Monday, March 14, 2011

Maybe, just maybe, high-speed rail is not a good idea for the United States

Here's a blog called THIS BIG CITY.  The blogger, Gordon Macrae, asks, IS HIGH-SPEED RAIL THE FUTURE FOR CITIES?  I assume he's London based, given that his prime example is the intended UK high-speed rail system known as HS2 and his units of measure are Pounds (sterling) and kilometers.

He raises some reasonable questions.  Several times he mentions the marginalization of short-haul air carriers.  Presumably, the growth of HSR is intentionally accompanied by the reduction of air traffic.  And, that's considered a good thing. Yet, most air carriers are at least semi-private corporations, while most rail operators are semi-public and far more dependent upon their host country to sustain their operations.  Is it a good thing to diminish the air industry?  Should Boeing be making fewer commercial aircraft?  Is that a good thing?

Macrae points out that in countries with extensive HSR operations, the older, slower trains are still fully occupied.  Ticket affordability is the issue.  What HSR does is take the more prosperous transit users out of airplanes and put them on HSR high-end luxury trains. Is that a good thing? 

And, I would ask, is that a business the United States ought to be in and use massive amounts of tax dollars to promote? Can the rail promoters deny that the portion of the general travelling public that can and will afford high-speed rail is very small?  I hope that I don't have to confirm this point by dragging in the obvious situation of a shrinking middle class, the increase in poverty, and the enormous growth of wealth among the much smaller upper classes. High-Speed Rail is the Rolls-Royce of train travel.

The article also raises the problem of impact on the biosphere, the assumption being that trains, even high-speed ones, are better for the environment than cars or planes.  Even if that were true today, will that be true twenty-five years from now?

Isn't the auto industry and the aviation industry determined to reduce their carbon footprint, operate more fuel efficiently, and cut their operating costs?  Aren't they competing on a global scale and will have to deliver or be beat out by competing products from overseas?

And Macrae raises the most uncertain issue about the impact of information technologies on business travel.  Might it not be reduced, if only on a cost basis, if productivity stays the same or increases?  And, surely the bread and butter of high-speed rail will be business travel.  While America does enjoy a solid tourist industry, it's nothing like that of Europe.  We need to be aware that all this expenditure of funding on high-speed rail will not show fruition for several decades, at which time, it is not implausible to suggest that luxury trains of this sort are obsolete.

Yes, highways and airways are highly subsidized, as are trains.  However, those transit modalities depend upon individual purchases of automobiles and fuel for their operation and air tickets are priced to generate profits for the air carriers. High-speed rail has not, and cannot -- due to its very high operating costs -- produce revenue surpluses, promised as those might be by the rail promoters.

While many urbanologists may believe that the growth of cities into mega-cities is inherently a good thing, and that high-speed rail will enable that, there are others who disagree and fear that the re-arrangement of populations, "social engineeering," is not a good thing and can have severe adverse, unanticipated consequences.  

The bottom line on Macrae's discussion is that the case for high-speed rail has not been made. Perhaps because it can't. 


From Rio to Sao Paulo in less than two hours, Shanghai to Hangzhou in thirty minutes, or LA to San Francisco in less than three hours. This is the future. Wherever you look High-Speed Rail (HSR) is the buzzword in sustainable transportation. Promising to marginalise regional air travel and cut congestion on the roads.

Indeed, it’s become almost a cliché to refer to the huge HSR projects that China is investing in.
A lot of this recognition is well deserved. Only 10 years ago many services lagged behind those in the West. Now, with 8,358km, China boasts the largest high-speed passenger rail network on earth. 

With an additional 16,000 kilometers planned by 2020. And the plans don’t stop there. Beijing envisions bullet trains spreading westwards from the more prosperous East coast across the rural west, out across Asia, the Middle East and, eventually, to Europe. In the last year alone, $80bn has been ploughed into rail construction, creating 6 million jobs and offering competition to regional airlines.

The motivation for such large scale projects comes as the Chinese look to ease the congestion on the roads and rails caused by freight and passengers both using the same system – witness the 10-day traffic jam that attracted so much attention last summer. And at a time when the UK and US are proposing much less ambitious plans shouldn’t we be looking at what the Chinese have achieved and asking some serious questions?

But whilst it’s certainly an enviable example of what can be achieved – especially given that both the UK and US’ projects won’t be operational for another 25 years - there have been unforeseen challenges posed by such a rapid expansion.

HSR hasn’t decreased the amount of users of the slower, older, more polluting trains. High-ticket prices have priced out many poorer workers who continue to rely on the older lines. Indeed, the main achievement of HSR has been to attract high-end customers away from the airlines. And the opening of more fast train services has led to fewer regular trains being available for budget-conscious travelers.

This is something that the opposition to HSR in the UK has argued, suggesting that it would, once again, be a project that only benefited London. With regional rail services suffering budget cuts to fund a high-speed line that benefits only a small percentage of the population.

The reasoning behind High Speed Two (as the UK project is known) is that the West Coast Main Line will soon be full up and, with rising road congestion, and increased oil prices effectively pricing out internal flights, the rail network will have to shoulder some of this burden. The 250mph trains will bring Birmingham a mere 50 minute’s journey from Euston and Manchester only 80 minutes.

But will this stimulate growth in the UK’s northern cities, as has been suggested? Or, with London now a commutable distance, will the North experience an even more substantial loss of highly skilled workers than it currently does?

Indeed, it seems as if the plans haven’t taken into account the fundamental changes that will occur to our notions of work, where we live, and how we move around in the next quarter century.
In the future, one has to wonder, what ‘work’ will be like? And how, exactly will we be getting there?
“It is one rail solution to a rail problem and totally ignores the technological revolution that will enable more and more people to work without having to travel as much as they may do now,” commented Lizzy Williams, chairman of the Stop HS2 organisation.

In addition, with a project that costs £17bn and won’t be completed until 2026 it’s hard to see how train fares aren’’t going to be prohibitively high for all but the wealthiest commuter. Or how regional services won’t be the first to suffer as funding is ploughed into the high-speed line.

In the US, Barack Obama’s ambitions plans for a high-speed rail network in the US have garnered similar criticisms. And this is before the environmental costs are taken into consideration. All too often it is the biosphere that ends up paying for transportation advances in the form of impact and emissions. These are neither measured nor charged to travelers.

Indeed, HSR isn’t necessarily any better for the environment than cars and planes.
In this regard, hedging a bet on HSR being a central tenet of transportation in a quarter century seems brave. Especially so, when you consider that most other European high-speed rail projects have failed to recoup costs or achieved the capacity that was envisioned twenty years ago.