President Obama unveiled his vision to upgrade “the nation’s transportation system” earlier this month, pledging a long-term commitment at the federal and state levels to build a comprehensive high-speed intercity passenger rail network connecting the nation. It’s a National Highway act for an abandoned rail system which could (if taken seriously that is) provide an alternative to domestic airplane travel. A lower energy, lower cost alternative.
Under the American Recovery and Investment Act, high-speed rail would receive an initial investment of $8 billion, plus a requested $1 billion a year for five years in the federal budget. Here’s the Federal Railroad Administration spokesmouth’s statement:
“High-speed rail (HSR) is a family of transportation options that address longer-distance passenger transport needs in heavily populated corridors. Implementing HSR will promote economic expansion (including new manufacturing jobs), create new choices for travelers in addition to flying or driving, reduce national dependence on oil, and foster urban and rural livable communities. With the successful completion of the original phases of the Northeast Corridor (NEC) Transportation Project offering Amtrak’s 150 mph train service, known as “Acela,” between Washington, New York, and Boston, efforts have expanded beyond the NEC. A number of high-speed rail corridors are being planned by States that range from upgrades to existing rail lines to entirely new rail lines exclusively devoted to 150 to 250 mph trains.”
Envisioning 1960’s Technology
If you’ve traveled from Boston to Washington D.C. on America’s Acela Express, you know how far we need to go to make high speed rail a viable long distance alternative (not just a low budget alternative). The Acela staff provide great service, but a sustained speed of 138kph/86mph isn’t going to compete effectively with an average commercial passenger airplane speed of 800 kph/500 mph. It’s not just Acela that’s slow. Japan’s Shinkansen high speed train network shuttles locals at 210kph/130mph, which is great only if you live on a geographically small island nation. It’s also worth mentioning the Shinkansen opened its doors in 1964.
Then in 2003 Shanghai Maglev Train opened up for business, covering the Longyan-Pudong corridor in China, which moved the speed standard forward to a sustained 431 kph/268mph. I’ve been on it, and the experience rocks.
The SMT is still the only commercial Maglev train in existence, but there are others in the works. California has been on the forefront of voter ballot measures which have proposed building a high speed rail service from the San Francisco bay area to Los Angeles, and even has this really cool trip calculator on their site. Unfortunately, the project aims to build maglevs traveling at underwhelming sustained speed of 350/220.
Aim for Airspeed California
So maglev trains traveling in a frictionless, motionless tube seems to provide the best prospects for energy efficient, fast domestic travel, but how fast can they really go? Current maglev trains in use have been clocked at 501kph/311 mph in Shanghai. But that’s not the end of the story: while California dabbles in meeting last century’s speed records, the Japanese are busy designing Shinkansen’s successor, which aims for sustained speeds of 581kph/361mph. But we don’t need to go overseas to find maglev trains traveling at cutting edge speeds. San Diego-based General Atomics is testing designs which achieve the same speeds, and is hoping to tap into American Recovery and Investment Act funding.
As stated at the beginning of this blog post, the American Recovery and Investment Act provides 13 billion over 5 years for high speed rail. That’s alot of money, and it would be nice to buy an alternative to airports with all that cash. But that will only happen if California and other funded states set their sights high, rather than at easily achievable targets. It’s likely that low expectations could ironically undermine progress. Taxpayers who see little improvement for a generous outpouring of funds could vote to pull the plug on much needed investment in the future.
Edit: Noticed Christopher Beam wrote a similarly stinging piece, although he gives my home state credit more credit than I for leading the feds and other states. Rightly so – a hat tip to you sir.