TECHNOLOGY Still Waiting: Will America’s Next-Gen Bullet Trains Ever Leave the Station?

Why are we lagging decades behind the rest of the world’s fast-train infrastructure?

A few weeks ago, a train glided out of a station in Hangzhou, China, bound for Shanghai some 125 miles to the northeast. It arrived less than an hour later, cutting the usual commute time in half. Some trains on the line average 220 miles per hour, making it the fastest daily train in the world.

A month before the Hangzhou-Shanghai line was anointed, Amtrak rolled out its own grand vision for the future of high-speed rail in America: an upgrade that will increase average speeds between Boston and D.C. to 148 miles per hour – just two-thirds the speed of China’s new line – and not until 2040.

Questioning why America is so far behind Europe, China, and Japan in passenger rail technology is a pastime among high-speed advocates, but it’s not really productive. There are more important, forward-looking questions that need asking: Will true high-speed rail even work in America, and if so are we deploying it in the smartest ways possible?

The answers, respectively, are “maybe,” and “probably not.” There probably are places where trains topping 200 miles per hour make sense, but those places are not leading the national conversation. Instead, the northeast corridor – the largest passenger rail market in the nation – has taken center stage even though there are few places in America more ill suited for super-fast surface trains.

“Amtrak is going to set its sights first on the northeast because that’s its cash cow, but where the Federal Railroad Administration could really help out is taking rail to the next level in other parts of the country,” says Dr. Leslie McCarthy, an assistant professor of civil and environmental engineering at Villanova who works closely with the Transportation Research Board.

Why not make the densely packed, train-savvy northeast corridor the model for blistering fast next-gen American rail? There are a variety of reasons – history, politics, unchecked urban sprawl – but simply put, it’s not practical. America suffers from something of a high-speed rail quandary, in which the places that want true high-speed rail the most can’t have it and the places where it’s most feasible can’t support it.

Unlike Europe and Asia, where the dividing line between urban and rural is far more defined, the northeast corridor is the definition of urban sprawl, with populated cities separated by endless suburbs and smaller burgs that all want access to the train. To bullet trains, sprawl is anathema.

“The very high speeds that China is achieving can be obtained only if you space the stations far apart because it takes time to accelerate and decelerate the trains,” says Ken Orski, a career urban transit expert who served in the Nixon and Ford administrations and is now publisher of Innovation NewsBriefs, a widely read transportation policy newsletter. “If you space those stations very closely you lose the technological advantage of high speed.”

Basic physics and human physiology dictate the limits to how fast a train can gather speed or slow down. The intercity distances – from Washington to Baltimore, Baltimore to Wilmington, Wilmington to Philadelphia, Philadelphia Newark and on to NYC and so on – are all short hauls, too abbreviated to take advantage of bullet trains’ top speeds. That’s not even taking into account all the street crossings, which hinder both automobile and train traffic along the route. Take all that into consideration, and 150 miles per hour is probably about as fast as northeast corridor trains can hope for.

Therein lies the aforementioned quandary: In the northeast corridor, there is enough demand to support an investment in next-gen high-speed rail, but bullet trains simply aren’t practical there. And, as Dr. David Levinson, associate professor of transportation engineering at the University of Minnesota, points out, in more wide-open places like the Midwest where true, 200-plus miles per hour high-speed trains have room to run, populations often aren’t dense enough to justify the trains. “The cost side of this is very high,” Levinson says. “And outside of the northeast corridor and a few other places, the benefits are relatively low, so there are limited places where you have enough demand to support passenger service.”

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