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Opinion

US high-speed rail to the rescue

Bullet trains will save time, money, and the environment.

By Steve Yetiv and Lowell Feld / February 1, 2010



Norfolk, Va.; and Washington

What if you could travel the 347 miles from Los Angeles to San Francisco in a fraction of the time it takes to drive this distance and without the security checks, the clogged terminals, and flight cancellations that seem to plague air travel these days? What if you could also save money, substantially decrease pollution and the need to build expensive highways, and create American jobs while you were at it? Seem like a pipe dream? It's not.

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The technology is already here but it's underrated, underutilized, and often overlooked. High-speed rail is an important part of the answer to much of America's travel and environmental woes, not to mention potentially easing American oil dependence. The United States, as Obama pointed out recently just needs to take it seriously.

Around the world, high-speed trains have roundly beaten planes on price, overall travel time, and convenience at ranges of up to 600 miles.

Consider what happened in Europe: Commercial flights all but disappeared after high-speed trains were established between Paris and Lyon. And in the first year of operation, a Madrid-to-Barcelona high-speed link cut the air travel market about 50 percent. Traveling by train from London to Paris generates just 1/10th the amount of carbon dioxide as traveling by plane, according to one study.

Consider Asia: While America fumbles, China has seen the light. It plans to build 42 high-speed rail lines across 13,000 kilometers (some 8,000 miles) in the next three years. The Chinese Railway Ministry says that rail can transport 160 million people per year compared with 80 million for a four-lane highway.

In addition to the central goal of decreasing oil use and pollution, China seeks to bolster its economy with investment in rail and also to satisfy the demands for mobility of its growing middle class.

For America, as fewer people opt for gas-guzzling air or car travel, a high-speed rail system would hit US oil dependence right where it counts: in the gas tank.

High-speed rail is most economical in areas of high population density. In August 2009, Nobel Prize-winning economist Paul Krugman found that America has a "bigger potential market for fast rail than any European country."

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