Getting America to ride the high-speed rails


The romance of riding the rails may be returning to America thanks to new federal funding and a public hungry for ways to save time, money, the environment, and add a measure of convenience in their hectic lives.

According to a new study commissioned by HNTB Corporation, more than half of Americans (54 percent) would choose modern high-speed trains over automobile (33 percent) and air travel (13 percent) if fares and travel time were about the same.

“Our country needs high-speed rail as part of a balanced transportation system,” said Peter Gertler, chair of the firm’s high-speed rail practice. “It has been the missing lynchpin in our national network. Without it, the whole system is less effective.”

High-speed rail is receiving renewed attention in this country due to a variety of factors, including last year’s spike in fuel prices, the passage of a US$10 billion bond measure in California last November to support the development of a high-speed rail system there, and US$8 billion this year for high-speed rail in the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. Prominent supporters from both political parties include President Barack Obama; Vice President Joe Biden; Rep. Jim Oberstar, chair of the US House of Representatives Transportation and Infrastructure Committee; Rep. John Mica, ranking Republican member of the committee; California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger; and Wisconsin Gov. Jim Doyle, who recently toured high-speed rail systems in Spain.

The survey showed Americans would be most excited by the possibility of more convenient travel (71 percent), less expensive fares (69 percent) and faster trains (55 percent) with the introduction of high-speed rail in their region.

Gertler said educating people who haven’t ridden high-speed trains remains a priority. There were clear differences between experienced and nonexperienced riders, including a much lower preference for traveling to large cities nearby via car (41 percent versus 69 percent) and a higher expectation of productivity when traveling high-speed rail on business (51 percent versus 38 percent). He added the fact that less than three in ten (29 percent) Americans understand the environmental impact high-speed trains can have versus traditional train travel – and high-speed rail’s overall positive impact versus other forms of transportation – emphasizes the need for a more informed public.

“High-speed rail will benefit the country in a variety of ways, including improved mobility, job creation, reduced usage of fossil fuel, and fewer annual greenhouse gas emissions,” Gertler said. “High-speed trains use one-third as much energy as comparable air travel and consume less than one-fifth as much energy as driving. This is proven technology that America can adopt and protect its status as a mobility super power.”

High-speed trains operate significantly faster than traditional trains, traveling from 110 mph to more than 200 mph. The highest-speed trains are powered by electricity, but others run on diesel fuel. Currently, the only operational high-speed rail system in the US is the Acela Express, which travels between Boston and Washington, DC and achieves speeds up to 150 mph.

HNTB’s research, the second in a series of “America THINKS” surveys, found even greater acceptance of high-speed rail among the 18 percent of Americans who have experienced such travel here or abroad. An overwhelming majority of high-speed train travelers (82 percent) found it more enjoyable than plane travel and slightly more than half (51 percent) said they would be most productive on high-speed trains when traveling for business.

“For more than 40 years, with the exception of the Acela, the United States has not been able to implement high-speed rail while other countries developed, ran, and are retiring their first high-speed trains to museums,” Gertler said. “Now with new funding and renewed vision, more Americans will be able to appreciate the value of this transformative transportation alternative.”

Even among those who haven’t traveled by high-speed rail, more respondents said they would prefer traveling on such trains (22 percent) rather than by plane (6 percent) or bus (3 percent) to the closest large city. Only Americans’ love affair with their cars provided a stronger pull (69 percent).

In fact, nearly half of the nation (49 percent) said the best benefit of high-speed rail in their region would be the ability to travel more easily to cities up to 400 miles away. Experts agree high-speed rail is best-suited for journeys of 100-500 miles or 1 to 3 hours. The US Federal Railroad Administration has identified 10 such corridors as potential centers of high-speed rail activity.