Do Cities Bring High Speed Rail Within Reach?

A couple of weeks ago, we cited a fantastic (and sadly, entirely fictional) map made by Alfred Twu as a potential catalyst for High Speed Rail in the U.S. The map oozes ambitions for a hyper-connected continent, and builds on many of the more realistic proposals for High-Speed Rail that were put forth over the course of the past few years. In doing this, the map blended the craft of mapmaking with a sense of urgency, as well as a keen awareness of where the debate on High Speed Rail stands in America today.

But since we’ve given the map enough praise in our previous coverage, let’s look ahead and ask ourselves the question how likely it would be that every “dot” in America is going to be connected by High-Speed Rail in the next decade or two. A lot of people may raise the question whether it is even something that the nation should strive for, and rightly so— many parts of the US simply don’t have the population density to support High-Speed Rail, and in some areas the distances between cities can be so vast that flying actually does make more sense. After all, you don’t hear about the many rural regions in Germany or France that do not have High Speed Rail.A quick look at an actual map of the High-Speed Rail networks in these two countries reveals how much of an “urban” phenomenon the national High-Speed Rail networks in these countries is.

 

streckennetz-frankreich (1)

France’s High Speed Rail network (click for larger image). Source: Hochgeschwindigkeitszuege.com.

 

One thing that stands out when we look at the High-Speed Rail maps of France and Germany is all the voids in its coverage. Compared to conventional national and regional rail networks, the High-Speed Rail networks depicted above appear quite sparse. It’s no secret in Europe that High Speed Rail systems are highly selective in which cities they connect.

 

streckennetz-deutschland

Germany’s High Speed Rail network (click for larger image). Source: Hochgeschwindigkeitszuege.com.

 

In Germany, the network connects all of the nation’s largest cities to each other, whilst in France, the motive appears to have been to connect cities in outlying regions to the capital, Paris. This difference in the mentality behind High-Speed Rail implementation in both countries has led to two different types of networks:the “hub and spoke” model of France, with Paris being a hub from which the spokes radiate outwards, and the more interconnected model we find in Germany. This difference is rooted in the respective cultures of the two countries, with centralist-leaning France having been primarily oriented towards Paris for centuries, whilst federal Germany has a more diffused and regionalized identity (but that’s a story for another time).

Whilst perhaps not connecting all parts of these countries, it was clear from the onset that this wasn’t the purpose of the networks. Zooming in on Germany, High-Speed Rail derives its uniqueness from connecting larger cities in relative proximity. On the so-called “mid-range distances”, going beyond the smaller distances (for which conventional regional rail service is adequate in Germany) but not quite replacing the long-distance flight, the High-Speed Rail has a distinct competitive advantage. A rule of thumb in Europe is that, if you’re planning on flying somewhere that’s less than 1,000  kilometers (approx. 620 miles) away, you should consider any High-Speed Rail alternatives available. The competitive advantage comes from the fact that trains take you directly from city to city—avoiding an additional trip to the (often outlying) airports at both ends of the trip, and saving travellers the hassle of checking in your luggage, going through security, and waiting at the gate.

A study released by the Brookings Institution’s Metropolitan Policy Program published this month echoed the approach to High Speed Rail we’ve seen in Europe. Looking at Amtrak ridership levels, the study found that the U.S. is currently in the midst of a “passenger rail renaissance”, with ridership levels currently at a record high, and growing rapidly. Impressively, Amtrak ridership has increased by 55% between 1995 and 2012, more than the rates of population growth (17.1%) or economic growth (37.2%, and defined as the growth of the real gross domestic product) during the same period. With new ridership records being set for nine out of the past ten years, there is a reasonable expectation that the growth in ridership isn’t going to end anytime soon.

Perhaps more intriguingly, the research showed that the 100 largest metropolitan areas have been responsible for this trend. Adding to the perception that High-Speed Rail is an urban phenomenon is the fact that the ten largest metropolitan areas have spawned nearly two-thirds of total Amtrak riders.

As ridership continues to grow at record-breaking speeds State-side, the nation’s largest cities have already positioned themselves as prime candidates for a substantial upgrade in passenger rail service. If people could vote with their money, the continued support for rail service from travellers from the largest metropolitan areas shows that these riders aren’t going to disappear, and would likely benefit from the enhanced connectivity that High-Speed Rail would bring to their cities. The tireless growth that characterizes passenger rail today should also encourage investments in enhanced rail service, if Amtrak isn’t to become a victim of their own success. With a proven track record in Europe as an efficient and competitive mode of travel for mid-range distances, and surging passenger rail ridership radiating out from America’s largest cities, the Brookings Institution’s publication could really help make the case for High Speed Rail in (urbanized) America.

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