US high-speed rail to the rescue

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

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.

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."

Meanwhile, the US Department of Transportation has identified 11 high-speed corridors, including Los Angeles to San Francisco. And Congress has wisely dedicated $8 billion to pay for high-speed rail projects across the country as part of last year's stimulus package.

A few states such as Florida are actively considering the viability of high-speed rail. Yet California is one of the few states that have made noticeable strides toward rail. Indeed, in November 2008, California voters OK'd $10 billion in funding for a rail system linking L.A. and San Francisco. This system will include trains capable of traveling 220 miles per hour, cutting travel time from about six hours via Route I-5 to just 2-1/2 hours.

According to a study by the California High-Speed Rail Authority, building the rail system there will create 150,000 construction jobs and 450,000 permanent jobs. It will also "bring economic benefits worth twice the cost of construction," including the development of business centers, and create less environmental impact than a two-lane highway.

The system would "save up to 5 million barrels of oil per year and reduce pollutant emissions," while even managing to "avoid 10,000 auto accidents yearly with their attendant deaths, injuries, and property damage compared to expanding only highways."

We spend a lot of time bemoaning US oil dependence, the job market, and horrible air travel, but high-speed rail is the answer right in front of us.

What should be done to make it a reality nation-wide?

First, state leaders should encourage citizens to really consider the long-term benefits. High-speed rail would not only create jobs for Americans, it would actually increase our national security over time by helping us get off our oil addiction – an addiction that strengthens our adversaries and leaves us vulnerable to foreign crises and oil disruptions. Investment in rail is well worth it.

Second, the price of gasoline is still very low in the US compared with other industrialized nations with developed rail systems. This perpetuates the American culture of sprawl and big vehicles. States could restructure taxes to raise the gas tax while decreasing taxes on payroll, so that taxpayers don't pay a higher tax overall. Higher gas taxes will give citizens incentive to switch to rail.

When citizens start taking rail seriously, states can start taking it seriously and develop careful plans to move forward and take advantage of federal rail money. Of course, rail won't solve every energy problem, but it should be an important part of a national energy policy.

Steve Yetiv is a professor of political science at Old Dominion University in Norfolk, Va. His latest book is called "The Absence of Grand Strategy." Lowell Feld worked for 17 years in the US Department of Energy as a senior energy analyst.


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