Restoring unity, order, smarts, meaning, sanity and balance in the space we call travel – 1: High-speed rail

From the time transportation first entered the automation age until this day in 2018, the science, platform and industry regarding such have indeed come far. When that happened, what began was a revolution and that same revolution continues today. There have been so many field-related developments that to try to name them all in this thread would be futile.

For purposes of this discussion it is probably best to focus on the more noteworthy and most recent ones, one of these being rail. And, not just rail, but passenger rail and in narrowing the mode selection even further, I’m specifically talking high-speed passenger rail transportation.

Amtrak “Acela Express” train at Baltimore-Washington Int’l. Airport Station

When true high-speed rail (HSR) first made its presence known to the world on Oct. 1, 1964 in Japan, it was a transport concept that arrived on scene at the right time. HSR’s time had most definitely come.

The maximum speed of Japan’s Shinkansen “bullet train,” compared to what’s possible today and today’s standards, was quite modest – 125 miles per hour. The United States provided key technologies such as dynamic braking, dual-axle trucks (wheel assemblies) the train cars rode on and it was still another American interest that was called upon to supply the computer necessary to help perform dispatching and signaling functions. (See: “American high-speed rail building on a roll – 2”).

From its initial introduction in the East Asian nation, HSR only grew in popularity. So much so that Africa, Belgium, China, England, France, Germany, Italy, South Korea, Spain, Taiwan, The Netherlands, Turkey and Uzbekistan all have said systems. Others, like those in America, are either currently under construction (California high-speed rail) or will be soon (Texas Central, XpressWest).

What’s more, as the high-speed rail science has evolved, not only have top speeds increased considerably, but technological development has advanced by leaps and bounds. And, there are variations on the basic theme like magnetic levitation (or maglev, for short) – both active and passive, the skyTran™ being one such example to make use of the passive maglev propulsion method.

I realize that the introduction above is fairly lengthy. That said, it being presented here as it has, I feel, is important in the sense and from the position that being apprised of HSR background basics or essentials is helpful indeed as it pertains to the discussion ahead especially if one’s knowledge of the HSR backstory is limited.

Making a strong case

In November 2010 I wrote “Why We Need High-Speed Rail and Why Trains Are Needed Now,” an opinion piece for the California Progress Report. My submission was posted on that site on November 15th.

In it I submitted: “The Center for Clean Air Policy and the Center for Neighborhood Technology in the High Speed Rail and Greenhouse Gas Emissions in the U.S., January 2006 study concluded, ‘Current projections show that passengers would take 112 million trips on high speed rail in the U.S. in 2025, traveling more than 25 billion passenger miles. This would result in 29 million fewer automobile trips and nearly 500,000 fewer flights. We calculated a total emissions savings of 6 billion pounds of CO2 per year (2.7 MMT [Million Metric Tons] CO2) if all proposed high speed rail systems studied for this project are built. Savings from cancelled automobile and airplane trips are the primary sources of the emissions savings; together these two modes make up 80 percent of the estimated emissions savings from all modes.’”

Adding to this, Environment California Research & Policy Center author Jason Barbose and Frontier Group authors Tony Dutzik and Joshua Hoen in the report Getting California on Track: Seven Strategies to Reduce Global Warming Pollution from Transportation, stressed that a considerable amount of planet-warming gases in state comes from aviation. Producing significantly fewer harmful emissions is high-speed rail and in California, just such a service could prove to be very competitive with flight with regard to both travel time and convenience.1

Moreover, in Spring 2008 (the time of the report’s release), the authors observed that nearly all trips taken between California cities are done so either on roadway pavement or in the overhead skies, the motor vehicles and airplanes both producing significant amounts of carbon dioxide,2 a greenhouse gas.

The three as well insist flights limited to distances of no more than 500 miles more negatively influence climate causing harm and found fuel efficiencies to be especially lacking, most notably during liftoffs and touchdowns resulting in greater fuel consumption on a mile-for-mile basis compared to those greater than 500-miles-in-distance flights. The authors further expressed that the number of residents taking short-haul flights were on the rise, the growth of such in percentage terms being nearly a 1-in-10 increase between years 2000 and 2007.3

Most, if not all, still very much true today.

And, we most certainly cannot forget about highways. On that front, the authors furthermore relate, due to an expanding population base, capacity-wise, on a state-resident-needs basis, the growth in highway infrastructure, again, at that time, in effect, could not keep pace.4

And, from the safety standpoint, in the above-mentioned “Why We Need High-Speed Rail and Why Trains Are Needed Now” contribution, I further submitted: “High-speed rail is what it is due to its proven track (safety) record – a near-perfect one at that, so much so that this method of transportation can’t be beat. Accidents involving these trains have been extremely rare.” I went on to provide information in support of such. (For more on this, see the “High-speed rail” entry on Wikipedia under the “Accidents” subheading).

As far as I am aware, there is not a single other automated travel mode whose safety record matches or exceeds high-speed rail’s.

Though not an item on high-speed rail per sé, the following passage, nevertheless, is both important and very much relevant to today’s discussion:

“And while unsure of the prospects of economy boosting and efforts aimed at furthering downtown revitalization around stations in served communities, what I am certain of is that more regional passenger rail service, in the right location under the right sets of conditions and/or circumstances, is very effective at enticing affected corresponding drivers out of private personal passenger vehicles, which, not only can help take traffic off area roads and freeways but, by extension, can help remove much of the pressure on the air in the region affected by eliminating or alleviating toxic chemicals in it.” (See: “Two regional passenger rail proposals: Some comparisons”).

And, isn’t that what this discussion is really all about?


  1. Jason Barbose, Tony Dutzik and Joshua Hoen, Getting California on Track: Seven Strategies to Reduce Global Warming Pollution from Transportation, “Executive Summary,” from the Environment California Research & Policy Center, Spring 2008, p. 3
  2. Ibid, “Reducing Global Warming Pollution from Transportation in California,” p. 20
  3. Ibid
  4. Ibid

Image above: Chao-Hwa Chen

This post was last revised on Jun. 12, 2020 @ 7:36 a.m. Pacific Daylight Time.

– Alan Kandel