America’s High-Speed Rail Future


Thalys and SNCF’s TGV high-speed trains at Paris North Station (Gare du Nord). Photo credit: Josh Marks

President Obama has repeatedly talked about the urgent need to rebuild America’s crumbling infrastructure to create jobs and keep the country competitive in the 21st-century global economy. Upgrading the nation’s antiquated passenger rail system has been a dream of the president’s ever since he took office. He made sure to include $8 billion for high-speed rail in The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 and most recently mentioned it in an infrastructure speech in Miami on Friday, saying CEOs want to do business and create new jobs in countries with high-speed rail, but that the United States still has “too many rail lines that are too slow and clogged up,” and that we need to “make sure we’ve got the best rail lines.”

Making that high-speed rail vision a reality in America — something Western Europe and Japan have been enjoying for decades, with China and other developing nations rapidly getting into the fast train game — is the focus of the book Fast Trains: America’s High Speed Future,by Emy Louie and Nancy Bolts.

The authors argue that building high-speed rail corridors in America would create thousands of jobs, reduce congestion on our clogged roads and at the nation’s overburdened airports, benefit the environment with a lighter carbon footprint compared to car and airplane travel, and boost national security by helping reduce dependence on petroleum.

The book starts out with a brief history of how in the 1860s the Transcontinental Railroad allowed for the westward expansion of the United States and that America had the best rail system in the world until World War II. Rail travel was popular until various factors led to its decline — including monopolistic practices by the railroad tycoons, the Great Depression, the scandalous dismantling of the streetcar system, and the rise of the automobile. There is a chapter about how the Japanese were the first to embrace high-speed rail as they rebuilt their country’s infrastructure from the destruction of World War II and created the Shinkansen, or bullet train, which then eventually spread to France and other European nations.

Fast Trains compares fictional trips in other countries with high-speed rail against a comparable trip in the U.S. For example, a 200-mile bullet train ride from Tokyo to Kyoto versus driving the same distance from Long Island to Washington, D.C. The comfortable, relaxed train ride in Japan takes about two and a half hours traveling at speeds of up to 180 miles per hour, whereas the uncomfortable, stressful drive down gridlocked Interstate 95 with stops for gas and food takes seven hours.

The authors write that “the United States must move forward again in brave, innovative ways to become competitive on the world stage, to promote economic development, and to secure advancement and prosperity across the nation,” adding that “it’s time to get America back to work and back on track.  It’s time to get America on the track that runs high-speed trains!”


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