Is the United States on the Right Track for High-Speed Rail?

July 17, 2009

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In 1992, Spain opened its first Alta Velocidad Española (AVE) high-speed train route between Madrid and Seville. According to NYTimes.com, “the AVE has begun to transform the country, binding remote and sometimes restive regions to Madrid and leading traditionally homebound Spaniards to move around for work or leisure.

“Spaniards have rediscovered the train,” Iñaki Barrón de Angoiti, director of high-speed rail at the International Union of Railways in Paris, told NYTimes.com, “The AVE has changed the way people live, the way they do business. Spaniards don’t move around a lot, but the AVE is even changing that.”

Indeed, the value of the 186-mph-moving train is clear, especially in more remote cities like Lleida, a town of 125,000 in northeastern Spain. Lleida Mayor Ángel Ros told NYTimes.com, that the AVE has transformed the town. “The number of tourist visitors has increased by about 15 percent. Demand for business conventions has risen 20 percent each year, and the city is building a 50 million euro ($70.5 million) convention center. The 13th-century town hall is in the midst of a 100 million euro public works project to transform the area around the railway station with gardens, bridges, a shopping center and parking lot.”

This summer, it looks like President Barack Obama is hoping to create similar value for cities across the United States by building high-speed rail corridors.

In April, President Barack Obama announced his vision for a high-speed rail system across the United States. As part of Obama’s announcement, he invited states to submit grant applications to the U.S. Department of Transportation (USDOT) requesting funding from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 to build high-speed rail lines in their states and across their regions.

Recently, many governors joined forces to submit their plans for their regions and are now waiting for the results. Obama said in his speech in April that “the Department of Transportation expects to begin awarding funds to ready projects before the end of the summer, well ahead of schedule. And like all funding decisions under the Recovery Act, money will be distributed based on merit – not on politics, not as favors, not for any other consideration – purely on merit.”

Advocates for high-speed rail in the United States, like the US High Speed Rail Association (USHRA), say a high-speed train system “solves many problem” by:

  • Creating millions of green jobs nationwide building the new rail infrastructure and manufacturing the rail cars.
  • Reducing the nation’s $700 billion a year oil purchase trade deficit.
  • Lowering U.S. dependence on foreign oil because the trains are powered by clean electricity from renewable energy sources.
  • Saving lives (43,000 Americans die in car accidents each year).
  • Providing efficient mobility that moves people and goods without delay and waste.
  • Putting a high-quality infrastructure in place that sets the United States up for prosperity, mobility, efficiency and a sustainable future.
  • Clearing up congestion on the roads and in the sky (Obama said traffic costs the United States $80 billion a year in lost productivity and wasted fuel).
  • Carrying eight times as many passengers as an airplane on one train, using the same amount of energy and emitting a quarter of the carbon-dioxide for each passenger, according to NYTimes.com.
  • Speeding up travel. For instance, according to the Midwest High Speed Rail Association, a 220-mph train between Chicago and St. Louis would cut the more than 5-hour drive down to two.

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Still, there are opponents to high-speed rail. Sen. Christopher “Kit” Bond (R-MO) said recently on STLToday.com that high-speed rails are “costly, risky, take years to develop and build, and require substantial upfront public investment as well as potentially long-term operating subsidies.” (Missouri is one of the states vying for a chunk of the stimulus money in hopes of working with Illinois to build a line from Chicago to St. Louis that continues on to Kansas City, Mo.)

According to USAToday.com and LATimesblog.LATimes.com, other opponents claim:

  • America’s suburban sprawl is different from Europe or Japan.
  • The cost of building the lines won’t “yield nearly the greenhouse gas benefits or travel-time savings.”
  • High-speed trains will be slower in the United States than in Europe or Asia because they have to meet heftier U.S. safety regulations.

Additionally, The New York Times Magazine contributing writer Jon Gertner recently wrote a piece about a 13-hour train, bus, then train trip from Los Angeles to Sacramento to get a feel for why California want to build high-speed rails. In his piece, he detailed some problems with high-speed rail in California:

  • High-speed trains generally run on concrete crossties rather than timber and on concrete beds rather than crushed stone, so they can’t travel on the same, already-existing lines as commuter or freight trains.
  • Electrical substations would need be built – or expanded – every 30 miles.
  • Significant purchases of land have to be made to make room for the track.
  • It will require new safety regulations from the Federal Rail Administration.

Innovators: What do you think? Are high speed trains a valuable investment for the United States? How might our elected officials overcome high-speed rail obstacles to make them a success? Let me know your thoughts below.

Kathie