On the Fast Track to Winning the Future

The Shinkansen, the world’s first high-speed train, is one of Japan’s crowning technological achievements.  It was ready in time for Tokyo to host the 1964 Olympics and is still the standard in high-speed land travel.  Since then, Italy, Spain, Germany, France, Great Britain, and Taiwan have joined Japan in this revolutionary transportation endeavor.  One wealthy, industrialized nation is conspicuously absent from the list: the United States.  The U.S. version of high-speed rail, Amtrak’s 10-year-old Acela Express, which goes from Boston to Washington, D.C., is much slower than its counterparts in Europe and Asia.  When it comes to transportation infrastructure, America can, and should, do better.

The theme of President Obama’s State of the Union address last week was the need for America to “win the future.” One of the ways the President said the country would do that was to invest in high-speed rail.

This isn’t the first time this administration discussed such an investment.  2009’s stimulus package included $8 billion in grants for high-speed rail.  Such investment is good for the economy, the environment, and reducing our dependence on foreign oil and it should provide better travel options when commuting between large cities.  But a much larger investment will be needed.  China and Spain are spending $300 and $200 billion respectively in expanding each country’s high-speed rail systems.  In California alone, it may take over $40 billion to establish the necessary infrastructure.  This is a staggering amount of capital but Japan has offered to loan it.  If the country which gave the world the Shinkansen believes it can work in California, it sounds like a worthwhile investment.

Despite its shortcomings compared to its European and Asian peers, Amtrak expects continued growth in its popularity in the northeast corridor.  About 12 million riders a year use that service  and Amtrak claims over 33 million people could be using its high-speed rail in 2040.  At that point, with planned enhancements, travel time between New York and Washington could be possible in about 90 minutes.

As other metropolitan areas continue to grow denser, they too, will be prime locations for high-speed rail to thrive and stimulate local economies.  High-speed rail is a long-term and expensive investment, but one with tremendous benefits for the regions that embrace it.  If America is to win the future, it must get on the fast track to high-speed rail.

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