Fast Trains for America?

WASHINGTON – The US is terribly late in grasping the advantages of high speed rail as a more efficient alternative to air travel or driving a car between relatively close large metropolitan centers, (Washington – New York – Boston, for example). Airports and air space are congested and so are most highways, making travel slower, more complicated and afr less efficient.  And to all these diminishing returns one has to add the significant cost of our gigantic oil and oil products imports –more than 60 per cent of total consumption– necessary to fuel motor vehicles and airplanes. 

Trains better than air travel or car trips

Trains, in contrast, are powered by electricity which is not imported. Relying more on domestic sources to fuel transportation helps our trade balance, while it reduces exposure to a serious strategic vulnerability. We have abundant electricity supply and in the future we should be able to generate more of it through renewable, non polluting technologies.

From the stand point of economic productivity, personal comfort and convenience, high speed trains will get passengers to their  destinations faster than airplanes. Beyond actual flight time, if you consider all the additional time involved with getting to and from airports and of negotiating your way through security, plus routine delays due to congestion and weather, high speed trains become much more attractive . 

If you would have opted for the car, the train will get you to your destination not only much faster but also without the fatigue, tensions and accident risk associated with driving in heavy traffic. For all these reasons, fast trains are old news in Europe, in Korea and Japan. And now China, on top of many completed projects, has undertaken a major plan aimed at creating a national network of high speed rail by 2020, with plans to build at least 13,000 km of new tracks suitable for high speed trains.

Obama’s small step for high speed rail

Given all these advantages and US historic delays in joining modernity,  many cheered when the Obama team announced brand new plans for American high speed trains. Indeed, the Obama administration, as part of its stimulus plan, in 2009 launched a high speed rail initiative with federal funding up to $ 8 billion aimed at partially paying for initial feasibility studies and early work to be undertaken by states. So, at last, a good first step? Not quite.

Congress wants states to pay more

In fact, this big project is not going ahead very well. Caught in the ongoing downdraft of national economic stagnation and consequent lack of federal revenue, the US Congress this year added a proviso to the $ 8 billion funding whereby states, if they wanted to qualify for future high speed rail federal cash, have to commit to foot at least 20 per cent of the total cost of the projects they submit. This 20 per cent proviso does not sound so unreasonable; and it follows established practice in many areas in which the Federal Government undertakes huge capital projects in conjunction with states.

Cash strapped states bailed out

Except that in the current horrible fiscal predicament that sees revenue strapped states struggling to meet even their most basic budgeting goals for schools and police, coming up with tens of millions or more to pay for at least 20 per cent of new, large capital projects is out of the question. And so, many states simply withdrew from the competition aimed at securing federal money for these expensive rail projects.

Translation: if you want to see America develop a modern network of high speed rail links, do not hold your breath. It looks as if something will go ahead in Florida and in California; but not much else. The idea that America would quickly catch up and join the XXI Century is still a distant hope.

Chinese fast trains in South Africa?

Now, compare and contrast this uninspiring scenario with a recent news item. We learn that in the context of a recent high profile South African economic and trade mission to China led by South African President Jacob Zuma, China Railway Group, “the world’s second largest publicly traded heavy construction company”, (according to Bloomberg), announced that it is in talks with South African counterparts to examine the feasibility of a huge high speed rail project that would link Johannesburg, the country’s economic and industrial center, to the South African port of Durban on the Indian Ocean, thus easing the transportation of goods to and from the country’s industrial heartland. Most of the commercial loads between the two cities right now are carried by trucks. The journey on the 566 Km (352 miles) highway takes between 5 to 7 hours. High speed rail would cut this down to three hours.

$ 30 billion for a Johannesburg-Durban high speed rail link?

Approximate price tag for this little thing? Oh well, around $ 30 billion.  You got that right: mighty US committed to spend only $ 8 billion for fast trains in the US, China talks about $ 30 billion projects in Africa. That is to say that China is considering investing in South Africa more than three times what the US Federal Government set aside as the initial sum to help fund the early development stages of high speed rail throughout the entire United States.

So, Washington hesitantly put forward just a little bit of cash for America’s future rail. China talks about spending $ 30 billion for a new high speed rail project –not in China– but in Africa. (Indeed, as indicated above, enormous investments for high speed rail in China are already on a fast track). Got that? This is where America is. Totally outclassed in a key area of modern transportation system by a country that until yesterday was thought to be just an ambitious emerging economy.

True enough, this early China – South Africa announcement is only a rather generic declaration of intent. In other words, a lot needs to happen before Chinese crews start breaking ground to lay the new tracks for this future high speed rail link in South Africa. But the international media considers the whole idea quite credible and as such the news was widely reported.

China makes this big announcement and nobody thinks it is a joke

Now consider this: a major Chinese corporation talks about a $ 30 billion investment in South Africa, thousands of miles away from home; and nobody laughs, calling the whole thing totally preposterous. Indeed, why should they laugh? The Chinese have serious money, credible know how, based on their large domestic high speed rail expansion program, and a strong, long term strategic interest in strengthening their economic and commercial ties with south Africa, as they are already the country’s number one –yes, number one– trading partner.

If the US made similar announcements, it would be laughable

Now, as contrast, imagine a different news item: “General Electric and Bechtel to build high speed rail link between Johannesburg and Durban. Amtrak to provide consulting on operations“. Now this one would be a laughable headline. The US has practically no technological leadership in this sector, therefore zero credibility as builder and operator, let alone the ability to provide the huge funds necessary to implement the project.

In the US baby steps towards fast trains, while China builds around the world

So, this is where we are now. In America, once the world’s foremost innovation laboratory and workshop, we have a puny little embryo of a domestic high speed rail project, now weakened by the Congressional 20 per cent mandate that has caused many states to bail out; while China, already committed to mega high speed rail projects at home, goes around talking about funding a huge capital project in South Africa. Clearly America could not even dream of discussing a high speed rail project of this magnitude, let alone acting on it, anywhere in the world.

So, what’s this all about? Sadly, this is just another example of America’s retreat from the frontiers of innovation, not to mention its increasing inability to participate in large scale international capital projects.

Fast trains a bad deal?

Of course, many would forcefully affirm that high speed rail is not such a great idea after all; and therefore we are better off saving our money for other, more productive enterprises. (Such as….?). But I would not be so sure of this.

The US is about 30 years behind Europe, (and now behind China in terms of current and projected investments), in the development of high speed trains. Again, some have argued that this is non issue, as high speed trains are expensive, money losing propositions suitable for Europeans who love large public works projects and subsidized travel; but out of place in our no nonsense America.

This observation conveniently avoids the point that directly and indirectly the US lavishly subsidizes air travel and the automobile. This is not to deny that, in some instances, the cost-effectiveness of high speed trains may be questionable and so each project should be examined individually.

Advantages of high speed trains

But when it comes to travel between large populations centers distancing 300 to 500 miles from each other, (the “Nort-East Corridor” going from Boston to New York to Washington, DC is a perfect example), the advantages of high speed rail versus available alternatives is obvious. In these cases, air travel is not that convenient; while trips by car are hampered by highway congestion that substantially reduce travel speed, not to mention adding to the stress, discomfort and danger for drivers and passengers.

Air travel hampered by congestion

If we look at air travel, increasingly popular in America since airline deregulation reduced cost, it is an old story that large US cities have overcrowded airports and overburdened air space. In theory we can fly from Washington DC to New York City in just one hour. However, after you have added the time (and additional cost) required to get to and from airports, at least 40 or 50 minutes each way on average, depending on your point of departure and intended final destination, after you set aside additional time for airports security screening and then inevitable delays before and after boarding the aircraft due to congestion or bad weather, the theoretical quick plane ride is not that quick any more. The one hour flight could easily turn into a three to four hour or more point to point trip, once you factor congestion and delays in the air and on the ground.

Real high speed gets you there faster and more comfortably

Alternatively, If you could have a real high speed train, (as opposed to the semi-fast Amtrak operated Acela train available now), covering the same Washington, DC – New York City distance in –say– two and half hours, with the advantage of an in town departure and arrival, then the convenience of the train versus the airplane for short haul travel between large metropolitan centers becomes much clearer. (On a different level, if anybody is concerned about the per passenger carbon foot print related to the two different means of travel, the difference is startling: 90 per cent higher carbon emissions if you choose air travel).

Obama’s plan seemed a good first step

Because all of these advantages, the initial Obama administration plan to at least begin to look seriously at high speed rail development projects, budgeting about 8 billion for that purpose, seemed to be a good idea. Very little and very late, for sure; but, hey, better than doing nothing. And yet by now you can see that this plan is going neither far nor fast.

Our plans are too small, while China plans to build around the world

Objectively, the money provided for through the federal government is puny; while the new Congressional  mandate for funding by the states automatically caused many to withdraw. So, the idea of a network of fast trains supplanting air travel as the most cost effective way to travel between large cities is destined to remain a dream in America.

In the meantime, we see our confident Chinese competitors planning huge new networks at home, while openly talking about expensive mega projects in far away emerging economies in which they already enjoy cozy relationships that we can only dream about.

Is anybody worried as to what all this indicates about America’s growing inability to be not so much the technology leader but even a technology player at home and abroad?

I am.

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