Friday, March 27, 2009

High time for high speed trains to take off here

Why is it that in America high speed 'bullet' trains evoke Jetson's style futuristic transport? Japan has had the trains operational for 40 years. They are hardly new, nor are they exactly nouveau in places like France either. It's high time the U.S. had a system of bullet trains connecting major cities up and down both coasts. Boston - NYC - Wash. DC would be a good first place followed by San Francisco - LA and maybe on to San Diego and then Seattle - Portland.

My attitude about bullet trains definitely comes from having traveled on them in both France and Japan. They are safe, clean, comfortable and smooth and way better than driving or riding in a car.

For one, you get there at least twice as fast which means you have more time to enjoy the place you're going or conduct whatever business you're going to conduct there. And, your attention is not focused on driving. You can have real conversations face to face, read the newspaper, get work done on your laptop, play games, eat and no doubt many, many other things not the least of which is being able to use the bathroom without having to stop somewhere. It is also less expensive than flying and reduces the amount of gasoline used. In some cases, it may even cost less than driving. And, depending on where you're going and why, it can turn an overnight trip (with the added cost of a hotel room) into a day trip. High speed trains are what enabled me to make a day trip from London to Paris and from Tokyo to the Japanese Alps to hang out with snow monkeys.

So, I think it is about damned time that high speed trains be built in America and that is just what Obama wants to do. Last week, he made a last-minute allocation of $8 billion for high-speed rail in his mammoth stimulus plan. Unfortunately, some think he has not allocated enough 'stimulus money' to build even one system and others think it's stupid anyway and all that will happen is the money will be wasted on projects to make some Amtrak trains arrive 20 mins sooner and for double the price. I wish they weren't right.

Nevertheless, the proposed routes include parts of Texas, Florida, the Chicago region, and southeast routes through North Carolina and Louisiana.

I don't think those are necessarily the best places to start out with, but whatever. I'm not the country's new transportation secretary. He, Ray LaHood, by the way, says that developing high-speed rail is the country’s No. 1 transportation priority. Hmmm. Yeah, right. If that was the case, the millions dumped into the failing auto industry would have been invested in bullet trains instead.

“Anybody who has ever traveled in Europe or Japan knows that high-speed rail works and that it’s very effective,” LaHood said in an interview with The Associated Press. Yeah, but unfortunately if that's what it takes to get people to back spending on high speed trains instead of the auto industry, it'll never take off. Not everyone is fortunate (or has made international travel a priority) enough to go there and actually ride them.

So, what exactly is “high-speed” anyway? It depends on the location. The U.S. Federal Railroad Administration says the term applies to trains traveling more than 90 mph, a laughable speed given those in other countries. In France, for example, the Train à Grande Vitesse (aka: train of great speed), or TGV, travels an average speed of about 133 mph. And a train in development whips along at 357 mph! I would much rather ride and get where I'm going 6 times as fast as driving my car. And the trains are much, much safer. The Shinkansen trains in Japan have never had even a single death from an accident in their 40 year history. They travel an average of about 180 mph and Japan’s magnetically levitated train holds the overall world speed record at 361 mph. So, clearly, super high speed trains are definitely in the works. Why should the US let the efficiency and convenience pass us by?

Part of the problem, critics say, is that populated areas here are more densely packed than in other countries so building such systems here face major hurdles because people don't want them whizzing by their neighborhoods. And the Amtrak clunking along is better? A train that travels as fast as the bullet trains do is here and gone faster than you can blink an eye. Well, not literally, but pretty damned close. There's also the problem of losing your home or land to eminent domain when the tracks need to be laid down. Perhaps then, what is also needed, is an expansion of rights and compensations to owners.

I think our insistence on clinging to the automobile for transport is akin to continuing to buy lunches at McDonald's because it's cheap and tastes good even though you know damned well you are far better off for the long term going home to make turkey sandwiches and salads. But that takes time and effort, and alas, more money up front.


Psycgirl said...

Call me a cynic, but I'm sure the reason the US has no bullet trains is this: Car. Industry.

I bet they spend a lot of money to kill plans like bullet trains

Field Notes said...

Exactly. I don't think that's cynical at all.

Virginia Burnett said...

Another reason we don't have better public transportation systems in general is because the average American is too dang proud and "independent" to want to ride with a bunch of strangers on a bus or a train. We've managed to glamorize airline travel to the extent that people feel privileged when they fly but buses and trains are still for poor folks who can't afford their own car. I think this is particularly true in rural & semi-rural America where there is no culture of train commuting to work and owning & using a car is a daily necessity.

We need not only high speed trains connecting metro areas, but a better and more affordable rail system connecting outlying rural areas to metro destinations. How I would love to hop a train with my family to visit my Brother-in-law in NYC. Alas, the cost for our family of 4 would be well over 600 bucks. Much cheaper to drive.