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Making the Case for High-Speed Rail in America

June 9, 2011
Advocates see it is a viable alternative to petroleum-based transportation. Opponents say we can't afford it.

The concept of high-speed rail is nothing new to Americans.

"People have been squabbling over high-speed trains in the U.S. since Lyndon Johnson introduced the High-Speed Ground Transportation Act," asserts Anthony Perl, author of "Transport Revolutions: Moving People and Freight Without Oil," and director of the Urban Studies Program at Vancouver's Simon Fraser University. Congress passed Johnson's legislation in 1965, and we're still debating the merits of high-speed rail here. Meanwhile, countries in Europe and Asia have been building rail systems that for decades have been whisking passengers from city to city at speeds up to 200-plus miles per hour. But the fact that high-speed trains have been zipping across other continents isn't necessarily a selling point for Americans.
Siemens AG says its Velaro train (pictured here) has reached speeds of 250 miles per hour without modifications. The train is used in high-speed rail lines in Spain, Russia and China.
"It isn't something that's close to home, so it seems very foreign for Americans," Perl says. "Probably like some people in developing countries thought for a long time that the U.S. missions to the moon were fabricated -- that they'd been staged or faked in some way because they just couldn't get their minds around it -- I think many Americans just think of high-speed trains in the same sort of fantasy category, up there with unicorns, Sasquatch and whatever else." But, Perl argues, high-speed rail is real, and "30, 40 years of experience [in other countries] show that it works." "It's not a hypothetical," he says. "It's not a fantasy project." 'True High-Speed Rail': A Luxury We Can't Afford? Andy Kunz, president and CEO of the U.S. High Speed Rail Association, notes that America's definition of high-speed rail doesn't gibe with the rest of the world. "True high-speed rail," like the systems in Europe, consists of electric trains that zoom along at more than 200 miles per hour, Kunz explains. In the United States, the term "high-speed rail" includes diesel trains that travel 100 miles per hour. President Obama's high-speed rail plan has included funding for both definitions. True high-speed rail, though, has yet to materialize in the United States, and there's no telling if it ever will. With the federal government at risk of defaulting on its debt, high-speed rail's opponents say it's a luxury that we can't afford. "The federal government is facing a record deficit that must be tamed," says James Moore, a professor of public policy and management at the University of Southern California, in an e-mail. "Initiating a U.S. high-speed-rail program now is not merely a poor choice. It would be genuinely irresponsible. It would constitute deliberately poor management of scarce resources. It would benefit few and further burden many." Moore asserts that high-speed rail "has required large subsidies every place in the world that these systems have been constructed." "A U.S. investment in high-speed rail will produce a system requiring even larger subsidies than the systems in Europe, Japan and China because the U.S. market offers less opportunity for high-speed rail to compete than do these other markets," Moore adds. With the clock ticking on the world's supply of oil, Perl counters that the United States can't afford not to invest in high-speed rail. "High-speed rail, depending where you look around the world, has proven itself to be a mature technology that can operate between cities up to 1,000 miles apart without using any oil," Perl says. "It's hard for Americans to understand that there are transportation options out there that can move people without oil, because it hasn't happened in the U.S." Perl believes that if the United States doesn't find alternatives to oil, "we are looking at a significant collapse of what people would associate with the American way of life." "I would say that this high-speed rail initiative is America's best insurance policy to allow for a smooth post-carbon or post-oil transition going forward," Perl asserts. 'A Competitiveness Issue'
Perl: High-speed rail is "not a fantasy project." High-speed rail advocates tout other potential benefits, such as the creation of U.S. jobs to build the system and the alleviation of motor-vehicle traffic congestion on U.S. roadways. Rick Harnish, executive director of the Midwest High Speed Rail Association, sees high-speed rail as an antidote to an increasingly impersonal world in which e-mail and text messages have replaced face-to-face communication. "High-speed rail makes it easier to have those personal interactions," Harnish says. "Because it's faster, it's more flexible than flying, it's much cheaper than driving and you can be more productive while you're traveling." More face-to-face interaction will help bolster U.S. innovation, Harnish believes. "There's no question it's a competitiveness issue," he says. Harnish notes that federal funds are being used to upgrade and modernize passenger-rail lines in the Midwest, creating what the United States considers high-speed-rail lines. For example, the Department of Transportation in May distributed more than $2 billion that Florida Gov. Rick Scott rejected, including $196.5 million to rehabilitate track and signaling systems to enable trains to travel up to speeds of 110 miles per hour on a 235-mile section of the Chicago-to-Detroit corridor. However, it's unclear whether the United States will have "true high-speed rail," as Kunz calls it, anytime soon. "If people want high-speed rail," Harnish concludes, "they need to make it very clear with their congressmen right now." See Also:

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