A new ranking of high-speed rail networks from GoEuro, a travel search engine, puts the U.S. 19th out of the 20 countries assessed. According to the survey, the U.S. ranks below Turkey and Uzbekistan. Like all surveys, this one may have some flaws in its methodology. It emphasizes the percentage of the population that has access to high-speed rail travel in each country, which makes sense. High-speed rail isn’t much help if most people can’t use it. By that measure, the US ranked next to last of the 20 countries in the survey. Only 3.7% of Americans have access to high-speed rail service.
But the second criteria is the maximum speed possible on a country’s trains. That factor is far less relevant than the number of trains within a country that offer high-speed rail service. Grist argues that it is far more beneficial to have 10 trains that are capable of travelling at 150 mph than one train that can go 250 mph.
By rights, the US shouldn’t have been in the survey at all. High-speed rail is defined as being capable of speeds of 150 mph or more. Only a tiny portion of the Northeast rail corridor between Boston and Washington, DC, is capable of such speeds. People in China can travel from Beijing to Shanghai — a distance of 819 miles — in 5 hours. Taking Amtrak roughly the same distance along the East Coast of the U.S. from New York to Charleston, S.C., takes more than 13 hours. That is assuming the train is on time, which it seldom is.
High-speed rail leaders Japan, South Korea, China, and France are ranked as the top four nations. Spain, which is persistently economically troubled, ranks fifth. None of these countries has as high a GDP per capita as the U.S., so the problem in America isn’t lack of resources, it’s a lack of political will.
“After a half century of neglect, America now has a railroad system that the Bolivians would be ashamed of,” wrote James Howard Kunstler, in 2006. “There isn’t another project we could do that would have a greater impact on our oil consumption than fixing our rail system and restoring passenger service.” Ten years later, little has changed. Republicans in Congress have become virulently opposed to funding high-speed rail projects, preferring to divert funds from the national treasury to help pad the pockets of their friends in the oil business and sell arms to our friends and enemies alike.
In a day when air travel has become about as pleasant as a colonoscopy, a modern high-speed rail system would attract millions of riders. Airplanes are some of the worst polluters on the planet. Not only do they burn millions of gallons of fossil fuels every day, the inject their carbon dioxide emissions high in the atmosphere where they have little chance of being absorbed by the earth. High-speed rail could be an important part our national plan to reduce carbon emissions across the United States.
Photo Credit: Germán Saavedra Rojas, Some Rights Reserved