A vision of high-speed rail in America: Time for a national conversation?

Imagine a world where you could hop on a train at Boston’s South Station, arrive at New York City’s Penn Station in less than one hour and travel from there to Washington DC’s Union Station in another hour and half. You could buy a ticket online, print it and go to the train station to scan the ticket as you entered the platform. You would enter the train to find your assigned seat indicated on a LCD screen next to your seat and the train would leave punctually. Your train would arrive on time and you’d exit the station to find yourself in the center of New York City or Washington DC to begin your day – only to return home in the same manner later that same day with time to spare. No need to travel to the airport, encounter traffic jams and security checkpoints, or put up with delays or cancellations due to weather conditions. The price of the ticket would be reasonable, as advanced automation and ‘smart system’ technologies would keep costs affordable while improving the safety of train operations.

In some parts of the world, this is not a distant or imaginary vision but already part of everyday life: people hop on a train, travel significant distances, and tend to their business conveniently, all within the same day. Most people know this is a major piece of the transportation landscape in China, Japan, Korea and Taiwan, and it’s also part of modernizing economies in places like Brazil and Qatar—places without a history of extensive rail experience, but which are pouring hundreds of millions of dollars into high-speed rail. Denmark and Dubai already feature driverless trains that operate with smart technology. Germany, France, Russia, and Turkey have all incorporated high speed rail features into their transportation systems.

The vision is compelling because high-speed rail can help merge key urban hubs in America, creating the possibility of a new type of megalopolis that other modes of transportation are unable to support – and will serve as a new foundation for growth in the future. In the Northeast region, it can enable one-day commutes in key hubs such as Boston, New York City, and Washington DC.  High-speed rail can harness the intellect, technology and ideas of Boston, the capital, financial resources and entrepreneurial spirits of New York, and the political power and energy of Washington DC.

In our 21st Century Knowledge Economy, it is the individuals and their ideas that are the key drivers of the growth. Good ideas add the most value—whether they are for a new service, product design, or episode of a popular TV series. Consider the iPhone, which Apple itself does not manufacture. All of its parts-processors, screens, RAMs, batteries, cameras, etc. are produced by other independent companies, but Apple, takes the largest slice of the profit – slightly less than 50 percent of the profit from selling an iPhone for its design, that is, for the idea of an iPhone. The important factor in this new economy is not the land, the factories, or the high-tech infrastructure and equipment, but innovative and creative ideas developed by people—people who still need face-to-face contact to maximize trust and collaboration. High speed-rail promises to bring these collaborative hubs or clusters closer together for even more convenient and powerful idea-sharing.

Historically, of course, linking urban hubs has been an important driver of the U.S. economy. Linking key intellectual, economic, and political centers has already led to new interactions, collaborations, products and services that have fueled our knowledge and information economy.  This builds on a great American tradition of bringing economic centers and assets closer together, beginning with canals (the Erie Canal being the most famous), the regional and transcontinental railways, and our visionary Interstate highway system some six decades ago.  Now is the time to consider a faster and more reliable mode of transportation that will link some of the most productive economic centers in the country for even more vigorous growth.

Imagine America with a couple of megalopolis, starting with the northeastern region of Boston, New York, and DC while in the west San Jose, LA, and San Francisco are merged into one economic zone. High-speed rail allows for ultra-quick travel, combined with punctuality in operation, relative freedom from weather elements, freedom from congestions, and its close proximity to city centers.

There is great pessimism in America about railroad travel after the rise of highway system along with its love for cars, relatively cheap gasoline prices, and competitive domestic air travel. However, the environment has now changed with significantly congested highways and airways. What was once an antiquated mode of travel has reinvented itself into a new form of transportation called high-speed rail.

Against the backdrop of this new global high speed rail culture, why is the U.S. a notable outlier? Why is it that the only American train that can hit a maximum speed of at least 150 miles per hour (the Acela)—the conventional definition of high speed rail—can do so only on a tiny 10 minute stretch of track in Rhode Island? And why hasn’t the most basic feature of smart technology—the Positive Train Control system that would have prevented the recent Amtrak train crash outside Philadelphia—still not been installed? How did the country that pioneered the universally admired Interstate highway system end up lagging so far behind so many countries? Especially when, in a 2010 poll, nearly 60 percent of Americans favored a major overhaul of the rail system and high-speed rail was favored over air travel among Democrats and Republicans alike?

The biggest impediment seems to be political will. We know the technology is there—we can see it in use all over the world. It is also true that high speed rail is most valuable in places where population growth and ridership would be high (relative to road or air travel) and the current low price of oil is not taken for granted. High-speed rail will only make economic sense when the right pieces are in place—which can include innovative public-private partnerships of the kind seen elsewhere in the world and in places like Texas, where plans are moving ahead slowly for a Fort Worth-Houston rail line. What is truly needed is vision, creativity, and leadership that will seize the opportunities that lie before American society in the several feasible economic corridors that now exist and are under active discussion–LA-San Francisco; Washington-Boston, Chicago-St. Louis-Milwaukee; Fort Worth-Houston, Miami-Orlando.

It’s time to step outside the inherent pessimism regarding railway travel and look at the possibilities that high-speed rail present to us. We need to talk about this in a nonpartisan manner as part of an American Rebuilding and Innovation agenda that sensibly addresses both our crumbling ‘old’ infrastructure and the foundation of a bold ‘new’ infrastructure.  Let the conversation begin.