Viewpoint: Time for trains


Published August 6, 2014

Every time I go back home to Seattle, I always look out across Lake Washington and see construction cranes out in the distance. Construction on the Evergreen Point Bridge, which connects the eastside suburbs to downtown Seattle, is well underway. However, it has taken much longer than expected. Not only that, the project is $128 million over budget.

After watching the development of the bridge, I started to think more about transportation and its infrastructure. As I took an Amtrak train from New York to Washington, D.C., I noticed some differences between American railroads and European ones. In Europe, one can travel from Brussels to Paris in about 1.5 hours in their high-speed trains (about 160 miles). For a comparison, it took me about three hours to get to D.C.

So, after making this trip, I wondered how much money would be needed to fix America’s infrastructure issues. According to the American Society of Civil Engineers, continuing to repair existing equipment will cost Americans approximately $570 billion by 2020 and $1 trillion by 2040.

The part of ASCE’s transportation report that piqued my interest the most was the section about America’s railroads. Rail has been one of the bright spots for American infrastructure even during the recession, as funding for railroads has increased to $75 billion. In some states, such as California, governments have even tried to develop high-speed rail projects.

However, as the ASCE indicated on its website, changes can still be made to further improve rail services:

“To meet future demand in the Northeast Corridor for both Amtrak and the eight commuter railroads that use the corridor, estimated investments are about $10 billion over the next 15 years to achieve a state of good repair and to increase train capacity by 40%. Maintaining adequate track capacity to address expanding passenger and freight needs is among the largest challenges in creating a competitive passenger railroad network.”

This is where high-speed rail comes in.

As seen in the diagram from Cambridge Systematics, the long-term benefits of having high-speed rail would be larger than one might expect. In California for example, high-speed rail projects would be a huge step forward, as it would create new temporary and permanent jobs. According to a report released by the California Rail High Speed Authority, the development of high-speed rail in California could lead to the creation of 150,000 new jobs and maybe more. In the long-term, providing new trains and equipment would help to reduce fares and possibly help spur innovation. And fewer planes in the skies and cars in the streets means there could be a reduction in pollution. At the same time, there would be a reduction in accidents.

Opponents of high-speed rail have said that it would be very expensive to develop the necessary technology throughout the country — and they have a point. According to the Los Angeles Times, it would cost between $6.19 billion and $7.13 billion to build just one portion of California’s rail system. Unlike Europe, the U.S. could not possibly have high-speed rail tracks across the entire country.

A better solution would be to implement incremental changes, since planes are a more viable option over longer distances in terms of the cost to producers to update existing infrastructure (i.e. Seattle to Boston). For the time being, high-speed rail will make sense in higher density areas, such as Detroit to Chicago, Boston to New York, or San Francisco to Seattle. With any spare money they are able to find, state and local governments would have the necessary funds to update the current rail system. Trains would be able to compete with planes in terms of cost and efficiency for consumers.

Creating connections such as the ones listed above would be much more efficient, according to Tom Zoellner an article written in the Wall Street Journal:

“At an average speed of just 68 miles an hour, Amtrak's Acela is a lumbering mastodon compared with true 186-mile-an-hour high-speed rail. Yet the Acela and other trains in the northeast corridor still manage to capture three-quarters of the air and rail travelers between the nation's capital and its dominant financial center.”

Journeys such as these are exactly where the airlines are at their most wasteful. Whether a plane is going 50 miles or around the world, substantial fixed costs must be paid: maintenance, labor, bag loading, taxes, landing fees, cleaning and, especially, fuel. Planes typically burn most of their fuel during takeoff and landing. Despite this inefficiency, short-haul trips still make up the bulk of U.S. air travel: About two-thirds of domestic flights are less than 700 miles, and about 35% of those are less than 350 miles. It is much harder, of course, to build a high-speed rail system than to add a few new planes to the fleet.”

So, perhaps it’s time for a change. In the future, I hope I can hop on a high-speed train that could take me from Ann Arbor to Washington D.C in no time at all.

Paul Sherman is an LSA senior.