An economic case for high speed rail in America: We, as Americans, tend to have an inherent belief that America is the greatest nation on earth. The metric used to arrive at this belief is typically not one based on stats, figures, or data, but on a sincere love for this country. While there is nothing wrong with loving one’s country, there is something inherently wrong with allowing love to blind us from the facts. Across a multitude of metrics, America falls short of the number one spot. Two of those metrics coincide both in reality and in the reason for this blog; green energy and high speed rail. When discussing the implementation of high speed rail in America there are two numbers to take into account: The roughly $2.2 trillion in infrastructure investments neededby America and the unemployment rate for October 2012, which was 7.9%.
Before explaining the need to initiate the implementation of high speed rail in America, we first must define the term itself. The definition of high speed rail varies in the international community and within the United States. The International Union of Railways defines it as systems of rolling stock and infrastructure which regularly operates at speeds of 155 mph on new tracks, while only at 125 mph on older tracks. In the United States the definition tends to vary, with the accepted minimum being 90 mph. A major argument that is used against the implementation of high speed rail in America is that the nation is too large and that it would be too costly. However, while a national high speed rail system would be the end goal decades down the line, it is not the main aim of high speed rail. High speed rail would be used as a viable option to connect “mega-regions” throughout the United States. Mega-regions are defined as large-scale economic units of multiple large cities and their surrounding suburbs. The mega-regions within the USA are responsible for over 75% of our economic activity. These mega-regions extend over vast areas, ranging from Boston to D.C. and from Pittsburg to Chicago. This writer can attest to the pains of driving from NYC to Washington D.C.
The economic opportunity provided by such decreased times is quite obvious at first glance. The most noticeable is Philadelphia becoming a suburb of NYC. It then would take me roughly five more minutes to travel to NYC by train while only living within fifteen miles of the city. Many will note that the Acela train, operated by Amtrak, already runs the north-east corridor route. The Acela, despite having limited speeds for most of its journey, as well as no dedicated track, can be deemed a success story. From 2000 to 2010, ticket revenues on the Acela line grew by 87%. Furthermore, despite only accounting for 10% of Amtrak’s ridership, the Acela line accounted for 25% of ticket revenue. It comes as no surprise then that Acela has the best revenue of any of the Amtrak lines. The success of the Acela line demonstrates both the restrained demand for high speed rail and its viability as a transportation system. Still, some question if high speed rail is worth it. Within the Stimulus, the Obama administration guaranteed money for the purpose of the creation of high speed rail. However, in several cases Republican governors refused the funds on ideological grounds. If we are to look back into history, what would we say to any governor who refused the interstate highway system? We would likely call that individual a fool and rightfully so. High speed rail has the opportunity to be the interstate highway system of the 21st century.
My final point is perhaps a bit existential, but nonetheless is one I feel must be addressed. I began this post discussing the notion of America being the greatest nation on earth. There is a bridge in Trenton, NJ with the following inscription: “WE MAKE IT, THE WORLD TAKES IT”. To those of my generation, this may seem somewhat ironic; however, this was not always the case. America is still a manufacturing superpower, but it has lost ground. Now we must approach this realistically and recognize that a great deal of our manufacturing success came from the devastation unleashed on the rest of the world during WW2. However, we must also recognize that the demise of American manufacturing is not solely due to the rise of the rest of the world. We celebrate the resurgence of the American auto industry and lament the reign on imports over the past several decades. Yet, we are never told that the manufacturing system that caused Japanese imports to dominate world markets was first offered to American manufactures. Our country turned it down and the rest is history. America’s dominance of the global economy has much to do with the timely decimation of others, but just as much to do with what we produce. When we look back on times of American prosperity, we find that it was the United States that was manufacturing the world’s most advanced technologies, while inventing many of them at the same time. At some point in time this all changed, and we have witnessed the decline ever since. We decry that supposedly all of our good are made in Mexico and China, yet we must recognize that most of those jobs are not coming back. This must be an accepted reality. If people are already frustrated at t-shirts and iPhones made in China, what happens when it’s our nation’s mass transportation system? Around the world millions of people are being pulled out of poverty and nations that were once written off are becoming some of the most economically developed in the world. Within a decade we will see an explosion of people in the middle income range around the world. High-speed rail has already proven to be a success in Europe, Japan, and China. No doubt others will seek to emulate this success. So where will they turn? The answer can be America, and this country will be able to solve a multitude of our other problems, such as unemployment. Americans tend to hold the attitude that if you are not first, then you are last. In the case of the hegemonic power of the 21st century, whoever dominates the green market will keep or gain that mantle.