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Debate: High-speed rail

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Is high speed rail development generally good policy?

Background and context

High-speed rail (HSR) is a type of passenger rail transport that operates significantly faster than the normal speed of rail traffic. Specific definitions by the European Union include 200 km/h (124 mph) for upgraded track and 250 km/h (155 mph) or faster for new track.
In Japan, Shinkansen lines run at speeds of up to 300 km/h (186 mph), and in China, high-speed conventional rail lines operate at top speeds of 350 km/h (217 mph), and one Maglev Line in Shanghai reaches speeds of 431 km/h (268 mph). As high-speed rail has become increasingly common around the world, and as countries begin considering whether adopting the transportation technology is a good idea, the debate over its various pros and cons has been elevated to newspaper front pages around the world. In the US, for example, President Obama's calls to institute a national high-speed rail system has been met with a flurry of both die-hard support and vitriolic criticism. The issues include whether high-speed trains are superior to flight and high-way driving, whether a better value can be achieved through expanding existing road, airport, and standard rail infrastructure and capacity, and whether high-speed trains are economical and a public good or merely a service that will be used by the wealthy. These and issues are outlined below.
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Vs. air travel: How does high-speed rail compare to air travel?

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Pro

  • High-speed train stations can be positioned in city centers. While the travel time by plane itself cannot be beaten by currently known high-speed trains, the airports usually lie rather far from cities (due to the noise created by aircraft) and this increases the overall time needed for a trip. High-speed rail station, on the other hand, can be positioned in a city center, so for short- and even mid-range travels, high-speed rail could be actually faster than airplane.
  • High-speed rail helps relieve air-travel congestion. US High-Speed Rail Association: "HIGH SPEED RAIL = FREEDOM! Freedom from the daily hassles, delays, dangers, and problems America's transportation systems have become."
  • Rail travel has fewer weather related delays. Rail travel has less weather dependency than air travel. If the rail system is well-designed and well-operated, severe weather conditions such as heavy snow, heavy fog, and storms do not affect the journeys; whereas flights are generally canceled or delayed under these conditions. Nevertheless, snow and wind can cause some issues and can delay trains.


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Con

  • Improving airport access better than new high-speed rail. If the problem with airports is that they are too hard to get to, then access should be improved, with public transit such as light rail systems extending to the airport. This would cut the overall trip-time associated with air-travel, and would make high-speed transport less important.
  • High speed rail cannot seriously displace air travel. "On the wrong track: Why high-speed trains are not such a green alternative." Guardian. April 29th, 2010: "HSR is promoted as something that can sort out nasty carbon-producing aircraft on domestic routes. It has done this on the Paris-Lyon and Madrid-Seville lines, but this ability to trash a single air route should not be interpreted as something than can dent the growth of air travel. Germany has one of the largest HSR systems in the world, yet has seen an explosion in internal air travel."


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Vs upgrading: HSR better than upgrading old infrastructure?

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Pro

  • Upgrading existing lines is ineffective solution. Philip Hammond. "High Speed Rail: the case for." The Telegraph. November 26th, 2010: "Opponents of the project have asked why we cannot simply upgrade our existing infrastructure to deal with this capacity challenge. But no upgrade of existing infrastructure can deliver the huge improvements in journey times and the transformation of our economic geography that a new high speed network would bring. Reliability would also deteriorate as we tried to squeeze ever more capacity out of existing, mixed-use lines. And another major upgrade to the West Coast Main Line would deliver years of disruption and huge economic cost."
  • High-speed rail has greater capacity than roads. Railroad tracks permit a far higher throughput of passengers per hour than a road the same width. A high speed rail needs just a double track railway, one track for each direction. A typical capacity is 15 trains per hour and 800 passengers per train (as for the Eurostar sets), which implies a capacity of 12,000 passengers per hour in each direction. By way of contrast, the Highway Capacity Manual gives a maximum capacity for a single lane of highway of 2,250 passenger cars per hour (excluding trucks or RVs). Assuming an average vehicle occupancy of 1.57 people,[50] a standard twin track railway has a typical capacity 13% greater than a 6-lane highway (3 lanes each way), while requiring only 40% of the land (1.0/3.0 versus 2.5/7.5 hectares per kilometer of direct/indirect land consumption). This means that typical passenger rail carries 2.83 times as many passengers per hour per meter (width) as a road.
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Con

  • Expanding roads and runways better than high-speed rail. Jack Mobley. "A case against high-speed rail." Merced Sun Star. December 11th, 2010: "The argument that not building this train system would mean building more highways and more runways doesn't hold water either. If we're going to have to build one or the other, why not build the one which gives us the better options, namely more highways and runways? Lanes can be added to existing highways and more runways added to existing airports more easily than overcoming the logistical nightmare of 800 miles of high-speed rail cutting through the heart of California."
  • Decentralized country planning better than high speed rail. "On the wrong track: Why high-speed trains are not such a green alternative." Guardian. April 29th, 2010: "We could even have a policy about developing strongly independent cities, such as those in Germany. The "need" to travel to London is a result of decades of public and private policy and cash to centralise functions there and to avoid the idea that Newcastle upon Tyne, Leeds, Manchester, Birmingham and Liverpool could operate as high-level attractive financial, cultural, corporate HQ and media centres, just as Frankfurt, Munich and Hamburg do in Germany."


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Environment: Is high-speed rail environmentally friendly?

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Pro

  • High-speed trains are highly sustainable and green. US High-Speed Rail Association: "Trains are the most sustainable & green form of transportation. Electric high speed rail is the most energy efficient of all trains. A national high speed rail system is the centerpiece of a sustainable America, and will significantly reduce congestion and our dependence on cars and oil, while cutting our carbon emissions by epic proportions. The entire system can be powered by clean, safe renewable energy including wind, solar, geothermal, and ocean/tidal. Clean electric trains are a major form of daily transportation in numerous countries, and are the single most powerful transportation choice that can solve serious mobility, energy, environmental, economic, health, and social problems simultaneously - on a global scale."
  • High speed rail efficiently increases capacity. US High-Speed Rail Association: "True high speed rail (186+ mph) shortens trip times more than 70% over slower, conventional rail. This increased speed equates to faster trips, higher ridership, and far greater overall capacity of the system to carry much higher numbers of people each day. In addition, each train can do more round trips per day, requiring less equipment, and making the true high speed rail business model far more profitable than slower, conventional rail."
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Con

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Economics: Is high-speed rail economically advantageous?

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Pro

  • High-speed rail fosters transit-oriented development. US High-Speed Train Association: "Transit oriented development (TOD) is the exciting new fast growing trend in creating vibrant, compact, livable, walkable communities centered around high quality train systems. TODs can be stand-alone communities, or a series of towns strung along a rail line like pearls on a string. TODs are the integration of community design with rail system planning. High speed rail is the backbone of a rail-based transportation system. When combined with regional rail, light rail, metro systems, streetcars and trams, a complete and integrated rail network is achieved enabling easy, fast mobility throughout the system. Coordinating and encouraging compact, mixed-use development around the rail stations completes the system by enabling people to live, work, and play along the system without the need for a car much of the time. Together, these save time, money, energy, and lives."
  • High-speed rail helps businesspeople be more productive. US High-Speed Rail Association: "High speed rail delivers fast, efficient transportation so riders can spend less time traveling and more time doing business. High speed rail delivers people quickly to their destinations in city centers. Fast boarding times, no security delays, and no waiting for baggage (or lost bags) adds up to much less time spent getting to and from meetings. Adding to these savings, there's also little or no down time - people can be far more productive and efficient during a trip on a train, than flying or driving, and return to the office sooner with a shorter turn-around time. High speed rail allows people to continue working the entire trip using laptops and cell phones. Flexible meeting space is available on the train. Because of the reliability of trains and the reduced total trip time, an overnight stay is not always required - saving additional time and money. High speed rail offers great flexibility to plan last minute trips, purchase tickets on short notice, and make changes to schedules without huge penalties."
  • High speed rail policy is pro economic growth.
  • High-speed rail will get subsidies, but so do autos. "automobiles and airplanes already get along with massive subsidies. In 2009, the Department of Transportation ran a $70 billion budget, more than half of which went to the federal highway system. The airline industry only got through the post-9/11 years with considerable help from the U.S. government, and taxpayers pay more than 90 percent of the cost of some small-airport flights."
  • High-speed rail decreases travel-time between cities.
  • High speed rail is a great tourist attraction. It is a fun ride to a big city destination.
  • High speed rail reduces oil trade imbalance. It pays for itself by significantly reducing our $700 billion a year oil purchase trade deficit.
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Con

  • High-speed rail is predominantly used by wealthy. "On the wrong track: Why high-speed trains are not such a green alternative." Guardian. April 29th, 2010: "Supporters of HSR talk about a total bill of £11bn from public funds. This is likely be a considerable underestimate, but even if correct it is a huge commitment to something regressive. HSR is used by high-income passengers, and the £11bn would be a public investment from all taxpayers to encourage wealthy individuals to travel to and from London more often and at a higher speed. This is far less important than sorting out local travel in all cities, commuter travel around all cities, and inter-regional travel."
  • High-speed rail can't work without subsidies. CATO's Tad DeHaven: "As is the case with Amtrak, HSR can't compete with more efficient modes of transportation like automobiles and airplanes without massive subsidies."[1]
  • High speed rail not best way to create local jobs. "On the wrong track: Why high-speed trains are not such a green alternative." Guardian. April 29th, 2010: "If we really want to create jobs in all local economies, rather than drain them away along a very fast railway line, we could insulate 20m homes; make every house a mini-power station to generate and export its own electricity; sort out extremely poor quality commuter railway lines around all our cities; improve inter-regional rail links; and build 10,000 kms of segregated bike paths to connect every school, hospital, employment site and public building to every residential area."
  • High-speed rail is not a public good. Samuel Staley. "The Pragmatic Case Against High-Speed Rail." Reason Foundation. June 22nd, 2009: "the fact the biggest reason high-speed rail won't work in the U.S. is that it doesn't make sense as a project funded from general tax revenues. High-speed rail is not a public good and it's not mass transit. It is corridor transit. At best, it's a niche market serving a highly specialized, relatively wealthy, and narrow customer base (high-income business travelers with expense accounts and tourists)."
  • High-speed trains: costly govt project in search of need Jack Mobley. "A case against high-speed rail." Merced Sun Star. December 11th, 2010: "The project is doomed to be another expensive government project in search of a need. If it were a viable option, the railroad companies would still be offering passenger service. High-speed rail will be an albatross around the financial neck of California for generations and the promise of 600,000 jobs being created is a pipe dream. We should stop this effort now before billions of dollars are spent constructing a means of transportation relatively few will ride and which will require many more billions of dollars in ongoing annual subsidies by the state of California."


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Safety: Is high-speed rail safe?

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Pro

  • High-speed rail safer than other forms of travel. From the point of view of required traffic control systems and infrastructure, high-speed rail has the added advantage of being much simpler to control due to its predictable course, even at very high passenger loads; this issue is becoming more relevant as air traffic reaches its safe limit in busy airspaces over London, New York, and other large centers. However, it must be noted that high speed rail systems reduce (but do not eliminate[56][57]) the possibility of collisions with automobiles or people, while lower speed rail systems used by high speed trains may have level crossings.
  • High-speed rail saves lives from car accidents. 43,000 Americans die each year in car accidents.


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Con

  • High-speed rail has greater risk of catastrophic accident. High speed rail, due to the extremely high speeds, is much more likely to result in a catastrophic accident in the event of some mistake and derailment. While fairly rare, the magnitude of the potential accident is a major risk surrounding high-speed rail. And, these risks don't simply apply to the passengers; they also apply to the companies building the rail systems, which may incur major legal liabilities and share-price setbacks from a major accident.
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Community: Does high-speed rail foster a sense of community?

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Pro

  • Unlike automobiles, rail fosters a sense of community. Trains bring people together to share in a trip. When entering a train station, one feels a sense of belonging to a community and a larger society. Cars, on the other hand, separate people and keep them isolated from one another, so that there is far less of a sense of belonging. Trains enable chance interactions with other people that can lead to friendships or even romances. They force people to deal with each other, increasing the capacity of individuals to cope with social situations and build their communities.


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Con

  • Cars/freeways better suited to independent spirit. Jack Mobley. "A case against high-speed rail." Merced Sun Star. December 11th, 2010: "Overall, in America we have much better road networks than most other countries and have developed over the years an independent spirit more suited to the car than the train.The average American's love of personal liberty is reflected in our use of automobiles. In the future we may drive smaller, more fuel-efficient cars, but I do not believe the average American will give up their car for mass transit."


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Pro/con sources

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See also

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