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Is High-Speed Train Travel Worth the Investment?

Words by 3p Contributor
Leadership & Transparency
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By Holly Whitman

High-speed trains are becoming increasingly prolific throughout the world, and for good reason. Ask the people of Japan, China, France or elsewhere in Europe what life would be like without their fast, convenient trains. They’d shudder to think of the old days, where slow trains or even slower buses were the only way to get from point A to point B.

The short travel times are just one of the reasons behind the growth of high-speed trains. A less-noticeable benefit is the positive impact these trains have on the environment. While high-speed train lines may have a detrimental effect on the land they’re built on, the trains can lower carbon emissions, assuming ridership gets up to a certain level.

While high-speed train tickets are often quite expensive — in China and Europe, flights are often comparatively priced — people from all over the world are more than willing to pay for the convenience of avoiding traffic jams and airport security lines.

For example, ridership on China’s high-speed rail network has grown from 237,000 in its inaugural year of 2007 to 2.5 million passengers in 2014. China has more high-speed train line railways than the rest of the world combined, and has since 2012. There are no signs of slowing down, as China hopes to link much of its vast country.

With all the pros of high-speed trains, from fast travel times to limiting pollution, people often wonder why they aren’t even more widespread. There’s often talk of bringing such lines to the U.S., but America still doesn't have a single high-speed train line. The main reason is because of money, as the real debate is whether the enormous investment required to build a line is worth the effort.

The high cost in France


Building up a high-speed train infrastructure is far from cheap. France’s TGV service, which links France to its neighboring countries at speeds of 200 mph, has been in existence since 1980. While the service enjoys millions of riders and is a source of national pride, future expansion of the line is a struggle.

It’s estimated that future lines would cost 16 million to 27 million euros per kilometer. That steep price is enough to give any politician or taxpayer pause. As popular as the service is, total ridership is stagnating due to the economic troubles in Europe. In order to become profitable once again, a government report states fewer stations will need to be served in the future.

China’s success


China, however, is going full-speed ahead with its aggressive expansion plans. The country has never been shy about investing enormous sums in infrastructure. And its investment in high-speed lines proved to be a good decision. The critical line between Shanghai and Beijing posted its first annual profit in 2014.

That success likely won’t be replicated in other routes between less-populated cities, but the rising number of passengers and the vastness of the country prove how high-speed lines can be a success.

Environmental impact


While the money behind high-speed trains is far from guaranteed, the positive environmental effects of this form of transportation are evident. The most important thing for trains to become environmentally friendly is to reach a critical mass of riders. That number is different for every line, but if enough regular riders can be attracted, then the carbon emissions caused by the construction of the line can be completely offset.

Discovering that “sweet spot” of riders needed to offset environmental damage can be the hard part. The U.S. is estimated to need 10 million annual riders to make a positive impact if high-speed lines were ever constructed. Some planners say that could easily be attained, but who knows for certain?

While the environmental effects are quantifiable, some researchers say that marketing a high-speed line as a solution to global warming would be wrong, as time savings and less traffic are the main benefits.

False starts


The U.S. has been closely monitoring both the successes and failures of high-speed lines throughout the world. There’s no doubt that America’s existing rail services lag behind many developed countries, which is why many people — including President Barack Obama — want to make high-speed trains a priority.

The interest in moving people off the roads and into trains makes a lot of sense. Even with 83,000-plus miles of roads in the U.S., congestion and traffic jams are common.

California has made the most progress in constructing America’s first high-speed line, yet the project remains mired in setbacks, delays and high costs. The California High-Speed Rail Authority dates back to 1996, but the first construction phase isn’t scheduled for completion until 2029. There are serious doubts as to whether the project will ever be completed.

The Northeast Corridor, which connects major cities from Boston to Washington, D.C., probably makes the most sense for a line, as most of the country’s train riders are in this region. While there are plans to bring high-speed lines to this route, some argue that the priority should be on repairing existing lines.

A long wait for high-speed trains


None of this bodes too well for high-speed rail in the U.S. The investment required is high, but other countries have proven how to make it pay off if properly planned and implemented. Our nation has yet to figure out the equation.

Image credit: Charles Forerunner via Unsplash

Holly Whitman is a writer and journalist tackling global issues from environmental problems to human rights. You can find her on Twitter at @hollykwhitman or her blog, Only Slightly Biased.

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