Rail transportation does considerably better with an overall grade of B but also faces challenges, primarily in passenger rail, due to aging infrastructure and insufficient funding.
Railways were the first form of rapid land transportation and had an effective monopoly on long-distance passenger traffic until development of the automobile and aircraft in the early-mid 20th century. High-speed rail (HSR) is a type of rail transport that runs significantly faster than traditional rail traffic and while it is part of everyday life in many parts of the world, remains a low priority in the U.S where the private automobile very much remains the dominant mode of transportation. HSR systems have been constructed by a number of countries including Belgium, China, Denmark, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, Morocco, The Netherlands, Poland, Russia, Saudi Arabia, South Korea, Spain, Sweden, Taiwan, Turkey, the United Kingdom, and Uzbekistan but not in the U.S.
High-speed rail typically exceeds speeds of 250 kilometers per hour (160 mph) for new lines. The French Euroduplex TGV trains, currently the fastest conventional wheeled train, holds the speed record of 574.8 km/h (357.16 mph). HSR typically outperforms both flying and driving in almost every measure: capacity, mobility, convenience, speed, safety, efficiency, energy consumption, cost, profitability, national security, carbon footprint, physical footprint, economic development, smart growth, and more.
While HSR is primarily cost effective in high-density areas and distances under 800km (500 mi); in general, the longer the journey, the better the time advantage of rail over highway if going to the same destination. However, high-speed rail can be competitive with cars on shorter distances, 0–150 kilometers (0–90 mi) for example, for commuting, especially if the car user experiences road congestion or costly parking fees. High-speed rail is also able to accommodate more passengers at far higher speeds than automobiles.
Train stations are typically located closer to urban centers than airports so although air transit moves at higher speeds than high-speed rail, total time to destination can be increased by travel to/from airports, check-in, baggage handling, security, and boarding which may also increase the cost of air travel. Likewise, air travel needs longer distances to have a speed advantage after accounting for both processing time and transit to the airport. Airports typically tend to be located far out of the city due to land scarcity, runway length limitations, building heights, as well as airspace issues. While airplanes spend significant amounts of time loading and unloading cargo and/or passengers as well as landing, taxiing, and starting again, trains only spend a few minutes stopping at intermediate stations often greatly enhancing overall efficiency at little additional expense. Trains can also accommodate intermediate stops at lower time and energy costs than planes though this applies less to HSR than to slower conventional trains.
There are inefficiencies with HSR when compared to point-to-point transit by air. Where air routes are largely unaffected by geography, cities normally are not arranged in a straight line so routing includes bends and turns which can substantially increase the length and duration of rail travel. It can be costly to cross mountain ranges or large bodies of water requiring expensive tunnels and bridges or else relying on slower routes and train ferries in addition to requiring earthquake and other safety systems. Railways also require the security and cooperation of all geographies and governments involved; political issues can make routes unviable whereas an airplane can fly over politically sensitive areas and/or be re-routed with relative ease.
HSR corridors have the capacity to move a large number of passengers in a safe and reliable manner. Depending on the design, a high-speed rail corridor can carry up to 400,000 passengers per day. They can mitigate congested road and air infrastructure, particularly for short to medium distance trips. They are also much less impacted by adverse weather conditions (e.g., storms) than road and air transport and can continue to offer services in conditions that would cripple road and particularly air operations.
The U.S. experiences congestion in every major metropolitan region of the country costing €102bn ($124bn) per year in wasted time and fuel. High-speed rail is transformative delivering rapid efficient transportation with every train, every day without delays or congestion, and providing fast, reliable service when it most counts, during rush hour and holiday travel. It is able to provide large passenger capacity transporting more people than a 10-lane freeway plus 2 airports.
HSR is the world’s safest form of transportation proven by decades of safe operations. Japan was the first nation to build high-speed rail in 1964 and has since transported 10 billion passengers without a single fatality. France has a similar record with their 30 years of high-speed rail operations as also is true in most other countries.
High-speed trains also have a comfort advantages since train passengers are allowed to move freely about the train at any point in the journey. Since airlines have complicated calculations attempting to minimize weight to save fuel or allow takeoff at certain runway lengths, rail seats are less subject to weight restrictions than on planes, and as such may have more padding and legroom. Technological advances such as continuously welded rail have minimized the vibration found on slower railways while air travel remains affected by turbulence due to adverse wind conditions.
Transportation is responsible for producing nearly 30 percent of all U.S greenhouse gas emissions. HSR can be 100 percent renewable energy powered consuming less energy per passenger-km than road and air transport making it the world’s greenest form of transportation and the only viable transport solution capable of simultaneously reducing carbon, congestion, costs, accidents, and energy consumption. A network of high-speed trains can carry more passengers than both cars and airplanes combined using a fraction of the energy without delays and reducing the number of carbon-intensive airplanes from the skies and cars from the roads.
A high-speed light-freight system would substantially lower the cost (and increase reliability) of shipping light-freight goods and perishables throughout the country. It could provide a super-efficient, electrically powered, light-freight shipping system infrastructure in combination with high-level passenger transport. Light-freight (not to be confused with “heavy-freight” like lumber, oil, coal, etc.) transported by big rail freight operators like BNSF, CSX, etc.) includes everything transported by FedEx, UPS, Amazon, USPS, etc. mostly in long distance trucks and/or airplanes.
Rail travel is also less weather dependent than air travel. A well designed and operated rail system can only be affected by severe weather conditions such as heavy snow, heavy fog, or major storms; flights often face cancellations or delays under less severe conditions. HSR does not need to spend time deicing like planes, which while critical is time-consuming, and can impact airline profitability as planes remaining on the ground pay hourly airport fees, occupy limited parking space, and contribute to congestive delays.
On particular busy air-routes where HSR has historically been most successful, trains are also less prone to delays due to congested airports or airspace. A train that is late by a couple of minutes will not have to wait for another slot to open unlike airplanes at congested airports. Furthermore, many airlines see short haul flights as increasingly uneconomical and rely on high-speed rail in some locations instead of short haul flights for connecting services.
High-speed rail, metros, and light rail systems can re-densify sprawling regions by focusing more dense development around rail stations. Rail stations with HSR services frequently becoming transport hubs with an associated reliance on urban transport systems, particularly public transit. A national HSR system would create millions of good paying jobs building the infrastructure and system components, managing the rail systems, and operating the stations. It also could create a real estate boom creating millions of jobs in development, construction, and property management while revitalizing cities and communities.
Airlines frequently and aggressively add and drop routes due to demand and profitability (there were over 3,000 new or changed routes in 2016). HSR may add or drop services but the rail line itself represents a significant sunk cost and cannot be as easily modified in response to changing market conditions. For passengers, however, this can present an advantage as railway services are less likely to be withdrawn.
HSR projects tend to come with extremely high up-front price tags, usually require land acquisition, and are prone to cost overruns. The UK’s HS2 system being built from London to Birmingham and then on to Leeds and Manchester, was originally expected to cost £56bn ($77bn), but that figure has since almost doubled to £98bn ($135bn). HSR is subject to land subsidence such as in Taiwan where expensive changes sent costs soaring.
The California High-Speed Rail Authority is responsible for planning, designing, building, and operating the first HSR system in the U.S. Currently under construction in the California Central Valley, it will be 100 percent powered by renewables and eventually hopefully connect 8 of the 10 largest cities in the state contributing to economic development, a cleaner environment, job creation, and preserving agricultural and protected lands. Los Angeles, San Francisco, and San José already rank among the top five most gridlocked cities in the nation.
Unfortunately, construction has been substantially delayed due in part to problems that have plagued the project since the first construction contract was awarded for segments of the route through the Central Valley almost eight years ago in mid-2013 including an extremely slow rate of progress acquiring the land needed for the rail right of way in Fresno, California, where it became embroiled in legal paperwork finalizing agreements with adjacent railroads, utilities, and local governments in addition to construction errors and other factors.
A revised spending plan now reflects a reality related to available financial resources for construction including paring back on what will be put out for construction bids for track and related systems on a drastically scaled back Merced-Bakersfield route. Instead of building the two tracks necessary to operate trains in both northbound and southbound directions, bids are currently being sought for only one track making the system impractical as a meaningful HSR transportation system. This could potentially setback further HSR project approval elsewhere in the country.
A key source of funding for California’s HSR efforts date back to the Obama administration 2010 allocation of almost $1 billion in federal rail improvement funds. In 2019, the Federal Railroad Administration under Trump terminated grant agreements for that funding and “de-obligated” the funds from the program threatening to seek repayment of another $2 billion in federal stimulus funds already largely spent by the state.
High-speed rail travel will most likely never provide a financial return to the developers and operators. Similar to the Interstate Highway System, it mostly is about delivering better services and economic growth for the broader community. Instead of the currently planned Merced-Bakersfield route, the California HSR authority should construct the two-rail system from San Diego to Seattle and then extend it to urban centers to the east. Expensive, yes, but so was the Interstate Highway System and those who objected to its original cost have long-since turned into supporters. The same would be true for High-Speed Rail.
That’s what I think, what about you?
 Corrine Brown is a former U.S. politician who served as a member of the House of Representatives from Florida.