Evolution Shift
A Future Look at Today
January 15th, 2008

High Speed Trains

High speed trains must, and will become an essential component of the U.S. transportation system during the next 20 years. This seems to be obvious, but is something that the (lack of) leadership in Washington D.C. has yet to seriously consider. A combination of lack of vision, deeply entrenched vested interests, a troubled Amtrak system and a ‘not invented here’ mindset has combined to allow the U.S. to be woefully behind the curve when it comes to both rail transport and an intelligent, integrated national transportation system.

Flying has become an extremely unpleasant and unreliable travel experience. In addition it is a large contributor to greenhouse gas emissions into the atmosphere. Predicated on cheap oil, high prices and customer service, the airline business must now operate in an environment of expensive oil, low prices and a general lack of quality customer service not to mention cancellations and poor on-time performance. At the other end of the transportation spectrum, automobile travel is undergoing change due to increasing price of gasoline. Gasoline prices consistently over $3 means that in addition to looking for a high MPG when buying a new car, people will think twice before making a long road trip and will increasingly find that commuting by car is adversely affecting the household budget.

In Europe and Japan, high speed trains have been a way of life for decades. Comfortable, fast, environmentally sound and connecting the central city centers, high speed trains have become the backbone of convenient transportation. Recently, the French national railroad, SNCF, set a new speed record of 575kph/345mph. [Check out the video of that speed trial here]. While that speed was reached on a special speed test, high speed trains in Europe and Japan routinely exceed 200 mph. At these or even slower speeds, for distances under 500 miles, it takes the same amount of time to travel with trains as with planes. When one flies, one usually has to travel for half an hour to get to the airport, get to the airport an hour before departure, go through security and then hope the plane leaves on time or is not cancelled. Upon arrival one must use ground transportation for another amount of time to get to one’s destination. When taking the train in Europe, one arrives at the central city train station 15-20 minutes before departure and then getting off the train at a train station close to your specific destination. Trains might be delayed, but they are never cancelled.

The only experience similar to this in the U.S. today is the Acela Express train that runs from Boston to Washington D.C at speeds ranging from 75 to 150 mph. As anyone who has taken it from New York to Boston or from Washington to New York. knows, it takes about the same amount of time as flying between those cities but with a lot less hassle. One can read, work and eat on the train. If in the quiet car there is no conversation or use of cell phones. In other cars, one can use the cell phone almost the entire way. And you don’t have to take off your shoes at all if you don’t want to.

The consistent argument historically against trains in the U.S. is that the country is so much bigger than Japan or EU countries. That is true. However, there are several population corridors in the U.S. that would be well served by high speed trains. In addition to the Boston — D.C. route, we could have the Atlanta-Birmingham-New Orleans-Houston-San Antonio route, the Kansas City-Oklahoma City-Dallas-Houston route, the Minneapolis-Milwaukee-Chicago-Indianapolis-Cincinnati route, the Denver-Albuquerque route, the Seattle-Portland route and of course the San Francisco — San Diego route. If all these routes were in place and served with high speed trains, a significant amount of the dangerous air traffic congestion would diminish, greenhouse gases would diminish and reliance upon foreign oil could be lowered.

When comparing trains to cars, trains look good. They are more energy efficient, contribute less to global warming, use less land, are much safer, allow riders to be productive in transit and allow the rider to arrive more happy and relaxed. When the high speed train network is connected to the local train networks, it is possible to travel between two cities and never use an internal combustion vehicle at all. Thousands of people regularly do this with the Acela between N.Y. and D.C., taking the N.Y. subway to the Acela and then taking the Metro in D.C. to their destination.

It is time for the U.S. to learn from, buy from and take lessons from the EU and Japan in their use of high speed trains and regular trains to provide safe, energy efficient, hassle free and reliable transportation.

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