Tuesday, August 07, 2007

A high speed passenger rail system for America?

It seems as if every major country in Europe, plus Japan, has a high speed rail system that compete effectively with air travel for short to medium length trips. Additionally, Europe’s railroads have banded together in a cooperative manner to coordinate their departure and arrival times, such that it is easy for a traveler to make a long journey using (I believe) a single ticket and making connections, just as a airline traveler would make connections. England and France combined their forces to build a truly spectacular rail system that travels underneath the English Channel. Japan has had high speed rail, in the form of their Bullet Train, since the 1960’s.

Where is the United States in all of this? We are still studying the issue and building prototypes. Yes, our prototypes go really fast! But as for implementing anything that would be useful in even our children’s lifetimes, that isn’t even on the drawing board. As much as we like to envision ourselves as being on the technological “cutting edge” of everything, the U.S. is behind where we were in the 1950’s, when it comes to travel by rail.

The reasons for this are many, no doubt. Complex issues rarely have simple answers, as much as George Bush and his bunch of neo-conservative Republican followers would like to believe.

The first big, obvious reason is that high speed rail requires an incredible investment in the infrastructure. High speed rail cannot practically exist when it is required to run on the same rails as the major freight rail operators. These lines are choked with freight trains and the rails are sometimes in need of repair if trains are to be able to run without severe speed restrictions. Additionally, there really can’t be traffic crossings for cars and trucks on a high speed rail line, as a collision between a stationary vehicle and a high speed train traveling in excess of 120 mph would be rather catastrophic. If the United States is to attempt a high capacity, high speed passenger rail system, it is going to require the construction of an entirely new rail system, apart from the one that exists now.

The unfortunate reality is that this new rail right of ways would consume an incredible amount of land. Putting together a continuous ribbon of land that runs in a direct route between destinations without sharp curves outside of the city limits is a difficult proposition, to say the least. In the eastern part of this country, it would be probably cost prohibitive for a commercial venture to buy out all the businesses and homes that would have to be condemned to acquire the land necessary to put in a new rail system. The government, with its hands off, “business knows best” attitude, is certainly not going to step in and be a major factor in making this come to pass, which is what would have to happen if someone wanted to acquire the necessary land to build such a system. In the western parts of the country, the land might be available for such a line, but the distance between the destinations would no doubt diminish the attractiveness to the traveling public when it takes, even at high speeds, more than 15 to 18 hours to get to where you want to go. Compared to air travel, even with all its inconveniences, the positives become overwhelmed with the negative of how long it takes.

Another large factor is the entrenched positions that the airlines enjoy. Even with the terrible service the airlines provide, travel by air still is safe, relatively inexpensive and (usually, but not always) effective in getting you to your desire destination. No one in their right mind would willingly go up against these megaliths of modern Corporate America, where the initial outlay of capital would be in the tens of billions of dollars before a single earned dollar could be expected.

Finally, there is just the perception by the population of this country that travel by rail is an outdated concept, akin to traversing the Atlantic Ocean by steamship. Rail travel may be good for commuting to work in high traffic areas like Chicago, Washington D.C., New York, etc., or for vacationing retirees going to Florida for the winter, but not for the more “mundane” needs of the traveling public. It would take a long time for a high speed passenger rail system, such as those enjoyed by Europe and Japan, to catch on here in America. And by “catching on”, I mean “a hugely profitable business venture” for someone. That is the only reason anything gets done in this country anymore.

So, in summary, I think it is very unlikely that America will have any sort of national high speed rail system, ever. There may be some enterprising people who see some local need that could be filled with rail. Perhaps a rail corridor could be built, for example, that runs between Cheyenne in Wyoming, Denver, Colorado Springs and Pueblo, Colorado. The land is there, and there probably is a minimal amount of continual business and personal travel between those cities to make it profitable. Other places already have some sort of local system, like the Amtrak Acela on the east coast, and the Cascades running between points in Oregon, Washington and Vancouver, British Columbia (which is not high speed, but it is a nice, dependable and well run system). But I believe that the unfortunate truth of the matter is that this country will never approach anything like the rail systems that are in operation, currently being constructed and now on the research drawing board around the world.

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