The case for high speed rail in America

Passengers fill every seat in the glass-roofed Parlor Car on Amtrak's Coast Starlight train en route from Oakland to Los Angeles. Running along the Union Pacific Railroad tracks as it hugs the California coast, the Coast Starlight route offers some of the most spectacular scenery in the USA. But the mountainous terrain along the route is filled with steep grades, sharp curves, and a single track, making the travel time over 13 hours for a distance that can be flown in one hour or driven in eight.

Unless Amtrak can find a way to shorten the duration of this trip, few business travelers will abandon the crowded skies or leave their cars at home. This November, Californians will vote on a proposition to construct a new dedicated high speed rail line to bypass this slow but scenic route. If it passes, the new rail line will run across the open flat lands of California's Central Valley, allowing passengers to travel between the San Francisco Bay area and Los Angeles at speeds up to 220 miles per hour, rivaling the famous French TGV or Japanese bullet trains. The new line would link California's two largest cities in just a few hours of travel time.

The price tag for this new rail line: $10 billion, and there's the rub. To further compound the issue, that $10 billion would likely only cover the construction of one line from the San Francisco Bay area to Los Angeles. Add in California's other population centers like San Diego, Sacramento and other cities and the final price tag will be considerably higher.

The proposal has sparked numerous fights within the state. There are many vocal opponents to the high speed rail project while others want to amend the proposition before it is even voted upon. Critics and those with a self interest in keeping the status quo maintain that America's suburban sprawl is different from Europe or Japan and that the trains will travel empty along the high speed route.

But past evidence would suggest otherwise. Since Amtrak beefed up its service in the Northeast corridor with the launch of the high speed Acela trains, their market share has grown fourfold, from 12% just a few years ago to more than 50% of the air/rail market in the Northeast Corridor today. And a huge proportion of those Acela riders are business travelers.

Of all the money-losing routes on the Amtrak network, the Northeast corridor is the one exception and a similar high speed service in the most populous state on the other side of the country would likely garner the same effect, relieving much of the congestion on the roads and in the skies that are the bane of California.

High speed rail is not for long distance travel. High speed rail works well with segments of 250 to 500 miles where the two to four hour train ride rivals the total time of air travel, including the trip to the airport and all that time waiting around. Routes like Chicago to St. Louis, Chicago to Detroit, or Dallas to Houston and many other similar distanced major city pairs are a natural fit for high speed rail lines.

If high speed rail is implemented correctly, as has been done in many European countries with rail lines running right into airport terminals, transfer from plane to train will be seamless and render the need for flights of less than 500 miles unnecessary in most cases.

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