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Is a Transcontinental High-Speed Rail System a Good Idea?

Updated: Mar 11, 2021

By Talia Chen

Image via NRDC

Fast-moving electric trains have only recently been installed in various places around the world. This technology, high-speed rails, is promising for future zero-emission transportation. In the environmental community, a lot of people suggest a transcontinental high-speed rail system as a potential alternative to current forms of transportation because high-speed rails don’t use fossil fuels. In particular, many see this as a possible replacement for planes. So how viable is this idea?

The big broad answer is that there are a lot of things to consider. For a transcontinental high-speed rail (from now on referred to as a HSR), certain logistics, materials, and a buttload of funding and local support are needed. This endeavor would not be one to take lightly. There is also the question of social benefit. To what degree would the transcontinental HSR relieve traffic congestion and offset greenhouse gas emissions? How many people would use it? Although there is value in a long-term investment towards a healthier climate, the system would preferably be able to produce a decent amount of revenue to help pay back its cost as well. At first glance, a transcontinental HSR system seems like a definitively better mode of transport. According to the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions and the EPA, transportation makes up 15% of gas emissions worldwide, a number that expands to 28% in a large country like the US. In the US, where big cities tend to be far apart, a speedy, low emissions train could be wonderfully convenient.

Image via The Guardian

First, we should clarify that an HSR is basically any train that moves very fast, maybe around 120+ mph. There’s no exact definition, but a congressional research study on HSR development stated that the European Union describes HSRs as separate lines built for speeds 155 mph, existing lines upgraded to 124 mph, or upgraded lines with restricted speeds due to topography/urban development. The same study said that for the U.S. government, the “FRA has defined high-speed rail as service ‘that is time-competitive with air and/or auto for travel markets in the approximate range of 100 to 500 miles.’ As FRA notes, this is a market-driven definition which recognizes that, in choosing a transportation mode, travelers are more interested in total trip time than in top speed, and that travelers evaluate transportation modes not in isolation, but by how those modes compare to each other.” The US Congress’s definition just changes a lot in terms of speed characteristics so we’re not going to go there. The study previously referenced establishes that “discussions of high-speed rail in the United States can refer to trains briefly reaching speeds of 90 mph on tracks shared with freight trains or trains traveling over 200 mph for sustained periods on dedicated tracks, or both.”

The beauty of a HSR is that it draws its power from electricity via overhead lines, which not only removes the need for burning fossil fuels but makes the train lighter because it doesn’t have to carry fuel with it. Lighter weight means the trains can start/stop faster and create less wear on the tracks. A French HSR built in 2007 even reached 357 mph, but don’t get too hyped because the top operating speed in most countries is 210 mph, since going at high speeds creates greater costs. There is also the possibility for HSRs that are powered by magnetic levitation, or maglevs for short (if there are any Lunar Chronicles fans out there, you know what I’m talking about). A technology developed in the 1960s, these HSRs would use superconducting magnets to float the train above the guide rail. Currently, HSRs stick with conventional steel wheels on steel rail technology. The lack of direct contact and friction allows the train to go faster because it’s suspended and propelled by the magnets. So, there are two ways to develop HSR systems. One is to build off of existing tracks and use conventional technology. These HSRs would be limited to 125 mph, the fastest a train can travel on diesel/electric locomotives. The more expensive option is to create the new tracks required for maglev trains, which would also be much faster. High-speed rail systems using dedicated tracks can handle a lot of trains at one time w/out danger, like the Japanese HSR network which started in 1964 and has trains going up to 200 mph with little as a 3 min headway (time in between trains on the same track) during peak hours. So far, there have been no fatalities.

Image via Asia Times

However, the signaling and communications system has to be more advanced if the speed increases. The US train system depends on dispatchers at central locations to track and signal to trains so if an operator messes up, a collision can occur. Very fast HSR networks use electronic train control systems (PTC for positive train control) which use communication systems, global positioning systems, on board computers with digitized maps, and a central control system to monitor and control train movement. This reduces human error and improves efficiency. PTC was to be implemented by 2015 in the Rail Safety Improvement Act of 2008, in all rail carriers carrying passengers or toxic materials on main lines. A very high-speed train could compete with aviation, a department that receives little funding from the general treasury in comparison to the funding required for pursuing the HSR network route. That’s the offside to any new variation of the rail system; it would cost a lot to build. Maglev is more expensive because a maglev train can’t operate over an existing rail so it would need a new one, hence why there’s little motive to further develop maglev technology. But HSRs have a good safety record and would make the transport system more reliable and provide more options for transportation.

Another downside is topography. The faster a train goes, the more smooth and straight its path has to be. Any sudden turns and twists or large changes in elevation at a high speed would be a huge safety hazard and would wear down the wheels/tracks. The HSR should also be relatively straightforward to avoid ecological disturbances. High speeds have to have smooth and straight tracks so there’s no extreme discomfort for passengers. For a train that’s meant to cover a lot of ground, sensitivity to rougher terrain is a potential flaw. The location of the tracks matters because some places are harder to build around. In addition, the faster the train goes, the more money it needs to be developed and maintained. Like any vehicle, higher speeds mean more dangerous collisions. HSRs have had pretty good track records, but the risk of crashing increases at crossings, so HSR tracks would have to avoid crossings when possible. This isn’t an issue with building off current tracks because avoiding crossings is already standard in most countries. It’s an obstacle in the case of building a new rail system from scratch.

One of the complications with HSR is that although they are much better for the environment, they tend to not be very financially appealing. HSR only produces revenue from passengers, who pay small fares for transport. Obviously, this is the case with all public transport, but HSRs are also more expensive to construct. Few HSR lines have earned enough to cover construction/operating costs even in dense populations. The most successful system is Japan’s, because it partially covers the length of the island, and conveniently runs through overpopulated areas. The Japanese HSR system is the only one that comes close to offsetting its construction/maintenance cost. A HSR in Taiwan almost went bankrupt before the government took it over. Many HSR lines have been proposed but few were actually built. In Shanghai, for example, a 19-mile long conventional track was built in 2004, but it’s so short that it’s hard to tell how cost-efficient it is. Some countries like Japan and Germany have been operating test tracks since the 70’s/80’s but have never gone commercial. China built the Shanghai line as a test and was making a HSR system, but a collision in 2011 killed 40 people, so they slowed down their pace.

Image via Japan-Guide

Now for funding. In the US, past federal funding for high-speed rails has focused on improving present lines. With such a large country, building new tracks would be incredibly pricey. The estimated costs of HSRs depend on how fast they would go, so costs are lower for just improving present tracks and higher for developing new tracks specifically for high-speed rail. But, those new tracks could allow trains to go 200 mph or more because they wouldn’t be affected by the limitations of the original tracks. Existing rails are shared with freight rails and trains could go faster with improved rails but not as fast as they would if new ones were built. The cost also goes up if the area’s topography is difficult in terms of mapping out a relatively flat and straight path for a HSR. Acquiring land and building tunnels when needed is predictably expensive. There are a lot of social benefits to take into consideration: less traffic, a healthier environment, travel efficiency, and economic development, but from a financial point of view, it’s hard to gauge whether the social benefits will offset the price. They would create around 100,000 job opportunities per year in planning and construction, a small economic benefit.

From the environmental perspective, it’s obvious that HSR technology should be implemented for the sake of our climate, but it doesn’t hurt to consider the logistics that would produce the best financial results as well. The cost can be split into 2 general areas: infrastructure costs (construction and maintenance) and operating costs (labor and fuel). Of all the high-speed routes in the world, only 2 have somewhat repaid their costs. Infrastructure costs depend on the site and the project, but the key determinants are whether a new or existing track is being developed, as well as the speed of the train. The cost of infrastructure as the speed increases goes up exponentially. For example, the DOT (department of transportation) inspector general found that reducing travel time between Washington D.C. and NYC, and NYC and Boston by a half hour would be $14 billion or $31 million per mile. Financial success also depends on ridership, which is hard to forecast. Benefits like improved mobility, less gas emissions, and using less energy are great, but the trains will only have a big impact if a lot of people switch to HSR as a main form of transport.

Another thing to consider is that very high-speed rails compete with aviation, which requires little funding from the general treasury in comparison to HSR. Investing in HSR is risky because it’s so expensive and there’s no concrete way to determine the benefits (all of them, not just environmental) of a HSR in comparison to other modes of transport,

I’m dedicating a whole other paragraph to the US and HSR because as usual, everything gets political over here. There are a few HSRs being developed, like Brightline going around Florida, XpressWest from Las Vegas to SoCal, and the Cascadia rail connecting major cities in Seattle, Washington, and Vancouver. However, the lack of long-term funding is problematic since it’s impossible to predict year-to-year changes in the budget. Congress has been interested in high-speed rail since the 1960s, and Obama was for it, but HSR development is still subject to politics because some political leaders oppose it too. Governors can just drop plans in their respective states, leaving HSR projects at the hands of whoever happens to be in office. Everywhere except California is just increasing speeds on existing tracks but California wants to build a new HSR that moves at 220 mph. As of 2013, the HSRs in the US didn’t pass 200 mph. So, like other countries, the US is moving forward with HSR, they just aren’t approaching anything near a transcontinental system. The HSR development study mentions that other than California, “Investments in five of the corridors are aimed at upgrading existing lines. These five corridors are Seattle-Portland; Chicago-St. Louis; Chicago-Detroit; the Northeast Corridor (NEC); and Charlotte-Washington, DC. In the sixth corridor, Los Angeles-San Francisco, the plans are to build a new very high-speed rail line that may allow trains to reach speeds of up to 220 mph. The remaining 15% or so of funding is going toward a multitude of smaller projects throughout the country, including planning studies and station and track improvements”. This suggests that a transcontinental plan would have to have everyone onboard with concrete funding, which would be a big shift. I wouldn’t be surprised if it was plausible in the near future, but it might not be as probable now.

The Los Angeles to San Francisco line is phase 1 and phase 2 adds San Diego and Sacramento. The funds were there but the cost almost doubled due to higher construction costs for the increased need for viaducts, tunnels, embankments, and retaining walls. Since the cost was raised, the plan now is to build a system with elements of both HSR and conventional rail. The project relies on the federal government for ⅔ of funding, which makes funding pretty uncertain since the budget often changes. The government hasn’t said they’d take long-term responsibility for funds, but a HSR project of this scale would go on for some time and would need stable funding. The full system California was going to do was $65.4-74.5 billion and the mixed one was $54.9-66.3 billion (in 2010 dollars so it would cost slightly more now due to inflation). The blended system is cheaper, at $7 million per mile as estimated in 2007. For further cost comparison, “In the 1990s Amtrak (and commuter railroads) spent around $2 billion—an average of around $9 million per mile, in 2003 dollars—to upgrade the 229-mile north end of the Northeast Corridor (connecting Boston to New York City), including electrifying the route and replacing a bridge. This reduced rail travel time between Boston and New York City from 4 hours to 3 hours and 24 minutes—an increase in average speed over the route from 57 mph to 68 mph.” The previously mentioned study adds that building new tracks means a much faster buyout of $35 million per mile and freight trains would have to be prohibited for safety since they move at slower speeds in comparison to passenger trains. Usually, this isn’t a problem because the FRA will limit speeds on routes with both freight and passenger traffic, but that would defeat the purpose of a HSR. So yeah, it’s pretty expensive to build new tracks, even for HSR projects that have stayed within the range of a few states at most. Congress approved $2.5 billion for HSRs in FY2010, the fiscal year budget plan, but have added nothing else since then and even rescinded $400 million a year later. Congress also established a promotional program in the ‘90s but hasn't advanced past the planning stage, even with funding. However, the current project to increase speeds in the Midwest, specifically around Chicago, would cost around $7.7 billion or $2.5 million per mile, which is good because the government accountability office reviewed projects costs to find that per mile costs are usually $4.1-11.4 million.

In consideration of the environmental factor, any HSR system would be good! However, there was a study on the environmental footprint of the Beijing-Tianjin line that showed that there is room for improvement in the construction of HSRs. It also acknowledges that overall, “Comprehensive environmental impacts assessment of HSR construction is still lacking”. Like everything else that plays a role in a transcontinental HSR, the eco-friendly factor is kind of vague. Sucks, doesn’t it? This study found that greenhouse gases, air pollutants, and water pollutants, and heavy metals were the four main pollutants to consider. The metal smelting and rolling industry emit a lot of SO2, and building bridges had the highest footprint. The production of tracks has to be improved and there needs to be more production efficiency for raw materials. The process of desulfurization and denigration of fossil combustion should be developed in industrial production/equipment operation. Pollutants emissions need to be controlled at a source, which can be achieved by selecting clean raw materials. As always, there’s room for increasing recycling and improving relevant technologies. For future reference/ HSR developments, the paper is one of multiple to propose a hybrid method of calculating environmental footprints of other HSR lines including operation and maintenance stages. Another study on the long term impact of HSRs in Italy attested that the external cost, meaning the environmental impact of the HSR, is “70% lower than that of a car and 59% less than that of the airplane”. More specifically, the “amount of CO2 saved for people traveling with the HSR service compared to the car and the airplane is about 700 thousand tons/year. 700 thousands of tons of CO2 are equivalent to the emissions related to the trips of a city of 1 million inhabitants, this means that with the HSR train the environment has saved the emissions produced in a year by a metropolis for urban journeys (e.g. Naples in Italy)”. HSRs are much nicer to the environment, but there’s still room for improvement in their construction.

Okay, let’s sum everything up and answer the question. The HSR is good for the environment and much safer, but it’s risky for taxpayers and private investors because not a lot of revenue will come out of it. That does depend on where the HSR is because it has to attract a lot of people in order to compete with airlines and other transport in order to make a big difference. Policies like one that raises gas prices could help with that, but that’s a whole other subject. A transcontinental system just isn’t as glamorous as it seems because it wouldn’t replace all planes, since the bulk of them are international, and it lacks financial appeal. There’s potential for social benefit but travel demand forecasts are needed to estimate social costs. A transcontinental HSR would be nice to have, but the slight relief it would provide in terms of emissions doesn’t make up for the amount of work required to get there. The more efficient route would be to build HSRs locally/between places with high traffic and improve automotive and airplane technology to be less detrimental to the earth. Investing in HSR is a less cost-effective climate policy than general policies like increasing fuel taxes, so creating policies that push people towards local HSRs would be better. A transcontinental HSR would be a much harder endeavor than developing zero-low emission aviation technology.

Written by writer Talia Chen

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