With the high speed rail debate officially jumping the tracks into the political arena, American citizens are left to sort through the onslaught of bureaucratic bantering which so often leads to misinformation. The question that’s causing tempers to flare on both sides is whether the government should be funding high speed rail projects across the nation. Many believe that high speed rail is vital to the future of transportation in America. Yet, all politics aside, is it even feasible now to consider that the U.S. could develop a framework of true and efficient high speed rail?
At one time, we had the best passenger rail system in the world. But while other countries like France, England, Japan, and China were building their high speed rail lines, the U.S. placed priorities in the auto and airline industries. Now we’re left with crumbling train stations, watching while the price of gas inches toward that $5 a gallon mark. In an effort to play catch-up with those countries in Europe and Asia, the U.S. government is ready to build a high speed rail infrastructure. The question is not should we have high speed rail that rivals the rest of the world (because we should) but can we do it the right way so that the U.S. gets the most benefit out of this most efficient form of travel.
If We Build It, They Will Come
According to this report, 9 out of 10 Americans are open to long distance high speed train travel in the United States. America 2050, a national committee devoted to the renewing of the country’s deteriorating infrastructure, talks about an efficiency gap that exists in American transportation when it comes to traveling a distance of 200 to 400 miles. With trains being 3 times as energy efficient as cars and 6 times that of planes per passenger mile, high speed rail can more than fill that gap.
The map above shows the outcome of a recent study by America 2050 on the rail corridors that showed the highest potential for ridership. The darker the red lines, the higher score those routes received. We can also look to Amtrak to predict the success of ridership for high speed trains in the U.S. Last year marked a new annual ridership record for Amtrak, with every route carrying more passengers. And Amtrak doesn’t even operate efficiently. As pointed out in this article, not everyone has to use a community service in order to benefit from it.
Dedicated High Speed Train Tracks: The Key To Efficient Train Travel
For a high speed train to run most efficiently it needs its’ own track. Many current governmental high speed rail projects are calling for trains to run on the already existing network of tracks owned and operated by the nation’s freight railroads. Not only would this cause a slow down of freight trains since they’d have to give the right of way to high speed trains, but the safety issues involved would be unparalleled. Of course the freight railroads aren’t psyched about the idea and are preparing to derail the plans before they get started as explained in this WSJ article. The U.S. has the largest and most successful freight rail system in the world. It would be detrimental to jeopardize this industry in an attempt to get another one up and running due to time and money restraints.
Yet another problem in running on existing track would be the fact that this would not be true high speed rail. Under current rules set forth by the Federal Railroad Administration, trains cannot exceed 89 mph. Even if the Surface Transportation Board, who overlook the nation’s railways, is willing to raise the maximum train speeds, the freight railroads still have the right to set their own limitations and CSX has already said they won’t allow passenger trains to travel over 90 mph on their tracks. Not exactly the high speed bullet trains we’re used to hearing about in France and China that exceed speeds of 220 mph. The entire design and structure of a high speed train would have to meet guidelines set forth by the FRA in order to run on the same track with a freight train as shown in the above picture where an Amtrak engine needed assistance from a freight engine. Also railroad crossings are designed to safely handle freight trains that typically only run at 50-60 mph.
Anyone who has ever ridden the TGV in France will tell you that it is a smooth and comfortable ride. This is because the train runs on smooth welded track that sits on a concrete base rather than wooden rail ties. According to French rail executive, Denis Doute, who is interested in investing in high speed rail in Texas, the operating costs of a true high speed rail line “are only slightly higher than that of a conventional rail line“. Doute advises the U.S. to have the highest aspirations when it comes to train speed. After all, we already accomplished the 100 mph electric train service back in the 40s and 50s. As he states, “It makes no sense to build rail lines that don’t do better than that”. It should also be noted that there has never been a fatality on a French or Japanese high speed train. All of these issues point to the need of dedicated high speed track to run these trains in the efficient way they are meant to operate.
High Speed Rail In California
The California High-Speed Rail Authority may be on the right track, so to speak, in creating the nation’s first true high speed rail line. It will run on 800 miles of electrified track with speeds up to 220 mph and will be emissions free. Though still in the planning stages, the project is on a schedule to be completed by 2030. The plan involves connecting Los Angeles to San Francisco by building new track, but also by using some existing track along the way. This is where costs could get exorbitant as developers attempt to reach agreements with the freight railroads and may even be forced to purchase land due to eminent domain. However, the California High-Speed Rail Authority is committed to seeking guidance from experienced developers of high speed rail.
For more on high speed rail in California click here.
For more on high speed rail projects across the U.S. see here.