Region Forward Blog

High-Speed Ambition? Part 2: Getting Serious

Dec 21, 2010


This is Part 2 of a two-part piece. Read Part 1 here.

While Europe and Asia have been innovating in the transportation field for decades (and doing so with fewer resources than those available in the States) the U.S. has devoted almost all its technical attention and funding for surface transportation to roads and highways. From Beijing to Berlin countries are participating in the creation of continental high-speed rail systems whereas the U.S. possesses one fairly efficient and reliable rail corridor (the Northeast Regional). Furthermore the country’s one “high-speed” train the Acela Express (which operates from Washington D.C. to Boston) doesn’t run at nearly the speed or frequency of its French Chinese Italian German Japanese Korean or Spanish counterparts.

The amount of time it takes to plan for and build these projects in the U.S. is immense and the current high-speed pilot projects are not all actually high-speed in the vein of European and Asian systems. Frustration with this situation is beginning be vented by some forward thinking public officials but more pressure must be exerted. U.S. trains operate at roughly 1/3 the speed as most of their counterparts in Europe and their on-time performance is less than spectacular. Merely making small changes around the edges of the present system and adding a few miles-per-hour to the current maximum speed will not deliver true high-speed rail travel.

Despite the vast nature of such an undertaking creating a national high-speed rail network in the U.S. is far from impossible – if adequate resources are provided. Although the amount of funding necessary is admittedly quite large as Bruce Selcraig writes “The investment would be small compared to the billions lavished on highways and airports.”

Furthermore it would be smart to start in an area that’s already fairly familiar with train travel (at least relative to the rest of the U.S.) the Northeast Corridor. Right now plans are to build bits and pieces of “high-speed” rail across the country. While politically popular such a strategy may prove less effective than focusing on an area that has displayed a persistent interest in rail travel. A team of graduate students at the University of Pennsylvania recently released a brilliant proposal for bring true high-speed rail to the northeast. Amtrak is reportedly in the process of looking towards its high-speed future. The Penn plan is s a great place to start. Let’s hope the Penn plan is a vision of the future of rail transportation in the United States.

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