High Speed Rail: The Momentum is Building

In the age of fast everything, it’s about time the United States builds some fast trains. After all, Americans like fast things. It’s why we use Keurig coffee machines instead of French presses and why more of us get news from the New York Times Twitter feed than from an actual newspaper.  

Despite our desire for everything fast, the overwhelming majority of Americans get from place to place by driving a car. Using a car for transportation means battling traffic and finding parking, both time consuming activities. In addition, driving physically prevents us from interacting with the public realm. But there are some exciting alternatives that Americans will have in the future.

CA HSR Train_ Public Domain. Source_ wikimedia
California High Speed Rail. Photo Credit: Public Domain. Source_ wikimedia

There are three major High Speed Rail (HSR) projects in the planning and design phase in the United States right now. Two privately funded projects will provide nonstop service between Dallas and Houston, and between Las Vegas and Los Angeles, and the State of California will connect San Francisco and Los Angeles. Trains on these routes will travel over 200 miles per hour in some locations, and in 15 years, all three projects could be complete.

In addition, a privately funded “higher” speed rail project called All Aboard Florida is currently under construction to connect Miami, West Palm Beach, Fort Lauderdale, and Orlando, Florida, with service beginning in 2017. While the project won’t be fully grade-separated and will rely on diesel-powered locomotives, the corridor is designed to handle speeds of up to 125 mph and could be a great proof of concept for other cities and regions contemplating the addition of HSR.  

While there is some legitimate uncertainty about the financial projections of projects so large and unprecedented in the United States, odds are good that these high speed rail lines will be a welcome alternative to driving or flying for the passenger. With WiFi, no TSA lines, fewer weather restrictions, large windows, and bathrooms big enough to stand up in, HSR travel can offer amenities that might be enough to convert even the most adamant opponents. HSR also promises to reduce congestion in large cities; California expects its HSR to remove the equivalent of 31,000 vehicles from highways and roads.

USDOT HSR Map. Public Domain. Source_ wikimedia
USDOT High Speed Rail Map. Photo Credit: Public Domain. Source_ wikimedia

And of course, we do have one high speed rail line in the United States, the Acela Express, an Amtrak route in the Northeast Corridor that shares rails with commuter and freight trains. Topping out at 150 miles per hour, the Acela helped Amtrak double its market share of the Boston-New York air/rail market, from 20 percent in 2000 to 54 percent in 2011, according to Amtrak. Not only does HSR reduce vehicle miles, it reduces air miles traveled, as well.

As long as cities across the country continue to grow, the interest and demand for reliable, convenient, and efficient means of travel will grow, too. HSR could create or improve rail transportation among dozens of routes, like Atlanta to Charlotte, Chicago to St. Louis, and Seattle to Portland.

Planners across the country would be savvy to consider the economic and transportation benefits of HSR, along with the environmental benefits that thoughtfully planned intercity HSR service could bring. The time horizons of individual HSR projects may be long, but the start of a High Speed Rail era in the United States may finally be upon us.

About the Author: A Seattle native, Chris Bendix earned a BA in Philosophy from Whitman College. Chris has a passion for seeking efficiency, equity, and sustainability in policy-making, especially in the realm of transportation. He is specializing in transportation and is on track to graduate from the MCRP program in spring, 2017.  He is an Online Content Editor for Angles.