Are high-speed trains viable in the U.S.?

Written by admin on May 11, 2009 – 5:49 pm -

This month, Tripso’s guru Charlie Leocha, interviewed Karen Rae, the Federal Railroad Administration Acting Administrator. They discussed the proposed $8 billion initial investment that’s slated to bring high-speed train travel to the U.S. How wonderful and let’s hope it happens. But those funds won’t go very far. Constructing a countrywide rail system will take years and a huge amount of money.

High-speed has been discussed for years
The discussion of high-speed rail travel isn’t new. In 1989, the Morrison Knudsen Corporation proposed a train that would take less than 90 minutes between Houston and Dallas. The fantasy was dashed for myriad reasons. Ditto for a bullet train speeding up and down the northeast coast corridor. But, the concept is catching on gradually in certain areas of the US.

The Acela Express, inaugurated in 2000, created the long-awaited electrification of the Northeast Corridor linking Boston, New York, and Washington, D.C. Travel time from Boston and New York was reduced by up to 90 minutes.

It’s the nation’s first high-speed rail system, with the capability of traveling at 150 miles per hour. That means people can go from Boston to New York in 3 hours and 15 minutes. The time between New York and Washington, D.C. has been reduced to 2 hours and 28 minutes. It’s projected the time will be faster after new rails are installed and the infrastructure is upgraded.

If travelers are unanimous when it comes to anything, it’s that being able to go by train from one city to another and quickly is so much more preferable to going to an airport outside of the city, arrive at least 90 minutes before the flight is scheduled to leave, be subjected to the indignities of security (how many times can you take off your shoes and empty your pockets, briefcase, etc.,) fly to your destination, which may only take an hour and arrive there definitely the worse for wear and tear – not to mention, generally poorer after you factor in transportation costs to and from the airport.

Europe and Japan already have it
One gets spoiled living in Europe. Being able to take the Eurostar between London and Paris in 2 hours and 15 minutes. means you can travel between the two countries (don’t forget your passport) for the day. It gives people so much flexibility if there’s a special exhibit or something that strikes your fancy. There are weekend same-day fares that cost less than $100 (and make certain you check out the http://www.raileurope.com/index.html if you want to travel by train and see all of or certain parts of Europe. It’s no big deal.

Trains in the EU are clean and fast.  The TGV in France is a great way to go. Many people rent cars when they arrive at specific destinations so they may explore the area and get a look and feel of the countryside and not simply be confined to staying close to the train station. It takes only four hours on the Thalys to travel between Paris and Amsterdam. And those are just two destinations. Buying a “global pass” gives travelers access to 21 countries; people have extraordinary flexibility. Don’t expect to see exclusively the backpacker set. People of all ages have taken to the rails. Don’t overlook senior passes, couples passes and family passes.

Train travel is a great way to go and leaves the driving to someone else. One word of advice, pack picnics since food on trains isn’t cheap and is rarely tasty enough to merit the cost. Remember, when  captive, you’re at the supplier’s mercy. Bring your own bottle of wine, water and lots of soft drinks and juices if you’re traveling with children.

If you’ve taken the Japan’s Bullet train, you’d be a convert. They’re pristinely clean as well as being fast. Before boarding one, there are vendors selling foods of all types attractively boxed and ready to go and without having to wait.

The San Francisco train experience
I had to laugh when I read the following about high-speed train from a San Francisco Internet entrepreneur. Arnon Kohavi said,

I live in the United States of Slow Trains. My country is a little primitive and does not know that one can use electricity to run trains. Rather, it uses old diesel engines that pollute and are slow to accelerate.

My city, called San Francisco has three city trains: one is the BART that was built in the 1970s. It appears the carpets in the stations and the trains have not been updated since the train was inaugurated.

A second train, the MUNI, is probably the slowest train in the world. The third train, the Caltrans feels as if it belongs in a museum. I am told San Francisco actually has some of the best trains in the country. But the inhabitants, called commuters, seem to prefer big boxy trucks called SUVs, where one can store super sized cups with drinks in a nice cup holders.

Another interesting thing, in my city has no central train station. In order to go from here to other cities such as Chicago, I go to the SF train station that is actually a bus stop with a sign saying Amtrak. There, I’m ferried to Oakland that’s located on the other side of the bay. From there, I can take a train. Yes, my country is poor and undeveloped. But one day it will be rich and I will have a fast train. I will dream about it tonight.

Kohavi’s comments are amusing and definitely comprise more than a touch of reality.

Will we see high-speed rail? Will you use it?
My question is, do you think Americans will give up driving their own cars and opt for train travel? Many LA residents says they’d far prefer to train to Las Vegas in two hours than spending five hours driving each way.

I’ve questioned numerous people and would like to know what you think. First, would you opt to train it? Second, do you think you’ll see high-speed commuter options and cross-country train travel be available soon enough to have an impact on your daily life and travel planning? If you’re already commuting or traveling on super fast trains in the U.S., please post your experiences.

Karen Fawcett is president of BonjourParis.


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