Sunday, January 9, 2011

High Speed Rail in the USA

Prague main railway station June 2010-01

Pendolino Train in Prague - From my flickr photos.

I just commented on a very interesting article in The Infrastructuralist: A Powerful Argument for US High Speed Rail. The article discusses the fact that no US transportation system actually pays for itself and therefore arguments against HSR because it does not pay for itself are wrong. Here's my comment:
I think an important point is that we need a transportation SYSTEM that works. High speed rail is part of that system and we all realize it’s not appropriate everywhere and it will be impossible to build quickly enough even where it is justified right now. What’s to be done?
1 - Focus on improving the existing railway system. It may not be possible to build a real HSR system through New England, but I am sure there are many projects that could shave ten minutes off the travel time.
2 - Improve multimodal connections. Travelers care about door-to-door time not speed. Any rail traveler can tell you the horror stories involved with connecting to local public transport networks. Most of these problems are “simply” institutional, they would cost almost nothing to fix. Again, this could save tens of minutes.
3 - Build a couple HSR lines where they make sense. California for example. Let’s see how they work, even starter lines with (1) and (2) above could show whether the concept will work in the USA.
These seem like pretty uncontroversial suggestions. A country as innovative as the USA should be able to try out an idea like HSR and spend some money improving the rail system without all the controversy that seems to have been generated by what is really a very small program.
Reading through the article comments is really enlightening. There is so much negative energy being thrown around about what amounts to a very small amount of money. It seems strange that people would object to spending a little money testing something that works pretty well in other countries and which could be implemented successfully in carefully chosen US corridors.

Furthermore, many of the investments in Obama's High Speed Rail program fall in the first category of improvement above: small projects to improve railway travel in the USA. Again, a small amount of money to make pretty useful improvements (and create jobs in a depression economy - no small benefit). Critics say these are not "real high speed rail," fine, but useful, yes.

Most depressing of all is the fact that normal people have been coerced by politicians and the media to get fighting mad about these small expenditures on relatively benign infrastructure improvements. To be against simply trying out things that just might really improve our society, and certainly won't hurt. A pessimist would say that it's useful for those in power to keep the middle class fighting with each other about peanuts rather than questioning why, for example, hedge fund managers only pay a 15% income tax rate.

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