Railroads came upon the scene back in 1830, but if you think this means their time has come and is about to go you’re making a mistake. The latest trains are fast, incredibly safe, extremely competitive with other forms of transport, environmentally friendly, and comfortable. At the ripe young age of 190 years, railroads are entering a new era of growth, and very possibly the industry’s best days are still to come.
Credit for this goes to high tech, whose software and hardware are making this possible. Consider these statistics, which have been compiled by the American Association of Railroads:
*locomotives can move one ton of freight 470-plus miles on the equivalent of one gallon of fuel.
*advanced management systems store and continuously analyze hundreds of trillions of bytes of data to improve safety and overall efficiency;
*smart sensors placed along tracks can identify worn components on passing trains in real time so if equipment is near risk of failure repairs can thus be made quickly.
Railroads have proved that they are efficient, reliable, and cost-effective. In addition, the people and freight hauled by rail indirectly reduce wear and tear on highways and bridges, and decreases traffic congestion and auto emissions.
Around The World
The world has caught on to the advances in rails. Currently, China has the world’s fastest and largest high-speed rail network — more than 19,000 miles of railway tracks; this is more than the rest of the world has combined. Japan’s bullet trains date back to the 1960s and travel at nearly 200 MPH. They’ve shuttled over 10 billion people without a single causality.
France introduced high speed train service in 1981 and the rest of Europe quickly followed suit. Today, Europe has high speed trains that travel up to 200 MPH and many new routes are under construction. High speed rail is also expanding in other areas of the world including India, Saudi Arabia, Morocco, Russia, and Iran.
But aside from Amtrak’s Acela line in the Northeast, the U.S. has no true high-speed trains, and even Acela has a maximum speed of 150 MPH and that for only 34 miles. The average speed of trains traveling between New York and Boston is about 65 mph. And while California is building a high-speed rail system, questions have been raised if it will ever be completed and if it is at what cost.
If rails have so many advantages why is the US lagging so far behind other countries in this area? The answer to this question lies not in the present but in the past.
The US used to be one of the global leaders in rail, but after WWII there was a massive shift in our transportation system.
“Prior to 1945 we had a very extensive rail system everywhere and it was working great,” says Andy Kunz, President and CEO of the US High Speed Rail System. “But a number of companies decided that for them to have a prosperous future they needed to phase out all of the railways and get all of us into cars.”
And they attempted to do exactly that. A promotional film produced by GM in 1958 boasts that “The inflexible rail permanently embedded in cobble stone was paved over to provide smooth, comfortable transportation travel via diesel motor coach (buses).”
GM, Firestone Tire, Standard Oil, and other companies bought all of the nation’s street car systems and dismantled them over a 10-year span, according to Kunz.
In 1956, President Eisenhower created the federal highway system, allocating $25 billion to build 41,000 miles of highways across the country; by that point cars had became more desirable, more affordable, more reliable, and a status symbol. Rails began falling by the wayside.
“We’ve become a car culture, and it’s hard to break out of that,” says Robert Cervero, Professor Emeritus at UC Berkeley, “not to mention the fact that we have very powerful oil lobbies, car manufacturing lobbies, and aviational lobbies—entities that high speed railways have to compete with.”
Over the years, the car culture has become firmly embedded in the US. According to Cervero, there are more than 850 cars per 1,000 inhabitants; by comparison, in China there are only 250 autos per 1,000.
A New Hope For Trains?
And yet the question has to be asked: Has America’s enchantment with autos reached a tipping point? Highways are falling apart, becoming prohibitively expensive to repair, and in some cases taking far longer than a year to do so.
Caroline Decker, VP of Amtrak’s Northeast Corridor Service Line, noted that states “are recognizing they are running out of space to expand their highways and interstates, and there are limits” at expanding roads to airports.
High-speed rail systems would lure passengers from airlines, ease congestion on highways, and lower auto emissions. And it would probably be popular. When HSR was introduced between Madrid and Barcelona, travelers readily switched to it.
“Where rail exists and is convenient it’s very popular,” said Brian Annis, California Secretary of Transportation. One survey showed that Americans would use high-speed rail if it were available to them, particularly younger people aged 18-44.
Meanwhile, many HSR projects are either already under construction or in the planning stages. Among them: one going from Dallas to Houston, the nation’s first HSR in Florida, and a Seattle to Vancouver bullet train. Very expensive projects are under consideration in other countries too.
Two factors are adding momentum to this concept. One is entrepreneur Elon Musk’s Hyperloop, a train system that uses magnetic forces, vacuum-like air pressure, and other forces to enable trains to travel at speeds up to 700 MPH. Various studies have found that a Hyperloop system would generate tens of billions of dollars in direct transportation benefits and economic gains.
In addition, both Democrats and Republicans are giving infrastructure projects a lot more consideration as a means of stimulating the economy, getting millions of people back to work, and addressing a need that clearly must be resolved.
This is not the first time that high-speed rail has been proposed, but now, given the human and structural conditions, it may just be implemented. Lots of commuters, shuttered businesses, unemployed workers, and ordinary Joes and Janes who need to travel are hoping that it will be.
And so is Wall Street. After all, many tens of billions of dollars are involved, and investors who get aboard the right company at the right time will share in the profits.
Sources: aar. org; cnbc.com; govtech.com israelnationalnews.com; nextcity.org; quartz.com; YouTube: Is America Finally on Track With High Speed Rail? Why the US Has No High Speed Rail