Information icon.svg Consider taking the RationalWiki Community Survey 2017 or see the results.
Bronze-level article

High speed rail

From RationalWiki
(Redirected from High-speed rail)
Jump to: navigation, search
Guide to:
U.S. Politics
Icon politics USA.svg
Hail to the Chief?
Persons of interest

High speed rail (HSR) uses trains running on steel wheels and steel rails at speeds greater than the "legacy network" is capable of. It usually involves electrified and double tracked standard gauge (1435mm) tracks even in countries where neither is the rule. As it is quite expensive to build, hardly any lines have been built through private investment alone and none exist in the Americas outside the Northeast corridor, which itself only barely even meets a generous definition of HSR.

Definition of HSR[edit]

While there is no single authoritative definition of HSRWikipedia's W.svg and it is (especially in the US) often conflated with the even fuzzier concept of "higher speed rail",Wikipedia's W.svg European and East Asian countries mostly agree that sustained speeds above 200 km/h on upgraded legacy lines and in excess of 250 km/h on purpose built lines are the lower boundary for HSR.[1] One thing to keep an eye on is whether lines touted as HSR only briefly achieves their stated top speed, but generally run at much lower speeds (as is the case in many upgraded legacy lines), or whether, as seen in dedicated HSR systems (e.g. the Shinkansen or TGV), they generally operate at speeds well beyond 200 km/h.
a slow choo-choo train to nowhere
To achieve the latter, it's typically necessary for (dedicated) HSR to have relatively widely spaced stops (compared with more traditional rail systems) as the time needed to reach and brake from high speeds mandates long, straight, dedicated rail systems with distant stations (or a few clusters of stations followed by a long, uninterrupted journey). In reaping the benefits of HSR, journey time is important with a rule of thumb being that an inter-city journey time of around three and a half hours or less is the "tipping point" when rail begins to overtake regional flights in market share.[2][3][4][5][6]

Why does HSR need a new set of tracks?[edit]

Counter-intuitive as it may seem, High speed rail is often cheaper to build on entirely new alignment and exclusively for high speed passenger operation (i.e. separated from freight and regional/commuter rail). This has several reasons. First of all the requirements of HSR and freight are almost exactly opposite. While trains going at 300 km/h have to have tracks as straight as possible (with curve radii in the range of 7 kilometers and more), slow freight trains can take a curvy route at the same slow speed as a straight one. On the other hand high speed trains can climb rather steep slopes, as they by definition combine powerful engines and a low overall mass. The newest generation German ICE for example is able to climb a 4% incline at full 300km/h which is quite some feat, considering rail traditionally measures steepness in per mille (parts per thousand). A freight train which is - almost by definition - rather heavy and pulled only by one or two locomotives for several tens or even hundreds of cars, cannot even begin to climb steep slopes and the solutions that have been found (more locomotives, external engines pushing or pulling) for this problem all cost either time or money - two things transportation can ill afford to lose. Thus when going over a mountain or through a valley there are only three possibilities: Take the curvy route (which means trains can't run at high speeds) take the steep route (which means freight trains can't take it) or build a ton of bridges and tunnels (which can get expensive really fast). Most new HSR lines are built with that in mind and thus exclude freight already in the planning stage.[citation needed] A further reason why freight and HSR rarely share tracks, is that it greatly lowers capacity. [7] Lower capacity of course means fewer trains, and fewer trains means less money for the company running the trains which in turn either makes tickets more expensive or threatens the financial viability of the whole project. Thus low speed and High speed operations have to be separated either geographically (through new sets of tracks) or temporarily (through freight running at night or in off peak hours and high speed trains running in the remaining parts of the day). Finally in most countries where HSR was built, the existing tracks were already congested and could not handle the (projected) increases in rail traffic. Thus building on a entirely new alignment with mostly greenfield/brownfield development was a rather easy conclusion. In a sense this is even true for the US as the freight railroads run most of their lines at capacity and are loath to share tracks with Amtrak already. This is unlikely to change if passenger trains start running at 200 mph instead of 79 mph.

Countries that have HSR[edit]

  • China - while China had virtually no HSR lines at the beginning of the 21st century, it has built a lot in recent years. Ever since the profits of several Chinese airlines have been plummeting and hardly any airline offers flights directly competing with HSR.[8]
  • France - when the first lines opened in the 1980s they were the pride of their nation. The TGV has put several air routes out of business and severely decongested airports and highways.
  • Japan had the first system and in fact had to build an entirely separate system as legacy trains ran on a different gauge - All Japanese HSR lines are now privatized and operate at a huge profit.
  • Germany - The ICE (Inter City Express, originally Inter City Experimental) had its first trial runs in the late 1980s and started revenue service in the 1990s. After a line opened connecting Frankfurt and Cologne all flights between the two airports ceased. The first train to run faster than 200 km/h (albeit barely) in trial runs on an electrified line ran in Germany in 1903[9]. This was followed up in the early 1930s by regular express trains going at 160 km/h with travel times comparable or even better than some modern HSR, e.g. the Acela. The Berlin-Dresden route in fact had faster scheduled service in 1937 than it has in 2015.
A Spanish AVE class 103 (Velaro E) on the Barcelona-Figueres High speed line
  • Spain - the AVE (Alta Velocidad Española) only started running in 1992 and didn't gain steam until quite recently. Since the Barcelona-Madrid route opened for business, air travel has declined steadily along that route. Even longer routes like Sevilla-Madrid or Sevilla-Barcelona have seen rising train ridership and falling passenger numbers on the airlines[10]
  • The Netherlands - and everybody smokes pot on the trains[citation NOT needed]
  • Belgium - Yes, you are reading that right; the greatest country on earth got beat by a place most people can't find on a map. In fact, Belgium has four different HSR routes.
  • Taiwan - one North-South line connects Taipei with Kaohsiung along the West Coast. With trains taking just over one and a half hours for the entire route, domestic flights have disappeared overnight.
  • South Korea - The Seoul-Busan corridor used to be one of the busiest roadways in the world. Now it is one of the most popular HSR routes in the world.
  • Morocco - This African country is building a HSR system with mostly French money and technology
  • Russia - unlike all other countries on this list Russia's HSR runs on Russian broad gauge instead of standard gauge and the currently only line connects St. Petersburg and Moscow along an almost perfectly straight line.
  • Italy - Italy has an interesting history of high(er) speed rail, with the PendolinoWikipedia's W.svg tilting train[11] technology their most successful technology export on rails.
  • The US only has a few short stretches along the Northeast Corridor where the Acela Express reaches more than 125 mph (200km/h), the lower boundary for HSR on upgraded legacy lines according to most definitions. This is mostly due to the sorry state the tracks are in (some overhead wires date to the presidency of FDR). There are currently different projects to construct new HSR systems from scratch, the most ambitious of which is certainly the one in CaliforniaWikipedia's W.svg. However, private companies are also getting into the game in TexasWikipedia's W.svg and - arguably - FloridaWikipedia's W.svg. Of course NIMBYs and wingnuts are fighting it as if their lives or livelihood depended on it. And for some reason their jobs might well do.
  • England is the only part of the UK with a dedicated HSR line (with operating speeds well in excess of 200 km/h), a short purpose-built stretch connecting London to the Channel Tunnel and the Belgian and French HSR systems. In addition, a number of UK legacy lines have been upgraded to allow maximum speeds of just above 200 km/h, operating speeds rarely reach the peak and are sometimes classed as higher-speed rail,Wikipedia's W.svg rather than true HSR.Wikipedia's W.svg

Attempts to get HSR for the US[edit]

compare this
to this
or this
American conservativsm is about protecting a suburban, small government status quo[12] — a status quo that is dependent on oil. As far back as the Lyndon Johnson administration, American presidents have advocated HSR, but all have failed in the face of the car lobby and anti-train Republicans. An attempt made by Bill Clinton quickly fizzled out, mostly thanks to Southwest Airlines lobbying. Indeed, one of the most common criticisms of HSR is that we already have Southwest Air.[13]

A track made of greased palms[edit]

A HSR project in California was approved by voters in 2008, after governor Jerry Brown first proposed it at the end of his second term in the 1980s (Brown is one of the biggest proponents of HSR in the state). It's immediately obvious why California needs HSR for two reasons: increasing highway congestion, and because most major arteries cannot be widened.[14] The money they already pour into road maintenance is huge.

If you're reading this in America, prepare to be embarrassed: The San Francisco line won't be completed until 2029[15] – and that's being optimistic. Almost every high speed rail line in the world has overrun its cost projections and timeline; considering it's quite the monumental feat for one state to build, it's not that surprising. Also, unlike say, Japan, once you get to your destination (unless it is downtown LA or the Bay Area) it is very difficult to get around without a car - a problem you might know from airports. A complete system, with high-speed links between cities and fleshed-out subway, tram and bus systems within cities, is essential to getting public transit to work. The current rail system is vastly underused by the majority of Californians. It's a chicken and an egg problem that California hasn't yet sorted out.[16]

Its success or failure could shape American transportation policy for decades to come; on the opposition side, you have chuckleheads like Elon Musk declaring that driverless cars will make HSR obsolete.[17]

We're on a High-speed rail to Hell[edit]

It's like the equivalent of putting the Berlin Wall down the middle of Ellis County. It's just an immovable project.
—Carma Sullivan,[18] HSR opponent

Plans for introducing HSR into the Lone Star State have stalled since the 1980's. Venture capitalists, foreign investors, private firms — all of them were driven out by landowners who opposed the carpetbaggers urbanization of the state.[13]

There was a plan for Amtrak direct from Dallas-Houston, but that was driven into the ground 5 years ago. Union Pacific demanded that the new set of Amtrak-exclusive tracks be 40 feet away from the existing tracks, which is damn near impossible. Their inability to negotiate and provide practical solutions is the reason why you can't take a train from Dallas to Houston, and now from San Antonio to Georgetown.

As of late, a former Bush administration official (irony) is trying to sell them on a bullet train linking Dallas and Houston.[19] This entire line pits Dallas and Houston vs. the rest of the state. There have been two bills to kill it: the first bill was introduced by Byron Cook. He represents rural counties it would pass through (Navarro, Freestone). The second was introduced by John Wray, who represents Ellis County—not unsurprisingly a rural county boardering Dallas County through which the line would run. These are men with actual constituent interest in killing the line.

The auto manufacturers don't care much: the increase in car rentals offsets the losses. Even Southwest Airlines is playing a "wait and see" game with the new corridor;[20] Southwest is diversifying right now because they're no longer bound to schlepping people between Houston and Dallas. Oil execs tend to think big picture. You've got to think small-picture (car dealers and convenience store owners) to get this particular mix of obstinate and short-sighted. The majority of the state won't benefit from the line, and the rural guys refuse to cash out.

President Obama made HSR a part of his stimulus package, and despite overwhelming popular support for HSR in Florida[21], Wisconsin and Ohio, wingnut governors in all three states preferred to let the federal dollars go down the drain because building HSR would have been a victory for Obama.[22] However, this didn't stop Scott Walker from requesting more funds for the extremely popular Hiawatha Service connecting Chicago and Milwaukee.[23]

Arguments in favor of HSR[edit]

As anybody who has ever been to Europe or Japan can tell you, HSR is fast, clean, convenient and makes little noise (especially compared to planes and cars). It usually runs on electricity that can be produced locally as opposed to imported oil. Further advantages:

  • While airports are often in the middle of nowhere, HSR stations are usually downtown.[24]
  • There is time to work, sleep or relax throughout the trip, as opposed to the "hurry up and wait" on flights or the constant attention to the road required while driving.
  • HSR systems, once built, usually earn money, in stark contrast to most airports and highways that require constant government subsidy.[25][26][27]
  • Cities with stops on HSR lines attract innovation and business by offering better access and cutting down on travel time. In all countries with HSR, connected cities have experienced above average growth
  • Most HSR systems are (in the long run) cheaper for end consumers than flights.
  • Those countries that built the first (Japan, France, Germany) or most extensive (China) HSR networks are usually among the first to supply rolling stock to new HSR networks.[28] Thus train manufacturers profit from the good reputation of the domestic HSR network[29]
  • Trains beat all other modes of non-human-powered transport hands down in terms of efficiency. The Velaro D for example draws 8000 kW at 320 km/h top speed while seating 460. Which works out to the equivalent of a third of a liter of gas per seat per 100 km.[30][31]
  • From a business standpoint, HSR benefits the companies running the trains as faster trains take less time to cover the same distance and thus can earn more money per given unit of time. Combine this with a faster turnaround than legacy trains and you have a business model not unlike no-frills airlines, who "squeeze out" as many flights of their fleet as humanly possible thus distributing the (high) fixed costs over as large a number of trips as they possibly can.
  • There's no need to go through ridiculous security theater to board a train, as you do to board a plane.

Wingnut arguments against HSR[edit]

  • NIMBY.[32] No matter where you propose to build an HSR route in the United States, the people who live near it are guaranteed to freak out and insist that their land will depreciate.[33]
  • HSR requires a huge upfront investment (just like highways built from scratch) and as such it is "socialist."[34][35]
  • The upfront investment takes a lot of time in being paid for through the money HSR earns - a strange argument considering highways never pay for themselves.[citation needed]
  • China has it. And Europe. Therefore it is bad[12][36] (because we no longer have the USSR to blame things on).
  • Apparently cars symbolize FREEDOM™, while HSR is the epitome of socialism. [37]
  • High Speed Rail is elitist.[38] - As opposed to planes? Also, since when do wingnuts care about "common folk"?
  • In some places (e.g. Australia) the market is so grossly distorted that it is cheaper to send freight by road. (Australia moved away from using rail because of bandits.) Taxpayers bear the cost of the increased damage to roads and higher fatalities to send freight via a less-efficient and more costly method. The toll operators have some pretty slick representation, too.

Actual arguments against HSR[edit]

  • Eminent domain. It displaces relatively few people when building a track through farmland, but to upgrade the tracks in urban areas where passengers actually are would require that a large number of buildings be demolished and people displaced, which can get expensive really fast.

And, umm, that's about it, really.


  2. Page 11 of the PDF
  4. Page 24 of the PDF
  5. Der Spiegel arguing that 4 hours is too long but three hours is competitive
  6. page 13 and onwards
  7. Just imagine sitting behind a truck going 50 km/h an hour on the interstate - with no possibility to overtake for miles on end - to illustrate the point.
  9. see here for a bit more detail
  11. A tilting train can go into curves faster - just like a motorcyclist who leans into a curve. This brings obvious benefits on curvy legacy tracks - though "trainsickness" due to the movement of the train is one obvious downside
  12. 12.0 12.1 Megan McArdle: "Why the U.S. Will Not Get China's High Speed Rail", The Atlantic. ("...But viewed in another way, our slow rail network is the price for a lot of great things about America!")
  13. 13.0 13.1 Aman Batheja, Texas Tries to Build a Bullet Train, Yet Again", Texas Tribune.
  14. Robrt Cruickshank, "CA Chamber of Commerce Out to Lunch on Congestion Mitigation", CHSR Blog.
  15. CalTrain Modernization Program.
  16. Chris Knight, "California's High-Speed Rail Realities".
  17. Matt Johnson, "Musk's Hyperloop Math Doesn't Add Up". Hey, Tesla should ditch their car stuff, and we should wait for transporters! Star Trek showed us it was possible, and that had as much science behind it as the hyperloop.
  18. Tanya Eiserer, "Communities on route to Houston oppose high-speed rail", ABC.
  19. Amy Crawford, "The Big Texas Plan to Copy Japan's High-Speed Rail Success", The Atlantic.
  20. Eric Jaffe, "Southwest Airlines Hasn't Decided Whether or Not to Oppose Texas High-Speed Rail", Atlantic.
  21. In Florida there even was a state constitution amendment that mandated HSR for the state, which was repealed on the initiative of one certain Jeb Bush...
  22. William C. Vantuono, "Did Republicans kill America’s high speed rail plan?", Railway Age.
  23. Larry Sandler and Tom Held, "State seeks money for Hiawatha upgrade" , Milwaukee-Wisconsin Journal Sentinel. (Walker: ""This is not inconsistent with the position I took in the past")
  27. note: Even the woefully inadequate Acela ExpressWikipedia's W.svg that only scratches the definition of HSR makes a handsome profit that more than pays for maintenance and operating cost
  28. The German built "VelaroWikipedia's W.svg" runs on Russian, Spanish, Chinese and Turkish rails; TGV based trains run in Korea and the US; Taiwan and China bought a couple of (slightly modified) Shinkansens when they opened their networks; China is building HSR left and right and selling the trains with it
  31. (the tagline of the last image)
  32. Cruickshank, "Private Ownership Doesn’t Spare Florida Higher Speed Rail From NIMBYs", CHSR Blog. ("Residents who believe that their cities should be oriented around the automobile react with furious anger at the very notion of passenger rail service, convinced it will turn their neighborhoods into some kind of ruined wasteland.")
  33. Ayn Rand loved trains. Libertarians don't.
  34. The Left's High-Speed Rail Fantasy, The Daily Signal (the Heritage Foundation's bullhorn), March 17, 2009.
  35. Clown Car Meets Train Crash: Left Uses Amtrak Derailment to Advance Socialist Agenda,PJ Media, May 13, 2015
  36. The Association of Public Transport in America (APTA) felt it necessary to counter both the "European" and "socialist" objections on page 5 of An Inventory of the Criticisms of High-Speed Rail while China pops up on page 7 and 21.
  37. As explained by the Very Serious pundit George Will in Newsweek
  38. Simon Jenkins, "High-speed rail will bleed us all for a few rich travellers", The Guardian.