The U.S. needs better inter-city rail transport.
Home is a fantastic place to spend the holidays. The problem is, it’s often so far away. Every year I, like many students, dread the drive that separates me from winter break.
Enter high-speed rail.
Imagine heading to the train station, stowing your bag full of filthy laundry in the overhead rack, and then burying yourself in a book for a few hours. Suddenly, you’re home. No driving, no stress, no congestion. No airports.
You’re home for the holidays, for only the cost of a train ticket — and likely faster than any other method of transportation.
USA TODAY recently reported on China’s newest section of high-speed rail line, now the longest in the world.
A bullet train passes over Yongdinghe Bridge in Beijing Wednesday, Dec. 26, 2012.
The route connects Beijing to the southern city of Guangzhou, a trip of 1428 miles. It used to take about 24 hours of travel by rail to reach this economic hub, the Guardian reported. Now, the time is down to about eight hours. This puts China midway to their goal of eventually connecting all cities with populations of 500,000+ via high-speed rail, according to the article.
Some context: The New York Times found that Amtrak trains that run from New York City to Miami take about 30 hours, though it is not billed as an entirely high-speed route. The premier high-speed route in the U.S, served by Amtrak’s Acela Express, runs from Boston to D.C., covering just 400-odd miles in about 6.5 hours.
President Obama expressed support for U.S. high-speed rail expansion in his 2011 State of the Union address.
“Within 25 years, our goal is to give 80 percent of Americans access to high-speed rail,” he said. “This could allow you to go places in half the time it takes to travel by car. For some trips, it will be faster than flying – without the pat-down.”
In 2010, The Economist put together this graphic, mapping railway usage in the U.S. High-speed rail corridors (indicated in blue) make up a small percentage of our nation’s rail infrastructure, which is mostly optimized for freight.
The passenger market is there, though – Amtrak ridership is rising at 3.5%, The Economist reported in October, and ticket revenues are at an all time high. Nearly nine million passengers passed through the NYC station in 2011, says Amtrak.
The addition of the high-speed rail routes in the Northeast has shown: if you build it, they will come.
United Press International reported that a Canadian polling company found 49% of surveyed Americans support high-speed rail, and 32% indicated they would prefer the service to driving or air travel.
Amtrak is famously unprofitable. Food service alone has lost the railroad service more than $800 million over the past ten years, according to the New York Times.
But this doesn’t have to be the death sentence of high-speed rail in the United States. Last January, the Times’ “Freakonomics” blog hosted a forum discussing Amtrak’s profitability. Journalist Nate Berg posted:
“In 2002, five years after Congress asked Amtrak to find a way to not require federal operating funds, David Gunn, five weeks fresh as Amtrak’s new president, flatly told a Senate committee what everybody already knew: ‘Amtrak will never be profitable.’”
“The real issue is not so much that Amtrak will never be profitable, but rather that it shouldn’t have to be,” he continued. “Amtrak is infrastructure in the truest sense of the word. It’s one of the physical structures and services that organizationally enable the functioning of U.S. society. Like the interstate highway system or the postal service, Amtrak provides a service that (to an arguably lesser degree) serves and benefits residents and businesses.”
Our current rail transport might not compare well internationally, but improvements could be on the way in the next few years. Support high-speed rail in the U.S., or we’ll be left behind.
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