The Dusty Trail to High-Speed Rail

High-speed rail (HSR) has long been a staple of the distance travel diet of Europeans and East Asians.  Well over 13,000 miles of HSR are in operation or under construction from Spain to China and many countries in between.  Japan was first to develop HSR, service beginning in 1964, and even holds the record for the fastest train (361 mph for its MLX01 train).

The United States only has one active HSR, the Acela Express by Amtrak, launched in 2000 and linking Washington, DC to Boston.  At an average operating speed of just 68 miles per hour over its route, though, even the Acela can hardly be classified as high speed.

Thankfully, progress is being made as California plans to begin work on a true HSR line to run between Los Angeles and San Francisco, eventually including San Diego and Sacramento.  Florida is also making progress on its planned Sunrail between Tampa and Orlando.  Other designated corridors are hopeful for future funding to make HSR a reality in their own regions.

Just as HSR begins to take track here in the United States, questions remain about their viability in our society, particularly in the troubled state of our economy.  Louisiana governor Jindal has expressed opposition to the possibility of HSR in his region, and similar opposition from the governors of Ohio and Wisconsin caused a redirection of $1.2 billion in grants to other projects, including those in California and Florida.

So why all the fuss over high speed rail?  It seems that it’s not just about speed…

Advantages of high speed rail:

  • Reduced travel time, compared to vehicular travel and existing rail service
  •  Fewer security complications than air travel
  •  Potential for significant job creation in order to develop HSR
  •  Lower carbon emissions per passenger than airplanes and private vehicles
  •  Will likely serve as a catalyst for private development near HSR stations

Potential pitfalls of HSR:

  •  HSR will require a significant outlay of federal funding to build and maintain
  • Government involvement may slow the development and increase costs for HSR
  • Ridership is hard to predict and could be lower than anticipated
  • Fares required to entice ridership may be too low to cover operating costs
  • Eminent domain may be required to obtain land for HSR development
  • Conflicts may arise about right-of-way where HSR intersects with existing rail

So what is the answer to the debate over developing high-speed rail?  The answer is certainly not clear-cut.  For now, however, its fate seems to rest mostly in the hands of our Congress as they determine what our federal budget will look like over the next couple years.  Until then, though, what are your thoughts on HSR?

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