The Benefits of High Speed Rail

[V150 train, modified TGV, conventional World speed record holder at 357.2 mph from WikiCommons]

The following post is by guest writer Matt Sindt, a recent graduate of the Hamline University School of Law who has worked in both state and local government, serving as a staffer on both the Business, Industry and Jobs Committee, and the Economic Development and Budget Committee of the Minnesota State Senate.


The benefits of a High Speed Rail (HSR) system have been hotly debated across the political spectrum in the U.S. for decades, especially in the Upper Midwest, but developments abroad have brought the ages old struggle into stark relief. Over the last decade, China has built a modern HSR system that can reach 220 MPH. China has invested over 300 billion dollars on HSR. This investment has allowed the Chinese to drastically abbreviate travel times between their major cities.

China’s rail program should make us consider whether or not such a program should be instituted in the U.S. The main reasons the U.S. should invest in HSR are jobs, conservation, safety and comfort.

The debate over building an HSR line in the Upper Midwest has been going on for over 20 years. The discussions have focused on what would be the best route for a new passenger rail line between Minneapolis and Chicago. The Tri-State II report listed two general options; one passes through Winona, MN, the other through Rochester, MN. Recently, the French national rail company (SNCF) published a report with a route through Hudson, WI. This allows travel to Eau Claire, WI rather than to La Crosse, WI as with the majority of domestic proposals. The advantages of the French proposal are obvious since their route is approximately 25 miles shorter than the La Crosse route. The route is also more attractive because the Eau Claire Metropolitan Area has 73,000 more people than the La Crosse Metropolitan area.

There are reasons why a Rochester line is preferred. The Mayo Clinic is considered an international destination and the metropolitan population is fairly sizable at 186,000. The Tri-State III report proposes a line running through Rochester. On a practical level, their plan is inferior because travel time would be 191 minutes rather than 162 minutes. The ultimate failure of these local planning reports is that they rely almost exclusively on existing infrastructure that is at least 50 years old.

Reliance on old infrastructure is bad enough but they also plan to share the infrastructure with freight trains that by their very nature frustrate the purpose of an HSR system. What is the use of having a train that can go 220 MPH if it spends half of its time stuck behind a freight train going 55 MPH? It is for this reason that dual, dedicated tracks must be built, grades lessened, and super-elevators (cants) installed to make the system function to the extent of its abilities. Whenever its practical to use and modify disused or abandoned rail lines this should be done to lower costs, but new lines should be built when necessary. This option is more expensive but provides superior service.

The national conversation began in earnest when in 2009, the Obama administration solicited bids for five regional high speed rail networks. The five networks included lines in: California, Texas, Florida, the Mid-West, and the East Coast. In response to this invitation, SNCF put forth a highly detailed bid. The French plan called HST 220, called for the use of AVG train-sets which are capable of reaching 220 MPH.

SNCF’s bid is a good place to start the discussion in order to provide somewhat specific notions of what cost, service, jobs and other benefits and liabilities would be incurred in such a massive undertaking. The total estimated cost in 2009 dollars for four out of five lines was $140 billion. Amtrak announced plans in 2010 for 220 MPH HSR service on the east coast corridor connecting Boston and Washington D.C. for a total cost of $117 billion. Adjusting for inflation, the total cost of all five projects would be approximately $270 billion. While a highly significant sum it is not astronomical since the annual federal budget in 2012 was $3.796 trillion. The annualized cost of all five projects combined would be less than 0.5% of the federal budget. All public investment will be paid back based on profit estimates. The SNCF plan estimates a 15 year payback cycle while Amtrak estimates 20 years. The two estimates combined calculate that 2.1 million full-time temporary and permanent jobs will be created over the 30 years.

The continuing volatility in the world’s fossil fuel based energy sector is a threat not only to the environment through oil spills and global warming but also because of the instability it causes our national security. As demand increases and supply declines over the next few years and decades, crude oil prices will continue to rise. These increases will exacerbate the already precarious financial position of the American airline industry. Providing a viable alternative in high speed rail would allow for a dramatic decrease in the number of short to mid-range commuter flights. A significant decrease in the number of commuter flights would lower demand for jet fuel and therefore lower the price of fuel making long-haul flights more profitable. The SNCF estimate alone yields a decline in annual fuel consumption equivalent to .2% of America’s fuel consumption in 2010.

Because HST’s are powered purely by electricity renewable resources may be used exclusively. Even using the USA’s current fossil fuels, SNCF claims that their HSR lines would reduce the amount of pollution by 4.4 million tons over the first twenty years.

HST’s are far safer than both automobiles and airplanes. Over 50 years of service throughout the world, high speed trains have a fatality rate, measured in passenger miles traveled per fatality, that is one-sixth of the rate of commercial air-travel throughout the same period.

Additionally, high speed trains routinely provide 7 more inches of seat pitch than American commercial airlines do. This is the international industry and government standard for defining seating area. Seat pitch more or less correlates to legroom. More legroom allows for more comfort and a better travel experience for passengers.

A parallel in US history to this project was President Eisenhower’s decision to build the Interstate Highway System. In much the same way as HSR could be used, a European model was adapted to American use. During WWII, Eisenhower observed the speed with which German troops could be deployed using the autobahn. When he became President he created a federal highway system to allow for the efficient transfer of troops in short order. This lead to decades of American prosperity. Eisenhower was a man of extraordinary vision who grasped the inherent possibilities of a truly interconnected stream of commerce that would not only ease traffic but foster it as well.

For over a decade, America has been mired in a prolonged economic decline. That is why a leader with a bold vision would propose a nation-wide system of federal HSR lines. The Presidency’s executive authority should be utilized to provide for centralized planning of projects, purchasing of equipment in bulk, and uniform quality control throughout the system. This would prevent interference by parochial interests in state and local governments from frustrating the purpose of the project. The overarching purpose is to improve connectivity between markets, decrease our national dependence on foreign oil, decrease pollution, lower travel costs, and ease travel congestion, and save lives by substituting a safer form of transit.


Guest Writer Profile: Matt Sindt is a recent graduate of the Hamline University School of Law who has worked in both state and local government, serving as a staffer on both the Business, Industry and Jobs Committee, and the Economic Development and Budget Committee of the Minnesota State Senate.

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