Monday, December 10, 2007

High-speed trains

Really cool article in Popular Mechanics about the potential for high-speed trains in the U.S. Having lived in Los Angeles for five years, and now New York without a car, I sympathize with the arguments of high-speed rail proponents, but recognize many of the problems highlighted by critics.

There are a number of challenges of course - the political nightmare and financial cost of building the tracks (the article lists the cost per mile as ranging from $5 million to $100 million, compared to $500K to $10 million for Florida interstate construction), the "stranded cost" of under-utilized existing infrastructure, and low population density of the US (31 per square km compared to 339 and 232 in Japan and Germany respectively).

But at some point, the strains on infrastructure of absorbing growing urban, suburban and sub-suburban population become enormous.

By 2035, the six counties in the Los Angeles region will add roughly 6 million people—that’s the size of two Chicagos—to the 18 million residents already living [t]here
At that point, I imagine all options will be on the table.

Meanwhile, there is also a productivity argument hiding in here. From the article, the average commuter spends 38 hours a year stuck in traffic (and much higher in some urban areas), burning 2.9 billion gallons of wasted fuel. Given that 100 million Americans commute (information taken from a fascinating DOT study by the way), that 3.8 billion hours and 2.9 billion wasted gallons could theoretically be worth quite a bit. If you use a $17.63 average hourly wage and average US gasoline prices ($3/gal), that's almost $76 billion wasted per year (half of 1% of GDP). Of course, a full-functioning rail system would only touch a fraction of those 100 million commuters, and there are a host of other complications and underlying assumptions. Just thought it worth a quick calculation and mention.

I also wonder if these trains could be used in transporting cargo (or is the cost per mile to high), or in moving freight alongside passengers (which could boost revenue per mile and alleviate overcrowding on key intra-and interstate highways).

In any event, close on a fascinating chart from the article, which compares high-speed trains with Amtrak, airplanes and cars on a 400-mile trip:

One last point - many of the 532 reader comments attached to the article are fairly insightful and informed. Well, some. Certainly a representative cross-section of America's varying political, economic and environmental ideologies (and all that missing/lack/dis-information present therein).

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