March 15, 2013


My Train Fantasy : Where's our high-speed rail? (Jeremy Stahl, March 15, 2013, Slate)

America 2050 has been heavily involved in attempting to establish which corridors make the most sense for high-speed rail. In 2011, it published a comprehensive report analyzing 7,870 potential high-speed rail corridors in the country's 11 "mega-regions" where 70 percent of the nation's population resides. Typical mega-regions include the Northeast corridor, the Great Lakes states, California and the Southwest, and the Northwestern "Cascadia" region of Washington and Oregon. Using a handful of criteria, including population, employment, the market for air travel, and automobile traffic congestion, the study attempted to establish which routes would be most ideal for high-speed rail construction. Routes with scores of 19 or more were deemed best-suited for the most modern high-speed rail systems, scores of 17 were projected to be well-suited for top-of-the-line systems if population growth were to continue at projected rates, and scores of 10 or below were said to not justify priority federal funding because of their sparse and spread-out populations.

Twu's map included some of the highest scoring routes, including Washington, D.C., to New York City (with a score of 20.15), Boston to New York (19.87), New York to Philadelphia (19.86), Los Angeles to San Diego (19.62), Chicago to Milwaukee (19.38), Los Angeles to San Francisco (17.98), and Portland to Seattle (17.37). But it also included many of the low-scoring routes as well, such as Chicago to Memphis (10.79), Kansas City to St. Louis (9.62), Little Rock to Dallas (10.66), Baton Rouge to New Orleans (8.48), and Birmingham to New Orleans (4.95). Twu also drew four routes connecting Albuquerque, El Paso, Denver, Omaha, and Salt Lake City that all scored between 4.67 and 9.91, and two separate lines in the low-scoring Florida region. "Some of these city pairs are so far apart that we didn't even rank them," says Schned.

Corridors that couldn't attract sufficient numbers of riders would likely detract from the potential economic and environmental benefits gained from the more sensible routes. "If newly built high-speed rail services do not attract projected ridership over time, they will not only fail to deliver their promised benefits but they may waste energy, resources, and require excessive operating subsidies," the America 2050 report concluded.

Experts who study light rail often mention a "sweet spot" of between 100 and 600 miles for high-speed rail corridor trips. Shorter than 100 miles, and a rider is more likely to want to take a conventional train, a car, or a bus. Longer than 600 miles and a rider is better off flying.

The potential efficiencies of high-speed rail along corridors with proven ridership figures are getting tougher and tougher to deny. "We have millions of people living right now in this country in places where they don't have adequate inter-city transportation," says Christopher Barkan, director of the railroad engineering program at University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. "They're entirely dependent upon congested highways. They're entirely dependent upon using airplanes."

If we could connect those people in a way that cuts greenhouse emissions, comes at a lower cost for commuters, allows them to access wireless networks and work during trips, and is profitable, the potential economic and environmental efficiencies would easily be worth the initial investment. But that initial investment would be steep. 

Posted by at March 15, 2013 10:21 PM

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