High Speed Rail-In-America Redux

Ian Sacs's picture

High Speed Rail (HSR) is the favorite moniker to describe the new era of trains envisioned and partially down-paid by the recent stimulus.  The idea, linking major regional corridors via fast trains that rival door-to-door times for air travel and put highways to shame, is a powerful elixir to the crunch of congested highways and airways that represented a failed – or to be more accurate, incomplete - twentieth century vision to satiate America's transport needs.  Perhaps this vision, if implemented with undeterred gusto, can renew our perception of travel and convenience while simultaneously reinvigorating our gagged transportation system.

Any Amtrak trip will reveal the HSR plan is less than nascent, and will require funding on par with the most aggressive national strategic endeavors ever pursued by our nation (Louisiana Purchase, Erie Canal, transcontinental railroad, Homestead Act, Panama Canal, New Deal, G.I. Bill, National Interstate and Defense Highways Act, Space Race, etc.).  This is because our railway infrastructure is in many ways a relic of centuries past.  Sadly, the massive network foundation laid by the transcontinental railroad was all but abandoned when the power of certain industries convinced our government, and us, that the way of the future was the asphalt highway or runway tarmac.  Freight transport aside, we were wooed away from rail travel in the last century towards more "modern" options, such as the car and jet, leaving no regional and national mass transportation options to access the city center (let's not talk about long distance bus travel in America).

In an eighty-year quirk of modernization that is hard to parallel in other developed nations, America more or less abandoned its cities, resulting in a queer inverse land valuation that decreased as one approached the city center.  Magnificent, and thoughtfully designed, train stations deteriorated, or were demolished, as the country's greatest cities fell to shambles.  Dismissing rail travel resulted in the double whammy of eliminating a crucial, high capacity form of national transport, as well as dumping all those trips, transport engineering parlance for train riders, into cars or planes at an increased  rate over several decades.  The end result was an over-reliance on too few transport modes ill-equipped for the dynamics of an increasingly mobile American society.  Only recently have we accepted the sad reality that adding lanes to stifled highways is not the solution to congestion – the solution is alternative modes of travel.

While America was experimenting on the patience of our nation's drivers and pilots, other countries were maximizing the value of their previous rail infrastructure investments with newer technology and faster service.  Somehow the geopolitical truism that "America is much bigger than Europe" convinced us that HSR couldn't work here, despite the geospatial truth that the distance between New York City and Chicago is no longer than that between Paris and Rome (or Tokyo and Nagasaki for that matter).  The culmination of decades of operational and hardware enhancements (most notably in Europe and Japan) is a sturdy network of high speed rail that manages comfort, convenience, and competitive cost across national boundaries, topological impediments, and comparably denser organized labor agreements.


Now the value demonstrated and progress made in other countries with HSR has been wondrously, albeit conditionally, knit back into our nation's future transportation plan as part of the new administration's efforts to reinvigorate a waning national efficiency and, more recently, a floundering economy.  In another odd deviation from the ordinary, the United States stands to capitalize on the technological innovations of more advanced countries (this is commonly referred to as "leapfrogging") by building HSR infrastructure on the lessons learned elsewhere.  The vision, while still entirely underfunded, is a brilliant strategy and cause for much happiness in an otherwise dismal moment in our nation's history.  In an era of unexpected interstate traffic jams and perverse airport security screening, the idea of keeping my shoes on until i'm comfortably seated and dozing off in the quiet car is no less than titillating!

Ian Sacs, P.E. is a worldwide transportation solutions consultant based in Finland.



high speed trains

I live in upstate New York where the economy outside of Wall Street has suffered for many years. Now that Wall Street is on the skids, we could really use some economic stimulation and providing decent rail transportation would be an excellent choice. For one thing, New York is a large state and essentially all of it is "upstate". Cities are spread east to west across a landscape that is subjected to harsh winter storms five months out of each year, making driving hazardous. Up to now, Albany's answer to our transportation problems has been to starve Amtrak, which doesn't even own the tracks here, in favor of subsidizing travel in single occupancy vehicles. I would rather take the train, but the last time I took Amtrak from Syracuse to New York my train arrived at Penn Station four (yes, 4) hours late.

I am a high speed train enthusiast, as I assume the author of this article is. Is there someone out there who wants to adress this issue who can communicate to someone who might be living, say, in New York?

Curtis Eaton
2 Elmwood Place
Geneva, NY 14456

Ian Sacs's picture


hi curtis! i share your frustration with the lack of reasonable rail alternatives to the car when traveling other than commuting. while connecticut, new jersey and the hudson valley of new york state all offer reasonable commuter travel options, regional trips via rail are poorly serviced or non-existent. my favorite anecdote is the amtrak scheduling to montreal and toronto, two cities i've visited in previous years where i thought for sure train travel from nyc would make sense. while these destinations are available from nyc, the trip times are nearly double the drive, price is outrageous, and for some reason (when i checked a few years ago) both trips occured during the day (instead of a more reasonable 14 hour overnight trip). the trip you refer to, syracuse to nyc, is a great candidate for the regional high speed rail network we're hoping for in the future, but it will likely be part of a secondary or tertiary expansion of the network after other cities deemed more critical (i.e. boston, albany, etc.) are up and running, unless syracuse finds itself along the route of one of those primary links and gets rolled into an earlier phase. of course the proper conduits for pushing legislation is via your state senators and local state representatives as an email or letter. you can also comment on the state's HSR plans as they develop, although it's still a tad early for that.

High speed train

There was talk of building a high speed train from California to Las Vegas. The idea quietly died but now there is talk of actually doing it since President Obama took office. There was talk of adding a transportation car where you could take your own car on the train as well. I don't know if that would fly, but I'd love to see it happen. We could use the tourism boost and I'd love to be able to shave off several hours of a boring desert drive to get to California.

I work as a Las Vegas Real Estate webmaster in Southern Nevada.

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