Up to Speed

the fast track to America’s future in transport

by by Belle Cushing

illustration by by Alexander Dale

In China, a businessman reaches speeds of 220 mph en route from Beijing to a meeting in Tiajin. Weekenders pop down from Paris to Marseille in three hours and twenty minutes. Trains in Japan don’t even touch the tracks, floating an infinitesimal distance above magnetic rails at 360 mph. High-speed trains are defined by the European Union as capable of reaching at least 124 mph; America’s closest attempt, the Acela Express, which connects Boston to Washington, is lucky to surpass 100 mph.
With an increasing global trend toward speedy train travel, and federal funding and support for the construction of high-speed rail at home, America finds itself at a critical moment in public transport. A century after the rise of cars and planes transformed the American economy and lifestyle, trains are making a comeback.

Back on track
The US is a latecomer in the international trend toward high-speedization. We do not merely lag behind other nations in our development: the others are completely lost from view.

Worldwide, high-speed rail is becoming a priority for the future. Brazil is currently undergoing plans to open a line between Sao Paulo and Rio de Janeiro by the 2016 Olympics; Spain has over 1000 miles of track in construction; there are even talks of a route linking Europe and Africa under the Mediterranean Sea. The first true high-speed Shinkansen ‘bullet’ trains took off in Japan just in time for the 1964 Olympics. France followed the trend with the introduction of the TGV (train à grande vitesse) linking Paris to Toulouse at speeds of 125 mph.

Part of the reason for this discrepancy stems from different regions’ responses to World War II. Europe and Asia focused their rebuilding efforts on improving national rail systems, while America indulged in big cars and glamorous planes. Highways and airways received national attention, and the railroad system was forgotten. America’s landmark rail system, which facilitated much of the industrialization of the Northeast and the settling of the West, is now struggling to remain relevant.
In 1981, with the founding of Amtrak, America began to slowly wake up its long-dormant rail system. Initially formed as a governmental organization, Amtrak was meant to become independent of federal subsidies within a few years of its founding. But the company has yet to become entirely independent and relies heavily on government funding, a reflection of the difficulties in profitability faced by inter-city rail.

America is not Europe
While proponents of high-speed rail have often cited European rail networks to demonstrate America’s untapped potential in the field, critics denounce this view on the grounds that America is, simply, not Europe. As a country, we are too sprawling, too reliant on automobile and air travel, and too attached to our tax dollars to commit to the high-speed investment, critics say.

Proposed high-speed systems would not be organized around American suburban sprawl from coast to coast, but rather in terms of corridors of interconnected urban centers called megaregions. As defined by America 2050, an infrastructure and policy research initiative, megaregions represent the emergence of large metropolitan areas encompassing multiple cities that share infrastructure and economic concerns, where “most of the nation’s projected growth will occur,” according to America 2050’s report. High-speed rail has been slated as the only efficient method of serving such regions, which are too large for travel by car, and too small for travel by plane. Initiative co-chair Robert Yuro sees the potential for a future national rail “to provide the same kind of backbone for a 21st-century national mobility system that the interstate highways did in the late 20th century.” These megaregions include the Great Lakes, Texas and the Gulf Coast, and California and the Southwest. Plans for a rail to connect northern and southern California are already underway, but the mostcited megaregion, according to America 2050, is the Northeast, comprising Boston, New York, Washington, DC, Baltimore, and Philadelphia.

The Acela system that currently serves the area is slow and expensive compared to foreign trains. For many traveling from Providence to New York, the prospect of paying at least a hundred dollars more to reduce travel time by no more than an hour is rarely worth it, even when the alternatives are a gridlocked I-95 or a hair-raising trip on a discount bus. “Northeast high-speed rail would transform the economy of the region,” insists Yuro. “We should get on with it.”

Still, though America is having difficulty firing its first bullet train out of the station, it is not for lack of trying. President Obama has emphasized the implementation of a national high-speed network as a major part of his administration, with goals of making fast trains accessible to 80 percent of Americans within 25 years. This pipe dream faces major barriers, however, as demonstrated by the recent cancellation of the federally funded high-speed train imagined between Tampa and Orlando. Mirroring actions of governors in Wisconsin and Ohio, Florida Governor Rick Scott shot down the proposal due to fears that signing up for high-speed rail gifts from the government would mean getting roped into future costs to be paid by the state.

The United States Department of Transportation’s (USDOT) initial choice to fund fast trains in Florida was an odd one. USDOT pursued this option mainly because of the possibility of rapid implementation, a feather in the Obama administration’s cap that would demonstrate America’s high-speed capability by 2015. The funds were fought for and won by former Florida governor Charlie Crist, and the proposal was chosen over perhaps more effective investments, despite the fact that someone getting off the 168 mph train in Orlando or Tampa would be stranded in cities almost impossible to navigate without a car.

The $2.4 billion that had been pledged by the government to finance the endeavor is now up for grabs.

The Little State that Could
Rhode Island is among the group of twenty-four states, the District of Columbia, and Amtrak who have submitted an application for the use of the funds by the April 4 deadline. In a letter sent to USDOT Secretary LaHood in February, Senators Jack Reed and Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI) referred to the plans as “critical investments in our nation’s transportation and economic future.” The letter went on to detail the proposed projects to improve current regional and commuter rail service while facilitating high-speed Acela travel on existing rails. The money would also grant the Providence train station, which drowsily yet determinedly funnels passengers through to Washington and Boston, refurbishment and safety modifications. Put bluntly by Charles St. Martin of the RI Department of Transportation, the current station is in “rough shape.”

“Florida’s loss should be Rhode Island’s gain,” says Senator Reed. “We can quickly put this money to work creating jobs, improving our infrastructure, and expanding high-speed rail service to more Rhode Islanders.” RIDOT supports the senators' efforts to facilitate high-speed rail in the state. For St. Martin, an important part of the proposal is the extension of the commuter rail to T.F. Green Airport, North Kingston, and Warwick, “providing in-state rail service for the first time in a very long time.” In regards to the future prospect of a true high-speed route through the state, RIDOT is “glad Rhode Island is part of that [high-speed] linkage.” 

However, the long-term goal remains separate from the state’s current focus on improving existing transit, expanding the commuter rail, and lessening highway congestion where possible within the state.

Senators Reed and Whitehouse brought Secretary LaHood to Providence in the fall to show him first-hand the state’s rail potential, but as Rhode Island is up against ninety other proposals, the competition remains stiff.

Next Generation
Another contender for the funds is Amtrak, which has endorsed the research put out by America 2050 in January of a complete report on “High-speed Rail in America.” In their application for government funds, the company outlined immediate plans for refurbishment of the current Boston-NY route. Projecting further into the future, the company hopes to someday launch a route connecting Boston and Washington with trains running at speeds of over 200 mph. Passengers would be able to make it from New York’s Penn Station to Boston’s South Station in 84 minutes, about the same amount of time as the commuter rail from Providence with its crowded tracks and habitual delays. The realization of such an ambitious project, though estimated to eventually earn an annual profit of one billion dollars, would in the meantime cost about $140 billion, to be paid for by Amtrak and federal (read: taxpayers’) funds.

Though Providence sits within a megaregion, it is small enough to be overlooked for inclusion in the rail routes in favor of the larger cities like Baltimore and Philadelphia. Providence nearly lost out to unlikely Woonsocket for a space on Amtrak’s Next Generation plan, but following discussion with government officials, it was put back on the projected high-speed map.

Cliff Cole, a manager of Amtrak, defines the proposed route as “one that permits true high-speed operations—at least 200 mph.” The possibility of a trip to New York in less than an hour would make Providence a simultaneous suburb of both Boston and the Big Apple. We could see an increase in commuters, far more frequent weekend trysts in Manhattan—and, perhaps, a return the city’s one-time industrial prosperity.

All Aboard?
The benefits of such long-term investment are not limited to the international prestige that would come with inclusion in the high-speed race. High-speed rail is becoming increasingly relevant because of the need for environmentally sustainable practices and independence from foreign oil. Train travel offers a more efficient means of transportation than air or highway, and does not rely on increasingly costly imported fuel. Amtrak claims that the gas saved simply by diverting passengers away from automobile and air transport could reach up to 40 billion gallons. (While trains running on electricity would burn a significant amount of fossil fuels, planners are considering the prospect of renewable energy resources.) Rail systems reduce congestion of airways and highways, are less dependent on weather conditions, and offer an alternative option for the reluctance to fly that has gained hold since 9/11.

The success of such a route would depend on ticket pricing. Amtrak would be competing with the likes of MegaBus and the Fung-Wah, and would have to consider their ridership seriously, since many potential ticket buyers already have cars. Planners can look to systems in France and Germany, which feature affordable ticket prices, including special rates for families and students.

Beyond the benefits of rail in general, the attraction of specifically high-speed trains remains questionable. Aside from the sleek aesthetic of futuristic bullet trains propelling America forward, the costs may outweigh the benefits. Given the current budget crisis, perhaps the billions of dollars needed to invest in high-speed infrastructure would be better spent somewhere else. And where are we going that we need to get there so fast anyway? High-speed connections are catered toward professionals who conduct business in other nearby cities, facilitating day trips without requiring an overnight stay in a hotel. These routes are currently only considered functional in corridors with multiple employment centers. As of now, plans for a transnational system are not feasible, and high-speed routes would remain limited to megaregions. Ideally, however, proponents view the initial infrastructure as an investment toward an eventual comprehensive system that would connect multiple, disparate cities. Whether or not we make the 2050 goal, a future of fast trains is the inevitable light at the end of the tunnel.

BELLE CUSHING B’13 is a girl à grande vitesse.