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High Speed Rail

October 31st, 2009

OK, so this is supposed to be a car blog.  But, the tag-line says personal mobility, and as one cog in the wheel of transportation options, high-speed rail certainly falls into that category.

BUT, high-speed rail is currently a very under-represented option for moving people around here in the U.S.  That might soon change, however.  (Well, soon might not be accurate.  Maybe one day, or eventually is more appropriate.)  Earlier this year, the Obama administration proposed significant investment (starting with $8-billion in stimulus money) for developing a high-speed intercity rail transport network, targeting travel distances of approximately 100-600 miles – distances now typically traveled by car or plane.  (Personally, if I can drive somewhere in less than 12 hours, I would much rather drive than fly.  I rank flying as one of the most unpleasurable activities one can undergo – right there with root-canals and vasectomies.)  Speeds will be in excess of 150 mph, making longer distance trips feasible.

So, what’s the point?  Well, to give travelers another transportation option and promote competition for one.  (Choices and competition are good, right?)  Secondly, to stimulate economic activity, through the activities involved with developing and building the high-speed rail system, as well as through the services that high-speed rail will provide once it’s functional.  Another goal is to reduce fossil-based fuel consumption and the effects thereof.  While air travel is now, on average, slightly more efficient per passenger-mile than car travel, high-speed rail is significantly less energy intensive than either.  (Think about it: it takes energy not only to move a giant airliner through the air, but also to keep its immense mass suspended at 30,000 feet.  Trains, on the other hand, travel much closer to the ground.)  A final goal is to support and promote more livable, sustainable communities, by interconnecting them with an affordable, efficient transportation option.

It’s this last goal that’s most intriguing to me (and harkens back to the whole systems thinking theme of my last post).  Viewing high-speed rail not in a vacuum, but as part of a larger transportation ecosystem, we could dramatically change the way we move people and things around.  And if it’s an attractive option for travelers – costing no more than equivalent airfare, while providing at least a modicum of comfort and chance at productivity (unlike air travel) – I see no reason why it shouldn’t succeed.  And the ability to connect high-speed rail with other travel options (such as commuter rail in major metropolitan areas, or car-sharing programs such as the one being piloted by Better Place in Denmark) is just icing on the cake.

Of course, there will be nay-sayers that predict the push for high-speed rail is just another way for government to spend billions of taxpayer money without any result.  But, the same might have been said half a century ago when Dwight Eisenhower pushed for the interstate highway system.  And that certainly had an impact, resulting in the car monoculture that we have today.

High Speed Rail Map

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