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Does the U.S. Really Need High Speed Rail?
At some point in its history, America chose to invest in air travel over its railways. With a renewed push for high speed rail, we should ask: Is it really worth it?
High speed rail is often advocated in the U.S., with the country's rail system trailing that of Europe and Asia. While rail is important for local and regional connections, does the U.S. need to invest in high speed rail (HSR)?
Some argue there are better uses for the money, especially when the country's infrastructure is already lagging behind other G-7 nations and there are other competing needs; others note HSR is crucial for helping to reduce traffic congestion and emissions. But if you build HSR, it doesn't mean people will suddenly start riding.
Demand for rail travel in the U.S. is low. Amtrak ridership has remained relatively flat over the past few years, and most people who take the train do so for trips of less than 400 miles. The cost of building and maintaining high speed rail is very expensive. California's HSR project has been delayed and over budget, with costs now estimated at over $100 billion.
So, does the U.S. need HSR? It's important to consider the costs and benefits of these projects — compared to what the resources could otherwise be used. There is no doubt that HSR can be beneficial in some cases, but it's not always clear that it is worth the investment everywhere.
This week’s digest looks at rail investment, air travel, and some interesting reads comparing the two.
California is a Poor HSR Test Cast
Still, A Case for High Speed Rail
Why is High-Speed Rail Such a Heavy Lift? Railway Age
High-speed rail finally. Maybe…. Tacoma Daily Index
The Importance of U.S. Airports
Trains v. Planes
CHART OF THE WEEK
Despite the importance of connecting communities, the U.S. has historically underinvested in rail infrastructure. The infrastructure bill was expected to start a “Second Great Rail Revolution” (a campaign promise), but some argue it doesn’t go far enough.
The infrastructure bill allocated $66 billion in additional rail funding to “eliminate the Amtrak maintenance backlog, modernize the Northeast Corridor, and bring world-class rail service to areas outside the northeast and mid-Atlantic.” However, it contained no specific earmark for high-speed rail projects — but that doesn’t mean money won’t flow to HSR.
None the less, $66 billion is a big deal. Expanding rail access is pivotal for connecting more communities to urban centers and transit hubs. But the U.S. still spends far too much on surface transportation. Despite the desire to spend less on highway expansion, some states simply don’t have the demand or the density to support expansive transit systems.
Impacts of high-speed rail on domestic air transportation in China Journal of Transportation Geography
The Issue: What is the impact of high-speed rail (HSR) on domestic air transportation? The study focuses on China.
The research findings reveal that the deployed HSR services have a significant substitutional effect on domestic air transportation in China, but the effect varies across different HSR routes, travel distance and city type .. The impacts are found much stronger among those air routes that connect major hub within a distance range of 500 to 800 km.
A Level Playing Field for Comparing Air and Rail Travel Times The Open Transportation Journal
The Issue: Do travelers accurately consider time they spend at the airport or railway station — buffer times — when considering preference for one or the other?
The research found that travellers spent an average of 157 minutes at airports and 32 minutes at railway stations … The use of unrealistic airport waiting times in travel planning applications distorts traveller perception in favour of air travel.
Any opinions expressed herein are those of the author and the author alone.