The impossibility of high-speed rail in the US

For most Europeans, high-speed rail’s benefits are obvious. It’s greener in terms of emissions. It’s less annoying – no checking in and bag scans, apart from the Eurostar (and the security checks pale in comparison to those now carried out at airports), plus no waiting around for two hours at some airport that takes an hour and costs twenty euros to get to. Plus, on short-to-medium-distance trips (say, Paris-Marseille or Brussels-Frankfurt), it’s actually much quicker, when one factors in travel to and from the airport and time spent there. Oh, and trains are nice, and you can get up and walk around in them, whereas flying is unpleasant unless you happen to have the money to fly business or first class (which I don’t).

Western Europe happens to have several first-class high speed rail networks – networks that are gradually converging thanks to projects like LGV Est (linking Paris to Germany) or HSL Zuid (which reduced the travel time from Brussels to Amsterdam to under two hours). Central and Eastern Europe is not so lucky, though Russia’s Sapsan train now links Moscow and Saint Petersburg. And Britain is essentially high speed-free, apart from the Channel Tunnel Rail Link. But even most Brits have taken (or at least seen) the Eurostar, or a high-speed train in Europe, at one point in their lives. When they did, they probably thought it was pretty cool.

Contrast this with America, where only one ‘high-speed’ rail service exists – the Acela Express, which reaches up to 240km/h (150mph) at brief points, though the average speed on the Washington-Boston route is 109km/h (68mph). While that’s pretty fast for the USA, it’s peanuts compared to France’s V150 TGV train, operating on the Paris-Strasbourg route, which reached 574.8km/h (357.2 mph) in 2007, and normally operates at around 320km/h (200mph) when travelling at full speed.

That’s why the noises that the Obama administration has been making over the past couple of years have been so heartening. And yesterday, Vice-President Biden, a long-time supporter of Amtrak and passenger rail in the United States, re-affirmed his government’s commitment to the cause:

Vice President Joe Biden used Philadelphia‘s 30th Street Station, where the nation’s only rail line approaching high speed passes through, as the backdrop to announce that the White House will be asking Congress to invest $53 billion over six years in faster passenger rail.

The funding, like the $8 billion set aside in the 2008 economic stimulus for the same purpose, would support building new high-speed rail corridors and upping speeds on existing lines. Biden said it’s about “seizing the future.”

For President Barack Obama, creating a European-style rail system in the United States, with trains whisking passengers between cities at up to 240 mph, has shaped his transportation vision from Day 1. His administration has identified 11 corridors, including the Keystone Corridor that runs from Philadelphia through Harrisburg to Pittsburgh, as potential routes for high-speed rail.

In his State of the Union address at the end of January, Obama announced a goal of providing high-speed rail access to 80 percent of Americans in 25 years.

Yet, of course, this is socialist (or something):

House Transportation Committee Chair Rep. John Mica (R) of Florida said previous administration grants to high-speed rail projects were a failure, producing “snail speed trains to nowhere.” He called Amtrak a “Soviet-style train system” and said it “hijacked” nearly all the administration’s rail projects.

Sigh. Of course, Mica’s not entirely wrong – Amtrak is a bloated system that is a result of a parochial legislative process in the United States, which consists of every single senator and congressman trying to squeeze money out of the federal budget through costly, useless projects… or unnecessary stops that prevent high-speed trains from accelerating to, um, high speeds. Why else would a line linking Washington, Philadelphia, New York and Boston have 16 stops?

We all know that that’s not why he’s against funding for high-speed rail, though. It’s simpler than that – there’s just no political upside for republicans to support any kind of infrastructure investment or development except roads and bridges. People have no experience of HSR, except the few who have travelled to Europe, Japan or one of the other places in the world to have fast trains. But they do drive cars, and they’re not happy when they’re stuck in traffic because the highways aren’t wide enough, or someone had an accident because of a pothole.

Add to this the fact that Americans have been moving out of cities for decades – and that, for suburbanites, it’s perhaps even more annoying and time-consuming to drive into downtown New York or Los Angeles than it is to get to the airport. Add to this, also, that urban areas are severely under-represented in the Senate, meaning that North Dakota or Wyoming’s senators must be rewarded with some kind of pointless investment in exchange for partial funding to build one high-speed line that’ll take 25 years to bring into operation because of ridiculously complicated zoning and land use issues anyway. While we’re at it, let’s also mention that the herding-cats mentality of drumming up support for anything in the upper house of America’s federal legislature means that there’ll never be the political will to invest the amounts that America truly needs to spend to build a decent high-speed rail system.

Finally, let’s not forget that America’s politics makes long-term planning for anything impossible. A president is elected for four years. The first year, he’s just figuring out how to do the job, and trying to get his cabinet and sub-cabinet nominees through the Senate. The second year, he’s worried about mid-term elections, so he’s not going to do anything major that could cost his party seats in either house. The third and fourth year, everyone’s thinking about the presidential election. If he’s lucky enough to win re-election, he maybe has a year to actually do something before the mid-terms roll around again, and then he’s a lame duck for the last two years of his presidency, because everyone is focused on who will take his place.

As a result, Washington is stuck in a permanent campaign mode that means that any kind of long-term project is never truly taken seriously. And that’s why no-one will ever get serious on the deficit, on infrastructure investment, on turning America’s schools around, or on any of the other long-term challenges that America faces. There’s just no point, because the next election is always just a year or two away.

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