Is America on Track for High-Speed Rail?

Is America on Track for High-Speed Rail?

By Paula Hock

The transportation industry sees continual technological advancements. Soon we will be living in a world where our cars can drop us off at work. We can now fly from the United States to Iceland for the same price as flying across the country, less than half of what tickets used to cost. Companies are striving to offer private travel to space with the eventual goal of life on other planets.

One industry that’s mentioned far less frequently in the US is train travel. While advances in other transportation segments advance, will the United States develop its train travel?

Train Travel in the US

Train travel is one of the least popular modes of transportation for multiple travel purposes. According to data from 2009, there are a variety of reasons we travel: family/personal errands, social, to/from work, school/church, work-related business, and others. That year, 88.4% of all trips and person-miles traveled were done by personal vehicle while only 1.9% of trips and 1.5% of miles were traveled by all modes of transit (buses, trains, and ferries).

Amtrak is the main operator of passenger rail service in the USA. While they have seen a steady rise in ridership since 2000 (reaching 31 million passengers in 2012), intercity rail service is a divisive subject for politicians and public users alike. Partisan politics have a long history of grid-locking movement on federal funding for rail service, and infrastructure improvements and expansions are hard-won battles in most of the US. Support for rail service abounds, however, in areas with the country’s highest rail usage, like the Northeast Corridor, Chicago, parts of California, and the Pacific Northwest.

Global High-Speed Rail (HSR)

High-speed rail (HSR) travel is a reality for many countries around the world. China alone has a HSR network that operates on more than 19,000 km and carries over 2.7 million passengers each day, and the program is targeting 30,000 km by 2020, which would link 80% of China’s largest cities. Japan saw its first high-speed train debut in 1964, when the Shinkansen cut travel time between Tokyo and Osaka from six hours to four.

Interestingly, some of the success stories in high-speed rail systems may be due to factors other than high-speed service, like privatization, single-company ownership of both trains and infrastructure, and dense population centers. In Japan, for example, JR East is the largest rail company by passenger numbers and requires no subsidies. This is in part due to efficiency (owning of infrastructure and trains) and in part to the planning scheme of intentional commercial and housing developments along the routes.

Emergence of Privatized HSR in the US

Attempts to bring high-speed rail systems to the US have largely been met with funding rejections and a variety of setbacks. However, some systems have gone “full steam ahead” via private rail companies.

In 2011, Governor Rick Scott of Florida rejected $2.4 billion in federal change for a high-speed rail line from Orlando to Tampa with concerns of cost overruns for the state. Shortly thereafter, All Aboard Florida, a private rail company, stepped in and began building an ultra-sleek passenger rail line to run between 79 and 125 mph. Progress on the project has been steady; in January, the company introduced “BrightBlue,” which is the first of five passenger trains set to begin carrying passengers between Miami and West Palm Beach by the end of summer 2017. Phase 2 of the project, however, is not set to begin until at least 2019, as it has faced setbacks including lawsuits and heavy opposition.

California has been making even slower progress on the first actual high-speed rail (expected to reach speeds in excess of 200 mph). Voters originally agreed to fund the project in 2008, but since then, land disputes, political opposition, and engineering challenges have caused major setbacks. Construction for the project is definitely making progress through bridges, viaducts, and more, but it’s possible the first segment won’t be complete until 2025.

The Future of HSR

High-speed rail shows exceptional promise to provide an efficient, cost-effective method of travel, even in car-obsessed countries. However, most would-be investors and users alike are going to keep an eye on current projects: will any of them become the next Acela or will the projects be abandoned?

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