As America moves toward construction of new high-speed rail networks in regions throughout the country, we have 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 the United States can expect from high-speed rail and how we can receive the greatest possible benefits from our investment.
Indeed, the experience of high-speed rail lines abroad, as well as America’s limited experience with high-speed rail on the East Coast, suggests that the United States can expect great benefits from investing in a high-speed passenger rail system, particularly if it makes steady commitments and designs the system wisely.
High-speed rail systems in other nations have been able to dramatically reduce the volume of short-haul flights between nearby cities and significantly reduce inter-city car travel. In the United States, similar shifts would ease congestion in the skies and offer alternatives to congested highways, reducing the need for expensive new investments in highways and airports. Short-haul plane trips are the least efficient in terms of time and fuel, and replacing those trips allows air travel to be more efficient and focused on long-haul trips. High-speed rail service has almost completely replaced 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.
- In Spain, high-speed rail service between Madrid and Seville reduced the share of travel by car between the two cities from 60 percent to 34 percent. The recent launch of high-speed rail service between Madrid and Barcelona has cut air travel on what was once one of the world’s busiest passenger air routes by one-third.
- Even in the northeastern United States, where Amtrak Acela Express service is slow by international standards, rail service accounts for 65 percent of the air/rail market on trips between New York and Washington, D.C., and 52 percent of the air/rail market on trips between Boston and New York.
High-speed rail saves energy and protects the environment. In the United States, 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 the United States, reliable service via high-speed rail could be an attractive alternative to oft-delayed intercity flights and travel on congested freeways.
- High-speed rail is safe – 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 reliable – 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. A U.S. high-speed rail system could help position the nation for economic success in the 21st century while creating short-term jobs in construction and long-term jobs in ongoing maintenance and operation.
- 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 has increased overall travel in corridors in Spain and France and the number of one-day business trips in South Korea. Increases in overall travel indicate that high-speed rail is having an impact on broader economic decisions and improves the chances that high-speed rail lines can recoup their overall costs.
- 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 the United States, a financially sustainable high-speed rail system will likely not require operating subsidies from taxpayers (although public funding is essential to getting the system up and running).
- 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 the United States, focusing new development around high-speed rail stations can reduce pressure to develop in far-flung areas, reducing other infrastructure costs such as for sewers and electricity. By creating new centers of commerce and activity, high-speed rail stations can create new opportunities for riders to travel 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.
- 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, the United States should follow through on its decision to invest in high-speed rail, while taking actions to maximize the benefits of that investment. Specifically, the United States should:
- Follow through on its decision to build a national high-speed rail system akin to the commitment to build the Interstate Highway System in the 1950s. Doing so will create thousands of jobs and position the United States 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, and planning for intensive commercial and residential development near stations.
- Make high-speed rail stations accessible to people using a variety of transportation modes, including automobiles, public transit, bicycling and walking. The United States 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. Freight and commuter rail services should be allowed access to high-speed rail lines, where possible and appropriate, in order to maximize the benefits of track improvements and ensure that high-speed services will complement, rather than duplicate, current rail services.
- Encourage private investment, but with strong public protections. Private contracts must make sense for the long-term public interest, not just act as a way to generate short-term infusions of cash. Public authorities must retain the right to make key decisions about the rail system, including fares and operations. Freight rail companies that receive publicly subsidized improvements in tracks and facilities they own should be required to ensure the access and reliability of passenger rail services that operate over those routes.
- Keep clear lines of accountability by establish clear criteria for funding all high-speed rail projects to ensure taxpayer money is focused on the most important projects. Priority funding should be given to projects that increase ridership potential, generate economic development, offer alternatives to congested airports and highways, and foster sustainable development in cities connected by high-speed rail.
- Guarantee transparency regarding how projects are evaluated, how decisions are made, and how funds are allocated and spent. Private partners should disclose at least as much information about their publicly subsidized operations as public entities.
- Make high-speed rail green by investing in energy-efficient equipment, powering the system with renewable energy wherever possible, and designing and building the system to deliver strong environmental benefits.
- Set technological standards for projects receiving federal funding to reduce the cost of high-speed rail, improve replicability of successful projects, and allow manufacturers to design for larger domestic markets.
- Encourage cooperation among states through federal funding policies that reward states that enter into and abide by compacts with neighboring states to conduct joint projects, synchronize route schedules, and coordinate response to operational problems.
- Encourage domestic manufacturing through federal policy that expands the capacity of American companies to produce high-speed rail systems and components by negotiating technology transfer agreements and investing in research and development over the long term.
- Articulate a vision for the future of America’s rail network and measure progress toward the achievement of that national vision. An ambitious but fully achievable and desirable goal would be to link all major cities within 500 miles of one another with high-speed rail by mid-century.
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.