Beating a path to high-speed rail’s front door – a feeder-rail path, that is!

Twenty days have passed since the historic and symbolic high-speed-rail groundbreaking (rail-signing, actually), and I realize that the completion of the building phase of America’s first bullet-train project is years away, but I can’t help but wonder even this early on how when the system is up and running, it will impact the California cities it will serve and traverse.

Never having before ridden a high-speed train, I have no idea what traveling on one is like. With regard to the Golden State’s system, not all online cities will have stations. My understanding is that there will be between 24 and 26 stations statewide in all.

Being California’s will be an American first, it is understandable that many people would be unsure about what all building a high-speed rail line will entail. That said, expected should be concerns like what effect high speeds and train noise will have on cities and on those who will live and work nearby where trains will be zipping by. These issues, I trust, will no doubt be addressed like, for example, as in employing noise-dampening sound walls to help muffle train din. Then there are the more atypical concerns, such as what effect trains will have on local traffic and, in turn, what effect that will have on area air quality.

For any high-speed-train-served city, imagine an onrush of cars (and buses) descending on the passenger rail station in question competing for limited roadway and parking space, drivers scurrying about weaving in and out of traffic and around pedestrians in search of that hard-to-get-to spot to drop off or pick up high-speed passenger-train patrons. Conditions could potentially be too much to bear.

This is why I believe it is imperative to plan effectively in the here and now as a means to address expected “down-the-road” problems later on.

Good for cities already having plans in place to deal with these and other issues. Those that don’t, well, I would ask why and for what are they waiting.

One good train deserves another

320px-Acela_Express_and_Metro-North_railcar[1]The most attractive aspect of train travel is its ability to get patrons to destinations sans the hassle often associated with roadway travel. Moreover, save for marine vessels, trains are always given the right-of-way, yielded to by others and those attributes are what give trains an advantage.

To not capitalize on this advantage and employ trains in the urban and suburban settings to feed or shuttle riders to and from centrally located bullet-train depots, well, that, to me, is a missed opportunity. What I’m alluding to here are feeder-rail services.

So, how, exactly, does feeder-rail function? Easy. Tracks lain from outlying areas connect to high-speed train stations. Located along the lines and in between are stations to receive and discharge even greater numbers of passengers and such stations provide added accessibility to a broader population base. All outlying stations would have ample parking provisions so that vehicles could be left onsite and provisions for drop-offs and pick-ups could be facilitated with relative ease. Not a new concept by any means, but it does work and works well.

Those motorists and their passengers still insisting on motoring it to and from the main bullet-train stations directly could still do so; that option would still be available. But, by virtue of feeder-rail trains getting presumably significant numbers of passengers to and from center-city high-speed train stations, the result would be less automobile traffic descending upon and overwhelming roads in and around the latter stations in question.

And, what’s more, transit buses, taxis or car-sharing services could be utilized to transport those who prefer to have their main mobility needs met by urban feeder rail, whether they are headed to the main high-speed train stations or to other around-town locations along the line. All modes involved would articulate well with each other, the buses, taxis and shared-use vehicles to serve mainly in a “first-/last-mile” capacity. “Intermodalism” is the word I would use to describe this type of arrangement.

The end result is shorter jaunts made by less environmentally-friendly means with the longer portions of intra-urban trips reserved for the modes that are less damaging to the air and environment.

For those communities already with the feeder-rail program, more power to you. For those that aren’t, not to fret: there is time still to get on board.

Image above: Connor Harris

– Alan Kandel