There are many reasons why true dedicated high-speed rail is superior to slower, mixed-traffic rail. True HSR is oil-free because it is powered by electricity. True HSR also offers shorter trip times, which translates into higher ridership, reduces congestion across all other modes and delivers these benefits with higher profits and lower operating costs.
Given the energy-constrained future we face, a hierarchy of rail must be built quickly to become the main form of transportation in America, with true HSR as the backbone of the national system. We can’t afford not to build true HSR! Oil prices will continue to rise. America consumes 25% of the world’s oil, most of it for transportation. It would be impossible to scale up domestic drilling or create substitute liquid fuels in the quantities America uses daily.
Americans use six times more oil per person per day than Europeans. This disparity is due to different transportation systems. America has several hundred million fuel-consuming vehicles and more than 87,000 flights a day. Europe moves millions of people a day using multiple layers of efficient electric rail, mostly powered by electricity.
The smooth daily operation of this country is totally dependent on the continuous supply of oil from an unstable Middle East. We consume 20 million barrels of oil a day, 70% of which is for transportation. Of the 20 million barrels, we import 12 million from around the world, including from many trouble spots. Oil-supply-related defense spending has been estimated at more than $500 billion per year over the past eight years, according to recent Harvard and Princeton studies. Oil-based transportation is not sustainable in the U.S.
The only viable solution is to greatly reduce the need for so much oil. Adding high-capacity, oil-free transportation is the fastest, most direct way to do this. A HSR network can run on electric power generated by any combination of energy sources. HSR is 83% more efficient than flying and 40% more efficient than conventional rail. HSR trains are made of lightweight materials and don’t have to carry heavy liquid fuels as conventional diesel trains must. With exclusive, dedicated track, the trains can operate at the most efficient top speeds throughout a route. HSR trains are designed for aerodynamic speed while saving energy. Each time the brakes are applied, energy is generated and fed back into the grid.
As the national network gets built, oil consumption will drop corridor by corridor. This system would pay for itself by reducing the annual $400-billion-plus trade deficit—purchasing foreign oil— and related defense spending.
Many Americans support HSR, but there is debate and confusion about the difference between fast and slow rail and where each makes sense. We need both. We need a hierarchy of systems similar to our hierarchy of highways, state routes and streets. The HSR network would form the high-capacity backbone of this national hierarchy. Feeding into it would be 110-mph conventional systems for regional and local destinations. Light rail and streetcars would be the third, local tier.
A recent study for the U.K. by Steer Davies Gleave found that true HSR systems (200 mph or higher) were more cost-effective than slower, upgraded existing systems. The study found resource requirements fall as line speed increases, and HSR systems ultimately cost 30% less to operate.The study also found that true HSR systems generate an operating profit each year, while slower conventional rail systems require ongoing subsidies; the cost to build true HSR systems is only slightly higher than conventional rail, but the revenue is significantly higher on true high speed.
More than 20 countries already have or are building HSR. Consistently capturing 60% to 80% of mode share in corridors around the world, HSR reduces congestion on existing roads and airports.
HSR across America is a project of national importance and national security. Failure to plan in a realistic way for American mobility in the years ahead will shortchange U.S. prosperity. All other industrialized nations are building HSR, and we must join them quickly.