High Speed Stakes: Can High Speed Rail make it in the US?

By Luke Quarto

america US high speed rail train

High Speed Rail, known alternatively as HSR or simply really, really fast trains – Europe and Asia have them, and America doesn’t. Put aside the nation’s chronic budget crises for a moment and consider these facts: Energy prices are high, the looming specter of rising gas prices is a source of constant fear, and issues of unemployment are ever-present.

High speed rails (HSR) – which zoom easily at triple the speed of interstate travel – could reduce emissions from fossil-fueled engines, drastically reduce traffic congestion in more densely populated areas like Chicago and Los Angeles, manifest jobs, reduce city-to-city travel time significantly, and replace regional air transport.

But when it comes to delivering on the idea, both the government and citizens dig in their heels and refuse to spend the necessary time and energy it would take to revolutionize travel in the United States. Just late last February politicians blocked additional spending plans for a California High Speed Rail. Why hasn’t there been a more concentrated effort to translate the High Speed Rail initiative into action?

High Speed Rail Construction Is Expensive

True. To build a reasonable High Speed Rail network the U.S. would have to commit at least a staggering $1 trillion to the effort, which is why skepticism often lies heavy on the hearts of those considering construction. America is in no condition to borrow this money, so there would have to be intelligent steps taken towards generating a solid revenue stream for construction.

On the other hand, new ideas require investment. Dwight D. Eisenhower proved it in 1956 with his initiation of the Interstate Highway System that 35 years later span the entire country in a connective web of roads.

High Speed Rail would not necessarily be as expansive as the interstate system; its function is a bit different. Railways would ideally work together with the highway system to unclog current roadways and encourage mass transit over distances of less than 500 miles. The United States simply does not have the kind of domestic, sustainable transport around which other independent countries have successfully mobilized their lives and budgets. High Speed Rail would make the United States far more self-sustainable and less reliant on foreign tools for transport.

America Already Has A Rail System

As a matter of fact, it does. The United States has its own, slower version of High Speed Rail called Amtrak Acela Express. It exists in the Northeast Corridor between Washington, D.C. and New York, and passenger trains travel at a maximum of 90mph. Speeds are limited, as passenger trains share rails with the sluggish, cargo-bearing freight train. Strides are being taken by the Obama administration to “revamp” these existing rails, but because of track limitations such as corner steepness, speeds would not even begin to compare with European rail capabilities.

With a 35mph improvement to existing lines the only real innovation to anticipate, many Americans are rightfully disillusioned with putting money behind the project. Were the High Speed Rail initiative put into action instead of fighting a losing financial battle with limited rails, the U.S. could avoid sinking irretrievable funds into an outdated train system and alternately lay the foundation for a more streamlined, revolutionary form of transport.

Will high speed rail be America’s saving grace, solving our energy crisis, creating a bottomless well of jobs, and eliminating vehicular air pollution? Not exactly, at least in the near future.

In order for High Speed Rail to succeed, it will have to begin on a smaller, more prototypical scale in a place like San Francisco or Chicago to see if the average person will integrate mass high speed transit into his or her life and whether or not there is a net profit to running such an operation. Positive results would help funding become available as more people realized its value, therefore allowing for a more circuitous system of railways to be constructed.

Until the first steps are taken towards actual planning and building, all we can do is watch and wait.

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