Californians have a problem — a problem China tackled without a second thought, and Europe handled far more aggressively than the United States. Just about everyone agrees that bustling economies thrive with modern, efficient transportation like high-speed rail. The problem in the Golden State: who is going to pay for it?
In the U.S., there is only one train that can travel at speeds above 150 miles-per-hour: Amtrak’s Acela Express, which runs daily between Boston and Washington, D.C.
“We like to call it the hassle-free way to travel,” says Cliff Cole, a spokesman for Amtrak. Cole says the Acela is Amtrak’s most traveled and profitable route, with nearly 3.4 million riders in fiscal year 2011.
Latitude News went to Boston’s South Station to ask Acela commuters to share their thoughts on fast rail expansion in the U.S.
But Cliff Cole points to a fact about high-speed rail’s future in the U.S that makes it controversial. “There is no country in the world,” he says, “that operates a rail system without federal subsidies.”
Should the U.S. make the investment?
Waning support in California
California is supposed to have a high-speed rail under construction. In 2008, voters narrowly approved a bond measure to pay one-third of the $33 billion cost.
The train was supposed to run from Los Angeles to San Francisco, but the plan has changed three times in as many years, transforming high-speed trains into a political third rail. The proposal ballooned to an estimated $99-$117 billion dollar project that would not be completed until 2034; this week the plan shrunk by $30 billion dollars and seems to be garnering more widespread support — for now.
Californians are not the only Americans who can’t agree on how to pay for high-speed rail. President Obama has been lobbying for a network of fast trains since his first months in office. “Within 25 years,” President Obama said in his 2011 State of the Union Address, “our goal is to give 80 per cent of Americans access to high-speed rail.” But Congressional Republicans have stripped the President’s fast-pace dream of much of its funding, and Republican governors in Florida, Wisconsin, and Ohio have rejected federal dollars for high-speed rail projects.
Still, about $10 billion in federal money is earmarked for rail, including high-speed corridors in the Northwest, Midwest, California, Southeast, and the Northeast. Florida’s rejection, for example, could mean more cash for the Seattle-to-Portland corridor.
On the global scale, though, plans in the U.S. are moving relatively slowly. Why? The democratic process.
Everything’s bigger in…China
China has been bankrolling train tracks at a rate that would give a Republican governor vertigo. Forget 400 miles of controversial track from Los Angeles to San Francisco — China has plans to lay 10,000 miles of high-speed rail by 2015.
In part, the Chinese are playing catch up. The nation has fewer than half the miles of train tracks as the U.S., and about four times as many people. China’s top-down authority has pushed the nation to increase its rail miles by 50 percent since 1995.
Fast growth has come at a cost in China. Construction slowed last year after one bullet train rear-ended another, killing 40 people. Shoddy design and mismanagement were to blame. Shortly thereafter, the Chinese government acknowledged its rail ambitions were outpacing its ability to manage the system. Then, last month, about four miles of high-speed rail in Hebei province washed away with a heavy rain. Despite the slowdown, China still plans to connect 100 per cent of its cities with high-speed rail.
China is a prime example of a trend in high-speed rail development: centralized governments get fast results. To lay 200 miles of high-speed rail from Chicago to Detroit, Americans must schlepp through a planning process involving stakeholders, private citizens and federal, state and local governments. Yet since 2008, the global high-speed fleet grew from 1,737 to 2,517 trains. Two-thirds of that growth occurred in five countries with more centralized authority than the U.S.: France, China, Japan, Germany, and Spain.
If New Jersey were in China (a strange thought, indeed) Governor Chris Christie never could have rejected federal dollars for a rail expansion to New York City.
Things move faster in Europe
By European standards, the Acela is no high-speed train. Amtrak’s finest can hit 150 miles per hour, but it averages far less because it shares tracks with commuter trains. Ride time between Boston and New York is about three-and-a-half hours — without traffic, you could make the same time on the highway.
But the Acela does have the key ingredients for success, according to Alexander Jan. Jan heads the Advisory Team for Transport at Arup, a multinational engineering and consulting firm. Arup is advising the California High-Speed Rail Authority on the best way to lay track on the west coast.
“The Northeast has densely populated cities, people with wealth, and reasonable distances between cities,” says Jan. He calls it “journey-time competitiveness.” Two hundred to 400 miles is a reasonable distance for high-speed rail to swipe market share away from cheap air carriers. The U.S. cities in the map above fit these criteria. So does much of Europe.
The controversy in the U.S. still hinges on one point: should the public fund high-speed rail? The European experience shows public funding is essential. After large capital investments from central governments, Jan says most high-speed rails in Europe cover their operating costs. But the real benefit of high-speed rail isn’t that the trains make money, he added. Instead, they enable cities to grow and create jobs while reducing congestion.
Those arguments haven’t gained much traction in the U.S., where high-speed rail has inflamed conservatives critical of government spending. But that doesn’t mean the debate over high-speed trains is over.
Proponents argue that Amtrak has improved its cost-effectiveness in recent years despite its underfunded, antiquated infrastructure; that airlines show how private transportation systems in the U.S. are not necessarily more likely to be profitable than government ventures; and that critics rarely if ever factor in the collateral benefits of improved rail, like fewer carbon emissions.
For a point/counterpoint discussion of these issues in the US from one of the associations advancing public transportation, click here. For a pro-rail report issued last year by the Department for Transport in Britain, where high-speed rail proposals are also controversial, go here.
Tori Bedford contributed to this story.