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Getting America Up to Speed with HSR

By Beth Kelly

Guest contributor Beth Kelly reviews the turgid state of High Speed Rail (HSR) in America.

Advancing America’s HSR Systems

All over the world in cities throughout Asia, Europe, and South America, travelers enjoy the convenience and cost savings of high speed rail. In the United States, however, there isn’t a single track of HSR, despite decades of various state and national proposals and obvious benefits for both the environment and society at large.

The situation is as unfortunate as it is ultimately puzzling, given that America was once a pioneer in rail transportation during the expansion of the country in the midst of the 19th and 20th centuries. In recent years, however, despite the current President’s stated intention to give 80 percent of U.S. citizens access to HSR, recent federal funding for public and private HSR projects has been all but blocked by a right-leaning Congress. In fact, Republicans are so opposed to funding our rail systems that governors in Wisconsin, Florida and Ohio have actually returned federal dollars that were once given to their states to build high-speed rail and improve infrastructure.

But there are encouraging signs up ahead that America’s reluctance to adopt HSR may be waning.

XpressWest Receives Chinese Funding Commitment

Major news surfaced last month that privately-held XpressWest had secured a $100 million investment from a consortium led by the China Railway Group to build a 230-mile HSR line between L.A. and Las Vegas.

This line makes sense for numerous reasons - in order to meet the needs of 21st century commuters and tourists alike, a more effective statewide transportation system is crucial. According to Columbia Gas, the cost of commuting in California is more expensive than in nearly every other state in the nation - gas fees and taxes here are higher than anywhere else. Workers in this state are also more likely to be among the lucky few known as “mega commuters”, those who must drive over 90 minutes and 50 miles one way to their workplace. Riding the XpressWest line for the 230-mile journey from Los Angeles to Las Vegas will take only 80 minutes, substantially less than today’s 4-hour drive. Along I-15, it would cut 3 million trips by car annually, which would reduce congestion, fuel consumption and air pollution.

China’s involvement is significant for several reasons. In addition to funding, their involvement adds valuable technological expertise and engineering skill. China’s impressive HSR network currently boasts over 10,000 miles of track in operation. Following the completion of this line, the companies intend to expand routes to include other major urban centers in the state.

Other High-Speed Train Projects

Several HSR projects are on the drawing boards in various U.S. states, but nothing to the extent of what is currently in the works in CA. In addition to the XpressWest project, California voters approved almost $10 billion in 2008 to fund a 520-mile HSR network in their Central Valley. Construction began on that network two years ago.

In Texas, privately-held Texas Central Railway will start construction in 2017 for a 200+ MPH rail line connecting Houston and Dallas-Fort Worth. The project will utilize Japanese bullet trains. Other U.S. rail upgrades are slated for the U.S. NE Corridor and Florida, though neither of those will exceed the 200 MPH baseline velocity of HSR.

Hyperloop Transport

The high-speed transportation option put forth by Elon Musk has been presented alongside current HSR technology in discussions on the topic, but the two are, of course, very different.

Hyperloops shoot passenger “pods” over a cushion of air through reduced-pressure steel tubes at speeds exceeding 500 MPH. At that projected rate, commuters could travel between San Francisco and LA in well under an hour. Two companies, Hyperloop Technologies, a Los Angeles startup, and Hyperloop Transportation Technologies, also based in California, are in the beginning stages of implementing Musk’s pipedream. The “threat” this project poses to the success of HSR remains to be seen.  

Also see Transforming 'Hype' Into Hyperloop.

As California Governor Jerry Brown remarked recently to Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzon Abe, despite HSR use for five decades in other parts of the world, many people in the U.S. persist in thinking of it “as a mysterious, very expensive, exotic technology.” While it is true that HSR faces unique hurdles to acceptance in the U.S. -- aggressive car culture, expansive geography, and comparably priced airline tickets -- these factors don’t negate the overwhelming economic, societal and environmental benefits that would come as a result of its effective implementation.

If all goes as planned, the Chinese investment in XpressWest’s L.A. to Las Vegas HSR line may be looked upon in the near future as the beginning of North America’s full embrace of widespread, efficient, environmentally-friendly train travel networks.

Photo credit: AP -- Mockup of Siemen's HSR locomotive on grounds of California capitol building in Sacramento

Times Article Viewed: 4386
Originally published: 23 Oct 2015

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