What’s So Great about High Speed Rail?

I see that everyone is really excited about the $8 billion in the stimulus package that is a “down payment” on a national high speed rail network. And there’s already talk of further investment. But is this really going to change how people travel long distances in our country?

I grew up on the east coast, where Amtrak is a regular part of a lot of people’s travel. Philly to New York or DC was actually a daily commuting pattern for some people…even NYC to to DC on a semi-regular basis. It was convenient, more or less faster than driving and it actually drove down the cost of airfare between those cities as well since it was a legitimate competitor.

But out here, cities are further apart…really further. New York to DC ain’t got nothin’ on Seattle to San Francisco, and even at 200 miles per hour you’re probably not living in one city and working in another. Maybe Seattle to Vancouver or Portland, but daily nonstops on Horizon air from SeaTac to PDX are like every half hour or something. Will a high speed train get people out of cars or plane and/or serve as a legitimate competitor in transportation options?

I’m sure our friends at Orphan Road have a strong opinion on the subject, but I’d love to hear some thoughts!

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5 Responses to What’s So Great about High Speed Rail?

  1. Paul says:

    Improved service would have me riding the rails more often.

    I’d gladly give up my car between Seattle and Portland (and have so in the past) for a train. With a more frequent and reliable ‘higher’ speed train I could see myself doing that on a more regular basis. With true high speed rail, I think it would be a no brainer – especially in the winter.

    I’d also gladly take a high speed train from Seattle to San Francisco instead of an airplane. Flying isn’t fun and I suspect that as time goes by it will get less and less affordable. An overnight train with sleeping accommodations would probably do well, but I suspect you’d likely see more people moving to northern California and southern Oregon if fast, frequent rail service was instituted between San Francisco and Portland/Seattle. I’d be shocked if I saw anything like that in my lifetime though.

  2. joshuadf says:

    I think you answered your own question. There are many daily nonstops from PDX to SEA, neither of which are in the city center. HSR (even the 110 mph kind) would fill this need more efficiently. Many business people already use Amtrak Cascades.

    In Japan (where I lived as an exchange student quite a while back), the Shinkansen HSR also has both local and express routes. You can pay a little extra to go straight from Tokyo to Kyoto on a faster line, or less for one that stops in Yokohama, Fuji, etc.

  3. Matt the Engineer says:

    Rail is already a reasonable alternative between Seattle and Portland. It takes the same amount of time as flight when the complete journey is taken into account, costs less, is more comfortable, has a much smaller carbon impact, and brings you from city center to city center. The only drawback is a lack of frequency, which could change if more people switched to the train.

    High speed rail would make this journey faster than airplanes. It would make the trip to Vancouver faster than on an airplane. Yes, a trip to San Francisco would be slower than air travel, but I’ll argue that beyond a decade or two this becomes a false choice.

    The fact is that air travel’s lifespan is limited, at least as a way to ferry around the masses. We are at or approaching peak oil – just ask petroleum geologists, 61% of whom say it will hit us within a decade. What will this mean? Very high prices for flights and long distance car travel. Yes, someone may come up with a way of converting biofuels into airplane fuel, but it will be very expensive compared to the just-drill fuel we have now.

    This is where high speed rail is exciting. We currently share rail lines between passengers and freight. As fuel prices increase, freight traffic will increase since a train can move a ton of freight 436 miles on a gallon of diesel whereas trucks, well don’t do so well. But with high speed rail we will be forced to build a new right of way. Freight lines, bogged down with freight, won’t have to wait for passenger trains and we won’t have to wait for freight trains. If gas becomes really expensive, we can electrify the lines.

    So yes, high speed rail seems like a lot of money for incremental improvement. But when we reach peak oil we can either hit a wall that effectively stops transportation in the US, or we can plan now to keep moving.

  4. Alex says:

    West Coast HSR is a great idea. But let’s not just think little and get up to 110 and say we’re done. We should follow California’s model and build all new dedicated tracks for 220 mph HSR on the West Coast and all over the country. That would make commuting from Portland to Seattle quicker than Tacoma to Seattle is today!

  5. Well, for starters, nobody’s saying that HSR will change how people travel long distances. HSR changes how people travel medium distances, typically under 500 miles, and it does so well at changing those behaviors that airlines in Europe are investing in the HSR routes and discontinuing their short-hop flights.

    The proposals that are advancing right now are for corridors linking cities within a few hundred miles of each other. The California HSR project is entirely different, real HSR being built in response to future California transportation needs by the state of California. Airlines and airports support the California HSR project so landing spaces can be freed up for long-haul flights.

    The Obama administration is essentially proposing to distribute seed money to regional authorities which can start or improve HSR corridors under 500 miles. Sadly, our transportation picture is so antiquated that getting up to a 110-mph standard would be quite an achievement for us.

    One thing seems certain- in a very short time gas and oil prices will skyrocket. Once again, the Congress will be voting bailout money for an airline industry hit by high fuel costs. When that happens, investing in a growth industry like trains will look a lot better than investing in a dying industry like airlines.

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