The bad news: Republicans have torpedoed plans for American bullet trains. The good news: The Obama administration is quietly building a slower, but potentially much better, rail system.
Fast vs. fast enough:Europe’s high-speed trains, like the German Intercity-Express, get all the attention, but we should aspire first to match its conventional rail service, which is faster than ours (Photo: Mollenhauer).
After concluding some business in Frankfurt, Germany, recently, I found myself with a day to kill and decided to use it to tour the historic Cologne Cathedral, about 120 miles away. I could have rented a car and driven through traffic on the autobahn for about two hours, but instead I decided to walk a few blocks from my hotel and board Intercity-Express #616. The sleek bullet train left Frankfurt’s magnificent nineteenth-century main terminal on time and sped along a super-engineered, beeline right-of-way completed in 2002 at a cost of $5.6 billion. The scenery wasn’t much, as we were often in tunnels built to keep the line straight and fast. But the ride was smooth, quiet, and comfortable, even at 180 miles per hour, and in a mere fifty-six minutes the train arrived on time to the second within steps of the Cologne Cathedral. The fare was $109.
You might expect me at this point to proclaim, like so many Americans who have sojourned in Europe, Japan, or China on gleaming bullet trains, that what the United States needs now is a crash program to catch up with our peers in building high-speed rail for the twenty-first century. And, for the record, I will proclaim that. It’s a vision almost all progressives have come to share, even as conservatives increasingly denounce it as creeping socialism, social engineering, or worse. But I’ll make an important qualification that should inform the increasingly partisan debate about high-speed rail in this country—one that is illustrated by my trip back to Frankfurt later that afternoon.
Having arrived in Cologne faster than I needed to, I decided to take the longer, more scenic route back to Frankfurt, which costs just $72, riding the old West Rhine Railway. Begun in 1844, it’s a conventional railway that twists and turns mostly along the banks of the Rhine, passing beneath many high-perched castles and vineyards. It also provides access to such midsize cities as Koblenz and Mainz, and to such bucolic spots as the famous Rock of Lorelei, all of which the new high-speed rail line misses in order to save time.
Because of its more circuitous route and local stops, and because passenger trains on the Rhine Valley line also have to share tracks with many freight trains, these trains are slower than those on the new high-speed line. Yet they still max out at about 100 mph, which means that they only take a bit more than an hour longer to go from Cologne to Frankfurt even as they serve more population centers in between. The line is vibrant, with local and express passenger trains passing through any given station every fifteen to twenty minutes. By European or Asian standards, this service doesn’t qualify as high-speed rail, but it is faster on average than most American railways, and frequent enough to provide vital connectivity throughout the Rhine Valley.
My point? Yes, bullet trains speeding at 180 mph or more from major city to major city are great for business execs in a hurry and on an expense account. But the more conventional, cheaper, “fast enough” high-speed rail lines like the West Rhine line are the real backbone of the German passenger rail system and that of most other industrialized nations. And it is from these examples that America has the most to learn, especially since it now looks as if the U.S. isn’t going to build any real high-speed rail lines, except possibly in California, anytime soon. In an ironic twist, between the mounting concern over the state and federal deficits and growing Republican and NIMBY opposition to high-speed rail, the Obama administration is being forced to settle for incremental projects that will only bring passenger rail service up to the kind of standards found on the West Rhine line. And that’s a good thing, provided Republicans don’t succeed in killing passenger trains in the United States altogether, as they are increasingly wont to try.
The debate over high-speed rail in the United States has become akin to that over organic food. Most people can’t define exactly what it is, but they tend to have strong, almost theological opinions about whether it’s morally good, elitist, impractical, and/or politically correct. Progressives are likely to tell you that high-speed rail is necessary to reduce global warming, prepare for “peak oil,” and overcome “auto dependency.” The Obama administration plays to this growing progressive consensus by proudly proclaiming that it has set in motion projects that will bring high-speed rail to 80 percent of the U.S. population within twenty-five years.
Meanwhile, especially since the elections of 2010, conservatives have been rallying their troops in full-throated opposition to any and all government spending to improve passenger rail service, often portraying it as another step on the road to serfdom. Though many Republicans, such as Kay Bailey Hutchinson of Texas, have strongly supported Amtrak over the years (especially for service in their own backyards), we now see a new breed of Republican governors in Florida, Ohio, and Wisconsin all making a big show of waving away billions in federal stimulus dollar for rail improvements in their states.
So how about we all calm down, chuck the theology, and look practically at what should be the future of passenger trains in the U.S.?
To do that, we need to start by defining what we mean by high-speed rail. An extreme example is the French National Railways’ train a grande vitesse (“high-speed train”), or TGV, which in 2007 set a world record of 357.2 mph. In regular service, its average start-to-stop speed is typically a bit north of 170 mph, with top speeds of around 200 mph. I once had the opportunity to ride in the cab of a TGV between Paris and Lille, and even to hold the throttle. It was an unexpectedly harrowing experience, as the windshield repeatedly filled with the remains of unfortunate birds who failed to get out of the way in time. But back in the revenue seats, the experience is sublime. Even as the French countryside shoots by in a blur, you won’t see so much as a ripple in your wine glass, and even the coach seats are bigger than what you would find in first class on an airplane.
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