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.
Associate Director and Senior Policy Analyst, Frontier Group
Tony Dutzik is associate director and senior policy analyst with Frontier Group. His research and ideas on climate, energy and transportation policy have helped shape public policy debates across the U.S., and have earned coverage in media outlets from the New York Times to National Public Radio. A former journalist, Tony lives and works in Boston.