Next Stop, California
The Benefits of High-Speed Rail Around the World and What's in Store for California

Executive Summary

As California moves toward construction of a new high-speed rail network, the state has much to learn from experiences abroad. High-speed rail lines have operated for more than 45 years in Japan and for three decades in Europe, providing a wealth of information about what California can expect from high-speed rail … and how it can receive the greatest possible benefits from its investment.

Indeed, the experience of high-speed rail lines abroad suggests that California can expect great benefits from investing in a high-speed passenger rail system, particularly if it makes wise choices in designing the system.

High-speed rail systems in other nations have dramatically reduced air travel and significantly reduced inter-city car travel. In California, similar results would ease congestion on the roads and in the skies and reduce the need for expensive new investments in highways and airports.High-speed rail service has virtually eliminated short-haul air service on several corridors in Europe, such as between Paris and Lyon, France, and between Cologne and Frankfurt, Germany.

  • The number of air passengers between London and Paris has been cut in half since high-speed rail service was initiated between the two cities through the Channel Tunnel.
  • The recent launch of high-speed rail service between Madrid and Barcelona, Spain, has cut air travel on what was once one of the world’s busiest passenger air routes by one-third.
  • Even in the northeastern U.S., where Amtrak Acela Express service is slow by international standards, rail service accounts for 62 percent of the air/rail market on trips between New York and Washington, D.C., and 47 percent of the air/rail market on trips between Boston and New York.
  • High-speed rail service between Madrid and Seville has reduced the share of travel by car between the two cities from 60 percent to 34 percent.

High-speed rail saves energy and protects the environment. In California, high-speed rail could cut our dependence on oil while helping to reduce air pollution and curb global warming.

  • Continual improvement– Japan’s Shinkansen system is estimated to use one quarter the energy of air travel or one-sixth the energy of automobile travel per passenger. The energy efficiency of Shinkansen trains has continually improved over time, such that today’s trains use nearly a third less energy, while traveling significantly faster, than the trains introduced in the mid-sixties.
  • More efficient – On Europe’s high-speed lines, a typical Monday morning business trip from London to Paris via high-speed rail uses approximately a third as much energy as a car or plane trip. Similar energy savings are achieved on other European high-speed rail lines.
  • Replacing oil with electricity makes zero emissions possible – Energy savings translate into reduced emissions of pollutants that cause global warming or respiratory problems – particularly when railroads power their trains with renewable energy. In Sweden, the country’s high-speed trains are powered entirely with renewable energy, cutting emissions of global warming pollutants by 99 percent.

High-speed rail is safe and reliable. In California, reliable service via high-speed rail could be an attractive alternative to oft-delayed intercity flights and travel on congested freeways.

  • There has never been a fatal accident on Japan’s Shinkansen high-speed rail system or during high-speed operation of TGV trains in France, despite carrying billions of passengers over the course of several decades.
  • High-speed rail is generally more reliable than air or car travel. The average delay on Japan’s Shinkansen system is 36 seconds. Spain’s railway operator offers a money-back guarantee if train-related delays exceed five minutes.

High-speed rail can create jobs and boost local economies. California’s high-speed rail system could help position the state for economic success in the 21st century while creating short-term jobs in construction.

  • Construction of high-speed rail lines creates thousands of temporary jobs. For example, about 8,000 people were involved in construction of the high-speed rail link between London and the Channel Tunnel.
  • Well-designed high-speed rail stations located in city centers spark economic development and encourage revitalization of urban areas:
    • A study of the Frankfurt-Cologne high-speed rail line in Germany estimated that areas surrounding two towns with new high-speed rail stations experienced a 2.7 percent increase in overall economic activity compared with the rest of the region.
    • Office space in the vicinity of high-speed rail stations in France and northern Europe generally fetches higher rents than in other parts of the same cities.
    • The city of Lyon experienced a 43 percent increase in the amount of office space near its high-speed rail station following the completion of a high-speed rail link to Paris.
    • Property values near stations on Japan’s Shinkansen network have been estimated to be 67 percent higher than property values further away.
    • Several cities have used high-speed rail as the catalyst for ambitious urban redevelopment efforts. The city of Lille, France, used its rail station as the core of a multi-use development that now accommodates 6,000 jobs. The new international high-speed rail terminal at London’s St. Pancras station is the centerpiece of a major redevelopment project that will add 1,800 residential units, as well as hotels, offices and cultural venues in the heart of London.
  • High-speed rail can expand labor markets and increase the potential for face-to-face interactions that create value in the growing “knowledge economy.” A British study projects that the construction of the nation’s first high-speed rail line will lead to more than $26 billion in net economic benefits over the next 60 years.

High-speed rail lines generally cover their operating costs with fare revenues. In California, a financially sustainable high-speed rail system would deliver on the promise made to voters in Proposition 1A that the system will not require operating subsidies from taxpayers.

  • High-speed rail service generates enough operating profit that it can subsidize other, less-profitable intercity rail lines in countries such as France and Spain, as well as in the U.S. Northeast.
  • Two high-speed rail lines – the French TGV line between Paris and Lyon and the original Japanese Shinkansen line from Tokyo to Osaka – have covered their initial costs of construction through fares.

Properly planned high-speed rail can encourage sustainable land-use and development patterns. In California, focusing new development around high-speed rail stations can reduce pressure to develop in outlying areas, create new centers of commerce and activity, and enable riders to access high-speed rail stations by public transportation, by bike, or on foot.

  • Cities throughout Europe have paired the arrival of high-speed rail with expansion of local public transportation options – in some cases, using new high-speed rail lines to bolster local commuter rail service.
  • By putting stations in smart locations and providing transit connections, high-speed rail can encourage greater  shifts in development patterns and transportation choices.
  • Proper land-use policies in areas that receive high-speed rail stations, coupled with effective development of station areas, can ensure that high-speed rail does not fuel new sprawl.

To obtain the economic and transportation benefits experienced by other nations, California should follow through on its decision to invest in high-speed rail, while taking actions to maximize the benefits of that investment. Specifically, California should:

  • Follow through on its commitment to build the California high-speed rail system, creating thousands of jobs and positioning the state to meet the economic, transportation, energy and environmental challenges of the next century.
  • Use high-speed rail to focus future development by locating stations in city centers, planning for intensive commercial and residential development near stations, and requiring communities receiving high-speed rail stations to adopt land-use and development plans that discourage sprawl.
  • Make high-speed rail stations accessible to people using a variety of transportation modes, including automobiles, public transit, bicycling and walking. California should follow the lead of other nations and pair high-speed rail with expansion of local transit networks.
  • Integrate high-speed rail with improvements to commuter and freight rail, and provide convenient rail connections to airports, ensuring that the investment California makes in high-speed rail delivers benefits to a wide variety of commuters, travelers and businesses.
  • Keep clear lines of accountability by maintaining the independence of the High-Speed Rail Authority, while ensuring strict budget discipline and spending transparency through strong oversight and public disclosure of the authority’s expenses.
  • Improve lines of communication between the High-Speed Rail Authority and local governments and communities.
  • Make high-speed rail green by investing in energy-efficient equipment, powering the system with renewable energy, and designing and building the system in such a way as to maximize environmental benefits.