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Does High-Speed Rail Really Meet U.S. Transportation Needs?

High-speed rail projects have proved to be very costly, but experts argue that these projects will serve an essential role in the evolution of the U.S. transportation system as it moves beyond cars and planes.

A high-speed train in motion.
A transportation system has many pieces and modes, and high-speed rail should be a part of it, according to some watching the space.

“It’s not just about high-speed rail versus conventional rail; or conventional rail versus highways,” said Jim Mathews, president and CEO of the National Association of Railroad Passengers, during a Feb. 22 panel discussion around high-speed rail in the U.S. The discussion was hosted by CoMotion LIVE.

“Every mode has its ideal use case, every trip has its ideal mode. So we need to look at, holistically, the country and recognize that we need a surface transportation strategy that includes high-speed rail, that includes conventional rail, that includes selective highway interchanges, that includes light rail, that includes first-mile-last-mile, and it can take all kinds of forms,” he added.

Passenger rail is enjoying a bit of a heyday. The Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act will send some $22 billion to Amtrak, the nation’s only comprehensive passenger rail provider. The funding is enabling Amtrak to replace its entire fleet, said Amtrak President Roger Harris.

“By the next decade we will have been able to replace our entire fleet, which is huge, in terms of customer experience,” said Harris, during the discussion.

Another $44 billion will be allocated to other forms of passenger rail like commuter, light rail and subway lines.

Even though Amtrak is expanding service with the introduction of new or returned routes like the Ethan Allen Express, providing service from New York City to Burlington, Vt., or the Gulf Coast route connecting New Orleans with Mobile, Ala., the rail provider still suffers by lacking speed, and often frequency of service and on-time arrivals. Most notably, the fleet upgrades Harris mentioned does not get Amtrak up to 110 mph speeds rail advocates say is needed for train travel to adequately replace car trips.

Amtrak’s Acela service along the Northeast Corridor, was introduced in 2000, and does achieve 150 mph in some sections. It has cut into the air-travel market, said Harris, in part, because of its ability to place travelers right into downtown centers all along the heavily traveled Eastern Seaboard between Washington, D.C., and Boston.

A conversation around high-speed rail would not be complete without mentioning the California High-Speed Rail project, which ultimately aims to create a 500-mile route connecting Los Angeles with San Francisco. Perhaps most notable about the project — besides its promised 225 mph speeds — is its ballooning price tag and lagging completion date. The massive infrastructure project is now estimated to cost $113 billion, with its first 119-mile phase through the California Central Valley to be complete by the end of the decade. When voters in California approved the project back in 2008, the price tag was placed at $33 billion, with a completion date by 2020.

“We are working hard to have passenger service up and running between Merced and Bakersfield with trains going 225 miles per hour — an electrified service — by the end of this decade,” said Melissa Figueroa, strategic communications with the California High-Speed Rail Authority.

The project, with its 30 active construction sites and employing some 1,100 workers, is in the process of designing four stations to serve the Central Valley, the vast stretch of farmland with few transit options. The train’s high speeds will reduce travel time through the valley by 90 to 100 minutes, said Figueroa.

The Golden State’s first high-speed train may actually zip across the desert between Las Vegas and Los Angeles. Brightline Trains, a private rail company in Florida, is moving forward with its Brightline West project.

“We are nearly shovel-ready, and expect to put a shovel in the ground in the second half of this year,” said Ali Soule, vice president of community relations at Brightline Trains.

The project, with an expected travel time of two hours and 15 minutes along the 260-mile route, is expected to be complete in about four years, in time for the Los Angeles Olympics. The rail line will be built along the Interstate 15 right of way, easing the regulatory and planning process, said Soule.

“Leveraging these existing assets that already have transportation modes allows us to not only speed up the environmental … and it also allows us to leverage the capital, from a better perspective,” she added.

Rail projects — high-speed or conventional — are indeed costly. Infrastructure projects always are. But rail and transportation advocates say they must be seen against the staggering cost of other transportation projects like roads, bridges and runways, as well as the “cost of doing nothing,” and the lost economic activity that accompanies this option.

“The first thing to keep in mind is that to build the capacity that we’re building, if you were to expand highways and expand airport runways … it would be two times, or more, the cost,” said Figueroa. “We’re building something that, yes, has a high price tag. It’s also 500 miles long.”

Mathews stressed the need to “get past the sort of retail price tag of some of these projects,” adding “there is cost for doing nothing.”

"We really need to look more at outcomes, and what we want to spend to produce those outcomes," he continued. "And I think once we do that, we’ll start to recognize that high-speed rail, in the long run, is a very sensible investment as part of the transportation ecosystem in the United States.”
Skip Descant writes about smart cities, the Internet of Things, transportation and other areas. He spent more than 12 years reporting for daily newspapers in Mississippi, Arkansas, Louisiana and California. He lives in downtown Yreka, Calif.