Why High Speed Rail Makes Sense in the U.S.
Last Update 9/26/01
"We keep kidding ourselves into thinking we have the number-one transportation system in the world. Well that's a joke!" --Robert Kiley, former Chairman Chicago Metropolitan Transportation Authority
Note: This page came about in response to Governor Bush's 1999 cancellation of the Florida FOX high-speed rail project. I do not intend to suggest that high-speed trains alone are the solution to our transport problems. I only wish to show the need for reasonably balanced transportation. In stopping Florida Department of Transportation's project of 14 years, the governor ignored that need. DOT's crime was attempting to give modern rail systems the same priority as highways and airports.
An Overview: High-Speed Rail in America
There is no true high-speed rail in America and now that the Florida governor has stopped the FOX high-speed project, none is planned for at least the next five years. In fact if the present state of affairs continues it is very likely that we will not see high-speed rail at all in the near future.
on the Northeast Corridor between Boston and Washington, DC. The current top speed on the Corridor is 125 mph and may increase to up to 150 mph on short sections with the arrival of the new "Acela" trains scheduled for October of 1999.
However, these trains will not approach the sustained, near-200 mph speeds of trains throughout western Europe and Japan--and are not widely regarded as high-speed trains in most of the world.
These new Northeast Corridor trains will be a great improvement and a step in the right direction for high-speed development. But since they are far from the leading edge of high-speed technology (too slow: average speed on Boston-Washington of 85 mph) they will not attract the kind of ridership that true high-speed rail would. So Acela cannot be considered a "test" of whether high-speed rail will work in America.
The Reasons for High-Speed Rail
Air and highway traffic congestion, pollution, car crashes, energy waste...are seen all too easily, every day, in our nation. Yet officials continue to widen the highways, "to ease the congestion."
There are alternatives to that.
One realistic alternative is to imrove other transport systems, not just highways. In major corridors, high-speed rail would ease traffic congestion, improve safety and cut air pollution. If the success of high-speed trains overseas is any indication, then those trains have a place in our country. Joseph Vranich in his landmark book Supertrains (1991) makes an excellent case for high-speed rail in America.
The near absence of passenger trains is an outrage, a whole mode of travel senselessly neglected, leaving the whole transport system unhealthy and inadequate. It is the intolerable result of corrupt policy that even effectively denies that passenger trains exist as transportation.
It is enough to bring widespread public protest, and swift reform, but certain interests have been incredibly successful with their propaganda machine. A good part of America has been convinced to think only in terms of highway and airport expansion:
"Americans love their automobiles too much to ride trains."
To the contrary, a 1997 Marist poll of New York state residents found that 82 percent of respondents thought "improved and expanded" passenger train service was just as important, or more important, than "having good highways and airports."*
Clearly this is a response to the nightmare traffic problems and obvious environmental harm that our "world's best" transport system is causing.
But even if Americans ignore environmental and safety problems and continue to drive whenever they want--there is another, greater reason why they will ride high-speed trains. Americans will ride fast trains when they are the most attractive choice--much as they choose flying for long distances. And for medium-distance trips, high-speed trains have proven themselves to be more than attractive.
"Population density in the US is not high enough for high-speed trains to work."
While population density here is not what it is elsewhere, the US has the highest travel volume in the world. Thus we may have an even greater ridership base for high- speed rail than other countries.**
"Rail systems are expensive to build."
Rail construction, while a major undertaking, is not costly compared with other modes. For example while Boston's Central Artery/Tunnel--a local highway project--cost $11 billion, the Florida high-speed rail project--linking Miami, Orlando and Tampa--was expected to cost about $6 billion.***
Ending the Stranglehold
"Despite all this nonsense," wrote Vranich in Supertrains, "high-speed trains are as inevitable as was the Wright brothers' first flight." Yet our government to this day maintains a transportation stranglehold, refusing to fund rail projects realistically--and not one true high-speed line is even planned.
Nevertheless, it is only a matter of time before transportation problems and fed-up citizens force the "inevitable debut" of high-speed rail that Vranich wrote of.
If deliberate misinformation can be overcome, then building a high- speed rail line immediately is a very realistic goal. The amount of funding required-- several billion dollars over several years--is insignificant compared to the enormous sums budgeted for highway construction in the coming years. And when that single line is built, millions will be able to ride high-speed rail--right here in America.
This is a serious situation but not a hopeless one. Here are some realistic steps our government can take to improve rail transportation:
1. Upgrade the Northeast Corridor to 190 mph--the standard in other countries. Our currently planned speeds are too slow to really compete with cars and planes. Acela is supposed to be high-speed rail; let's make it that.
2. Build high-speed rail in other major corridors, now. Officials continue to study high-speed rail as if it were untried and risky. We've had more than enough studies. High-speed rail should have been built twenty years ago.
3. Provide adequate funding for rail systems. In 1998 the federal government spent $30 billion on highways but less than $1 billion on railroads.* Establish a Rail Trust Fund. There are Trust Funds that ensure enough money for highways and aviation. No such fund exists for rail.
4. Allow states to spend on rail. Says the National Association of Railroad Passengers (NARP): "Congress repeatedly has refused to allow states to use flexible surface transportation funds for intercity passenger rail, although these funds can be used for most other...transportation, including hiker/biker trails."
Advocacy: A Vehicle for Change
If you support passenger trains and/or high-speed rail, please let your voice be heard! You may even want to join a rail advocacy organization--a few are listed below. The NARP site has links to other pro-rail organizations.
Many thanks to Steve Grande at Trainweb for helping me start this site. Thank you for visiting. There is hope for getting modern trains in this country, and yes, even in Florida!
* News from the National Association of Railroad Passengers, Issue 2, Feb. 1998
**Derailed: What Went Wrong and What to Do About America's Passenger Trains by Joseph Vranich (1997)
***Central Artery figure is from the Record Herald newspaper, Waynesboro, PA, Feb. 1999. FOX figure is from a CNN online story regarding the halting of FOX.
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