July 5, 2007 -- In April, a train built by the French engineering firm Alstom screamed along the Ligne à Grande Vitesse, the Paris-to-Strasbourg high-speed rail system, at a record- breaking 357 miles per hour. The whizzing run past Vendôme provided a glimpse of next-gen railway travel, and Alstom execs hope, set the company up for future contracts in emerging high-speed rail markets like China and India.
Conspicuously absent among those emerging markets: the US. Of course, news of the achievement sparked yet another round of well-worn rants, often delivered by globe-trotters who return home after rides on slick Japanese or French trains wondering, "Where the hell is my high-speed rail?" It's a question that betrays a certain naiveté about transit policy — but it's still a good one. If the country has a prayer of solving its traffic woes and creating a more efficient, environmentally sound infrastructure, we'll need some first-rate, wicked-fast trains.
That the US lacks them is due neither to conspiracy nor accident. Distances between major North American cities dwarf those in Europe. (France's north-south axis is barely longer than the trip from New York to Chicago.) According to transportation geeks, high-speed rail competes with air travel only for trips under 500 miles or that take less than three hours by plane. Chicago to St. Louis could work, but New York to Denver? Nope.
Gas is also cheaper here than in Europe and the Pacific Rim. That's an incentive to drive the short hops instead of taking the train. And an even greater incentive: Our roads are almost universally awesome. "We've chosen to sink our transportation investments into the automobile," says planning guru Robert Cervero of UC Berkeley. No news flash there.
But technology and economics may be shifting to a point where regional high-speed rail is plausible. Public transit in general is looking better and better to local governments. New York City approved a new subway line, San Francisco is considering an additional trolley route, and Los Angeles might extend its subway to the beach via parts of town people actually want to go. The same holds for intercity travel. Illinois and Wisconsin recently invested in improved rail service between Chicago and Milwaukee. Ridership spiked. "If you make this available, people will recognize how valuable it is for our urban environments," says Dennis Minichello, president of the Midwest High-Speed Rail Association. Put another way: If you build it, they will ride.
New technology also helps. Lighter materials, improved acceleration, and enhanced communications all translate to faster travel times and lower construction and operating costs. Until recently, the signaling systems that keep trains on course and prevent collisions were installed in the ground along the entire route. That equipment has now been replaced by cheaper satellite and wireless technologies. And there's the critical issue of tilting: Most high-speed trains ride the same rails as standard passenger and freight lines. These tracks tend to be curvy; high speed demands long straightaways. But if the trains are designed to lean inward against curves to counteract centrifugal force, they can travel faster on existing infrastructure — a major cost saver. It works in Spain, and on Amtrak's flawed but popular Acela line in the Northeast Corridor.
To really make a system work, the US needs to build dedicated high-speed tracks. "But then that costs more, and you're talking about expropriating land," one industry insider says. Eminent domain is an explosive topic in the property-rights-obsessed US. On the other hand, we did it for the Interstate Highway System. Back then, it was for the benefit of national security; Eisenhower argued that the roads might be needed to move troops. But today we know that pollution, global warming, and dependence on Middle East oil are issues of national security, too.
The big test for US high-speed rail is now under way in California, and the hurdle is political, not technical. "Lassitude is our enemy," says Quentin Kopp, chair of the California High-Speed Rail Authority. He's leading the campaign for a Sacramento-to-San Diego high-speed train (San Francisco to Los Angeles in two and a half hours!). A $10 billion bond measure is slated for the 2008 ballot, but it's hardly a sure bet. Despite his iridescent-green glow, governor Arnold Schwarzenegger has not endorsed the bond. But even if he comes around, rail riders should keep the champagne corked. In the 1990s, Texas officials pushed for high-speed rail connecting Dallas, Houston, and San Antonio, only to be squashed by a lobbying push from Southwest Airlines. This fast train thing could work, if enough people would just get on board.