When I visited Shanghai a few years ago, one of my favorite moments was riding the maglev train from the airport to a Metro station on the outskirts of the city. As I recall, its speed got up to around 250 mph – a counter in each car displayed the speed, and the numbers changed in a blur as the train accelerated out of the station. I thought about how wonderful it would be to have such a high-speed train between DC and New York or LA and San Francisco, but feared it couldn’t happen in the US.
Flights and long drives are not only major sources of greenhouse gases, they’re also growing sources of frustration. While the climate crisis is sufficient reason to shift some of our travel to trains, there’s also a demand for a convenient, comfortable form of transportation that doesn’t involve traffic jams or increasingly bizarre security rituals.
The stimulus bill actually contained $8 billion for high-speed rail, and though that’s only a drop in a very large bucket, it’s exciting for those of us who long to see an HSR network in the US. TIME’s Michael Grunwald explains where the HSR money’s going, and what it says about the many challenges of bringing this form of passenger transportation to the US.
The first stimulus-funded high-speed route is due to run from Tampa to Orlando starting in 2015. Along the 84-mile stretch, trains will get up to 168 mph. What made this project attractive is that the land needed for the route is relatively flat and located in the I-4 highway median – so, negotiating a route with neighbors and landowners won’t be an issue the way it would be elsewhere. (I’m sure Florida’s swing-state status didn’t escape anyone’s notice, either.) It can be a quick success that’ll get people excited about HSR.
California also got stimulus money, and its proposal probably looked attractive because voters had already approved $9 billion in bonds for an HSR line connecting LA to San Francisco (with a three-hour trip as the goal). Grunwald notes that this project won’t be a quick success, though: “the land has yet to be purchased, the route isn’t set, and the estimated cost has ballooned to more than $42 billion in an already overextended state.”
The Economist worries not so much about the difficulty of constructing high-speed passenger rail routes, but what will happen to freight rail when more passengers are riding trains:
[Freight railway] owners worry that the [HSR] plans will demand expensive train-control technology that freight traffic could do without. They fear a reduction in the capacity available to freight. Most of all they fret that the spending of federal money on upgrading their tracks will lead the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA), the industry watchdog, to impose tough conditions on them and, in effect, to reintroduce regulation of their operations. Attempts at re-regulation have been made in Congress in recent years, in response to rising freight rates. “The freight railroads feel they are under attack,” says Don Phillips, a rail expert in Virginia.
In the US today, freight and passenger lines share aging rail lines, and Michael Grunwald explains why this problematic:
Almost all of Amtrak’s tracks are owned by freight lines, and they’re riddled with time-sucking choke points: grade crossings, sharp curves, congestion hot spots and outdated bridges that require slow speeds for safety; long single-track stretches that force trains to wait for oncoming traffic; even old-fashioned track intersections known as diamonds. I visited one of the nation’s worst blockages, a diamond in Chicago’s Englewood section that jams 78 commuter trains against 60 Amtrak and freight trains every day. The result is gridlock, like an intersection in the middle of an interstate. Right now, a cross-country train out of California can take as long to get through Chicago as it takes to get to Chicago, and as the economy picks up and 400,000 freight cars come out of storage, the congestion will only intensify. I arrived well after rush hour but still saw a logjam; one Norfolk Southern freight train hauling grain, corn syrup, lumber and steel across the country was delayed at least 40 minutes.
The Chicago area is actually getting stimulus money to build an overpass that’ll ease its notorious train congestion; it’s one of several projects that aim to make relatively small but high-impact improvements to existing rail infrastructure. While such improvements will improve some freight-vs-passenger struggles, they won’t alter the fundamental problem that we have limited rail capacity to meet two different transportation priorities.
Freight rail is an efficient way to move goods around the country; railroads haul 42% of US freight but emit just 9% of total transportation-related NOx and 4% of transportation-related particulate pollution. Their fuel efficiency is triple that of trucks. And with each freight train moving between 280 and 500 trucks’ worth of goods, they also reduce highway congestion.
It would indeed be a shame if more passenger rail travel (HSR or otherwise) were to result in shifting freight from rails back to trucks – but what there were another efficient hauling option? Phillip Longman raises a possibility in a recent Washington Monthly article: transport more goods by water. Longman cites many advantages to water transport, including fuel efficiency and time:
If you’re hauling a ton of freight by truck, a gallon of fuel will only move it 155 miles. Haul it by railroad, and a gallon will take it 413 miles. Haul it by towed barge, and a gallon will carry it a full 576 miles.
… Not only would [making use of our network of waterways] save money and fuel; they would even, in some cases, save time. For example, a single truck driver moving a container from Boston to Orlando can make the trip legally in no less than fifty-four hours, given speed limits and mandatory thirteen-hour rest periods each day. By contrast, in just thirty-three hours, a container can be taken by truck from Boston to the port of New London, then placed onto a high-speed coastal freighter and shipped to the port of Charleston, and finally trucked from Charleston to Orlando, according to Stephen P. Flott, founder of SeaBridge, who has testified before Congress in support of the idea and may yet bring it to fruition.
Current policies stand in the way of a resurgence in transporting goods by water. A harbor maintenance tax is the equivalent, Longman explains, of forcing FedEx to calculate the value of every package on each truck and paying a tax that would far exceed what a truck transporting the same goods would spend on tolls. The Jones Act requires ships used in the US to be built in US shipyards, which would prevent ship owners from taking advantage of efficient shipbuilding in countries like South Korea. Longman outlines potential solutions, all of which require some political will to adopt.
We have technologies that can make our transportation more efficient and sustainable — and even more enjoyable for travelers. The question is, are we willing to make the investments and other policy choices that will let us achieve this goal?