OMAHA, Neb. -- A frank discussion about realities of high-speed rail's economics and viability was one of the high points of this week's Meeting of the Minds conference on sustainable cities this week. With billions in U.S. taxpayer dollars being spent on high-speed rail projects, panelists sought to sort out facts from fiction.
Stephen Robillard, vice president of High Speed Rail USA at Siemens AG -- which builds trains and light rails -- said that if 10 percent of drivers switch to high-speed rail ridership, the U.S. would save 550 million barrels of oil annually and that one high-speed railcar equates to taking 200 cars off the road.
Robillard cited a study that Siemens AG prepared for the U.S. Conference of Mayors that investigated the economic impact of high-speed rail service to various cities. By 2035, Los Angeles would see 55,000 new jobs created and $7.6 billion in new revenue; Orlando, Fla., would support 20,000 new jobs and see more than $2 billion added to the local economy; while high-speed rail to Albany, N.Y., would generate 4,700 new jobs and $500 million.
The numbers induced some howling from the audience, some of whom wondered how realistic the figures were. Robillard admitted the numbers were estimates only.
"It's hypothetical, but it's based on experiences from other countries," he said, pointing to Germany, France and Spain, where high-speed rail flourishes. "Spanish high-speed rail has taken 50 percent of the business from airlines. Between Cologne and Frankfurt, air travel has disappeared, replaced by high-speed rail. Paris and Lyon as well."
Robillard and the other panelists agreed that key to making high-speed rail succeed is investment in intercity rail.
"Intercity rail has been a neglected stepchild for 30 years. It is the missing link," said Bruce Agnew, director of the Cascadia Center for Regional Development, a group working to get high-speed rail service in the Pacific Northwest. "There has to be commitment at all levels of government to make it work."
Axel Meisen, Chair of Foresight for Alberta Innovates -- Technology Futures, a Canadian government-supported research firm, said high-speed rail service could also be a boon to secondary cities along train routes.
"I think high-speed rail could have a very significant impact on secondary cities. A stop in a small town along the way could inject a spark of life it would not otherwise get," Meisen said.
But, he cautioned, "If that stop adds 20 minutes to a two-hour journey, the returns are diminished."