The Folly of High Speed Rail in America

 

This transit layout, put together by California Rail Map and Alfred Twu, envisions a future America thoroughly connected via high speed rail. After repeatedly popping up on my Facebook feed like a freakish case of shingles, I decided that I couldn’t allow this quixotic dream and the fevered intentions behind it go unchallenged. The love affair for high speed rail in the US is nothing more than noxious propaganda, seeping fumes that mute rationality in favor of misplaced adoration for antiquated, 19th century technology.

Don’t get me wrong: I love trains. I’ve been living in South Korea for over three years and am fully enamored with its spectacular rail service. I also lived in Germany and was equally impressed with the efficiency of their inter-city mass transit system. The problem with Alfred Twu’s map is simple and profound: America was not designed to be like Europe or Korea. What works for them simply cannot function Stateside, no matter how much people wish it would.

There is one area in America where high speed rail  makes sense: The megalopolis between Boston and Washington D.C., a relatively small stretch of land that supports almost one-sixth of the US population. With the possible exception of a route between San Diego and San Francisco, that is the only place where extensive passenger lines are sensible. It is a hyper population-dense region with a string of cities that enjoy adequate access to public transportation. Every other route on Twu’s map is expensive folly. I should actually say more expensive folly, because in 2011 Amtrak somehow managed to lose about $1.2 billion, despite having better than expected ridership.

The rail system in Korea works so well because of its unique geography and population density. South Korea is home to about 50 million people, all living in an area roughly the size of a mountainous Indiana. Because of its condensed urban nature and high public demand, every city has an orderly and efficient public transit system. This makes it possible to travel to every city, and also within every city without the need for a car. Another simplifying factor is that a trip between Korea’s two largest cities, Seoul and Busan, which are on totally opposite sides of the country, can be made in about two and a half hours.

Most cities in Germany and other European countries are also similarly compressed and friendly to high speed rail. Their narrow, bicycle-spoked street layouts are based on their medieval roots, when expanding city streets were cobbled together for immediate convenience and with an understanding that space was at a premium. This makes the modern cities more conducive to light rail systems than the spacious grids of most American cities. This in turn helps ensure that once a tourist or visitor arrives to a city by train, they can fairly easily travel to wherever they want to go by public transport.

Other than the notable exceptions I mentioned earlier, America simply doesn’t have the population density required to sustain high speed rail. One of the glaringly obvious and defining characteristics of the US is its size, and this geographical reality has helped to fundamentally shape American culture and the design of our cities. Once Americans migrated west of the Appalachian Mountains, they built cities that reflected the new-found abundance of land. They eschewed the congested, radial street plans of Boston and Washington DC in favor of the sprawling grids of cities like St. Louis, Phoenix and Los Angeles. The farther west people traveled  and as railroad and eventually automobile technology advanced, this effect was magnified. For a simplistic example, the Greater Los Angeles Area covers just under 34,000 square miles, compared to just 5,617 sq miles for the Paris aire urbaine.

One area of the country that could theoretically support high speed rail is—at second glance—utterly incapable of doing so: The Midwest triangle between Chicago, St. Louis and Indianapolis. Chicago is a large metropolis with a good transit system, and the cities are all economically and culturally intertwined, with a high volume of traffic between the three. However, St. Louis and Indy are decidedly built around the automobile. St. Louis does have two light rail lines, but they largely overlap and aren’t very popular. From personal experience, Indianapolis might as well not have any public transport. It has no light rail and its bus system is notoriously byzantine and tortuously slow. It would be virtually impossible for a businessman to pop into these cities by train and promptly get to where he needed to go. It simply isn’t feasible without a car. And these are major cities; can you imagine how these problems will compound in small towns like Quincy, IL (pop. 40,633) or Cheyenne, WY (pop. 59,466), which are also covered in Twu’s fantasy map?

With the size of the US, any proposed high speed rail lines are going to be prohibitively expensive, especially considering that the country is $16 trillion in the hole. The California High Speed Rail project from San Diego to Sacramento was approved by voters in 2008 and financing for the first leg was signed by Gov. Jerry Brown in July, 2012. The project has already become a massive boondoggle, with the expected cost having greatly expanded from an estimated $45 billion to between $68 and $98 billion. The completion date has also been delayed 13 years to 2033. Incredibly, this is in a region that—on paper—looks like a perfect place to implement high speed rail. How farcically will the process further degrade on a proposed route between Tulsa, OK and Corpus Christi, TX?

Without a car, there is simply no reasonable way to navigate the vast majority of American cities. The infrastructure to travel on mass transit simply isn’t there. And in most respects it shouldn’t be: There just isn’t a big enough demand to justify it. The US system depends on cars and airplanes. The routes can be largely customized by the user and they provide a level of freedom wanting from high speed rail that is expected by the American traveler. They are also cheaper and more efficient in our country of suburbs and interstate travel.

There is no rational reason to support a mass increase in high speed rail projects in the US. America is not structured like South Korea or European countries that make rail a viable and dependable mode of transportation for the majority of inhabitants. They have a system that works, and so do we. We don’t need to abandon organically-driven functionality in a vain and expensive effort to be “more European.” Cars, from the ’67 Ford Mustang to Marty McFly’s DeLorean, are a part of America’s DNA; they symbolize and help grant the liberty that the nation was founded on. It would be a shame to throw that all away on a futile wish that “If we build it, they will ride.”

 

Sources:

Business Insider: Here’s What an American High Speed Rail Network Could Look Like

AMTRAK National Facts

Visit Korea

NationsOnline.org

Princeton.edu- Greate Los Angeles Area

Metro St Louis.org

St. Louis Park Patch

US Census Bureau

US Debt Clock.org

California High Speed Rail Authority

LA Times: Bullet Train’s $98-billion Cost Could Be Its Biggest Obstacle

Huffington Post: California High Speed Rail Still Faces a Lot of Obstacles

The Economist- An age of transformation

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