By Emma Bailey
High-speed rail has served to better assist travelers in countries across Europe, Asia and South America for over half a century. Due to various circumstances, however, the technology never got its start in the United States. But that seems destined to change, in light of a recent agreement between XpressWest and China Railway International concerning a new high-speed link between Los Angeles and Las Vegas. At the same time, the state of California is also developing its own high-speed rail infrastructure between Los Angeles and San Francisco.
Yet there's a chance that these projects – and America’s interest in trains overall – will be consigned to oblivion if Elon Musk's Hyperloop concept is actually implemented in reality. Several firms, such as Hyperloop Transportation Technologies and the similarly-named Hyperloop Technologies, are already working hard to bring this “pipe dream” to fruition. If it actually ends up functioning as intended, Hyperloop travel will supersede even the most cost-effective high-speed rail plans.
High-speed and high-performance rail refers to a mode of transport that operates much like traditional train travel but at much higher speeds, often in excess of 100 miles per hour. The renowned Japanese Shinkansen, developed in the '60s, continues as the shining model of such a rail system. Other countries to have put similar infrastructure into operation as well -- France and South Korea perhaps most successfully. But today, China is the worldwide leader in this technology, having now built more miles of high-speed rail than any other country in the world.
Pundits often consider the United States to be too spread out and sparsely populated to make high-speed rail economical. Another reason for its failure to take hold is the widespread availability of cheap airplane and automobile travel. Some consider it a mark of shame that it took China, of all countries, to actually commit serious capital to the development of this technology in America. When we consider the reputation that some Chinese firms have received for their shoddy and unprofessional workmanship, we have to seriously question whether they can be trusted with critical infrastructure projects in the United States.
China Railway International is capitalizing its joint venture with XpressWest by funding it to the tune of $100 million. The company intends to start building the 230 miles of track required in 2016, which seems like an ambitious target, but many of the environmental impact studies and other preparatory filings have already been approved. Even if the companies do begin construction next year, the future of the undertaking is in limbo because the total costs are expected to run somewhere in the neighborhood of $5 billion, making the initial funds allocated to it seem miniscule.
There are no rail services currently operating in the United States with an average speed of 75 miles per hour or greater. Several routes could theoretically be traversed that rapidly, but for a variety of reasons, the trains only operate at a fraction of their top speeds. All Aboard Florida is a project under construction that would move passengers between Orlando, West Palm Beach and Miami at speeds of up to 125 miles per hour. The New Haven-Hartford-Springfield Rail Program is another such effort underway in Connecticut, and other attempts are either being made right now or on the drawing board across the nation.
The Hyperloop could bypass all of these endeavors and render them nugatory. A brainchild of Elon Musk, this mode of transport would seal passengers in compartments that would move inside sealed tubes at more than 500 miles per hour. Plenty of enthusiasts in the tech world foresee Hyperloops costing less to build and operate than high-speed rail lines, while being more convenient to use. Yet there are concerns around ride quality and the potential for catastrophic emergency failure, which lead realists to temper their excitement about this technology.
If either high-performance rail or Hyperloops become mainstream, the environmental benefits would be great. According to Alberta Energy, traditional oil- and gas-powered vehicles emit about 20 pounds of carbon dioxide per gallon of gas. If greater access to rail- or tube-based, high-speed transport could reduce the number of people reliant on cars, trucks, buses and airplanes to travel medium and long distances, the impact on overall carbon emissions would be significant.
Low-speed trains, subway cars, buses, airplanes and even trolley systems are just a few of the archaic and old-school means of public transportation that people use to get around these days. It's about time some people are trying to shake things up a bit in this space whether the innovations come from China or from the fevered imaginings of visionary billionaires. The United States is a 21st-century nation, and we deserve to do better than forms of mass transport designed 50, 100 or even more years ago.
Image credit: Pixabay
Emma Bailey is a freelance writer and blogger from the Midwest. After going to college in Florida she relocated to Chicago, where she now lives with a roommate and two rabbits. She primarily covers entertainment topics and issues pertaining to the environment. Find her on Twitter @Emma_Bailey90