Moving from one place to another using steel wheels on a fixed steel track is the oldest mode of modern transportation still serving in the United States. I emphasize “oldest” here. Inter city and regional rail travel occurs at a sluggish and inefficient pace when compared to our Asian and European counterparts. While we have been taking in revenue our gas taxes and other sources and building roads and freeways the Europeans, Japanese and the Chinese have been dumping billions into public works projects they see as good investments. The United States is home to the world’s largest economy, The Hoover Dam and The New York Yankees. We are a global leader in technological innovation: the microprocessor, the Internet, Apple Computers. They are all ours. We discovered mechanical flight and are the only people to have put a human on the moon. But we only have one train in operation that travels at speeds approaching 150 MPH? The Italians, Dutch, English, Swiss, Germans, Spanish, Russians, Japanese, Koreans, Chinese and the French all have rail systems in service that well exceed that speed. Obviously we are missing something if nearly every developed nation is utilizing high-speed rail and we are not. As oil prices continue to rise and our airlines continue to struggle, it is time for the Federal Government to begin implementing serious strategic policies that will change the face of our society. There is no reason why we should be a world leader in so many other categories but find High Speed Rail to be a technology not worth our investment. Indeed, Federal policy should adapt to changing times, implementing policies and technologies that have worked well for other nations.
It is not like the Europeans use a differed kind of math. Just because they measure distance and speed with a Kilometer does not mean High Speed Rail (HSR) is any less effective when measured by the Mile. The foundation for such federal policy should be as it is in this editorial, rooted in European experience.
The Europeans cite many reasons for their huge multi-decadal investments in HSR. The most mentioned of which is the travel advantage this technology has over automobiles and flight at distances between 300 and 600 kilometers or 187 and 380 miles respectively (International Transport Forum, 2012). At these distances HSR has a significant competitive advantage over other modes. A high-speed train can cover long distances unimpeded by urban congestion at more than twice the speed of a car. Time spent in queue at security and customs, moving through terminals and waiting on a tarmac for your flight to take off is all not wasted. Creature comforts at these distances are better than the competition as well. Trains can afford the extra have weight of sound insulation and therefor cabins are quieter. They have Wi-Fi allowing passengers to be productive en route to their destinations. Trains are also one of the most punctual and safest modes of transportation. Since the Europeans began their investments in a country-by-country, then continent wide HSR network, they have experienced a huge jump in ridership. A topic I will discuss later.
The United States is not Europe though. We have a much larger continent with large tracts of largely underpopulated terrain. Many American cities are at distances that are not competitive for HSR. For this reason, the Fed should implement a regionally targeted progressive tax and spend public works policy. Such policy should move to provide needed funding for large scale development of our own American HSR system. Something similar to the Federal Highway Act of 1956 which brought us our interstate freeway system. Under that Act federal policy provided 90 cents on every dollar that was spent to build the things. These investments must come from the public sector and they must be substantial enough to make the investment worth it. That is, a regional HSR network paid for by the taxpayer must be as good or better than other modes. The fed may even consider a similar approach to that which is implemented in our nuclear energy sector where public-private partnership is utilized. Similar to a high-speed rail line, construction of a nuclear reactor is prohibitively expensive and return on investment is slow. No private firm would undertake such risk. As is the case with nuclear energy, the federal government should develop policies that handle construction costs but leave the private sector in charge of management and operations.
Market implications of such a relationship are positive. The EU has found that one of the most important structural advantages HSR brings is relief to other modes of transit. For example, in 1991 77% of travel between the Spanish cities of Madrid and Seville (329 miles) was accounted for with flight. In 1998 after Spain introduced the Madrid-Seville HSR line, 83.6% of trips were completed using rail (Carol, 2011). This allowed for significant reduction in demand on the airports of both cities. Not only does HSR reduce demand on existing resources, it is a factor that generates new trips, reduces traffic and environmental externalities (ITF, 2012). To use Europe again as a case example, HSR produced 4 Kilograms of CO2 per 100 passenger kilometers compared with 17 for air and 11 of auto in 2011 respectively (Carol, 2011). I do not wish here to travel down the road of how green HSR is when compared to alternatives. Rather I bring it up briefly as yet another motive for investment in such technology.
Regionally targeted investment in large-scale public works projects in HSR by the fed will be expensive in the short run. But, with appropriate relationships with the private sector, return on investment over the long run will outweigh original principle. Policy in these terms should focus on most effective locations for such investments to occur. If the Europeans have found that HSR can add relief to congested airports and the same experience can be had in the United States. Targeting cities that are home to the busiest airports and are within the competitive range of other metros will be the best place to start. SEATAC, JFK, Chicago O’Hare, LAX and Dallas Ft. Worth are all congested international transit hubs that are within 180 and 380 miles of other major cities. This technology is an investment the federal government can make that would reduce demand on these airports, reduce consumption of petroleum and add the United States to the list of developed countries that have embraced HSR. America is the home of countless world class systems this country should be the home to a world class high speed rail network.
Carol, David. High-Speed Rail Is Not About Trains. Publication. N.p.: Pbworld.com, 2011. Print.
Harrison, John. U.S. High Speed Rail Outlook. Publication. N.p.: Pbworld.com, 2011. Print.
Spain. International Transport Forum. Joint Transport Research Centre. The Economic Effects of High Speed Rail Investment. By Gines De Rus. N.p.: University of Las Palmas, n.d. Print.