The Rewards of High-speed Rail Transportation

Across the country in 15 hours? Already successful in Japan and throughout Europe, a network of high-speed rail trains in the United States would slash travel time while also cutting the amount of carbon dioxide emissions from automobiles.

| Feb. 3, 2009

Aside from the overriding need to stabilize atmospheric carbon dioxide (CO2) levels in order to stabilize climate, there are several other compelling reasons for countries everywhere to restructure their transport systems, such as the need to prepare for falling oil production, to alleviate traffic congestion, and to reduce air pollution. The U.S. car-centered transportation model — three cars for every four people — that much of the world aspires to will not likely be viable over the long term, even for the United States.

The shape of future transportation systems centers on the changing role of the automobile. This in turn is being influenced by the transition from a predominantly rural global society to a largely urban one. By 2020, close to 55 percent of us will be living in cities, where the role of cars is diminishing. In Europe, where this process is well along, car sales in almost every country have peaked and are falling.

With world oil output close to peaking, there will not be enough economically recoverable oil to support a world fleet expansion along United States lines or, indeed, to sustain the United States fleet. Oil shocks are now a major security risk. The United States — a country in which 88 percent of the 133 million working people travels to work by car — is dangerously vulnerable.

Beyond the desire to stabilize climate, drivers almost everywhere are facing gridlock and worsening congestion, raising both frustration and the cost of doing business. In the United States, the average commuting time for workers has increased steadily since the early 1980s. The automobile promised mobility, but after a point, the growing number of automobiles in an increasingly urbanized world offers only the opposite: immobility.

While the future of transportation in cities lies with a mix of light rail, buses, bicycles, cars and walking, the future of intercity travel over distances of 500 miles or less belongs to high-speed trains. Japan, with its high-speed bullet trains, has pioneered this mode of travel. Operating at speeds up to 190 miles per hour, Japan’s bullet trains carry almost 1 million passengers a day. On some of the heavily used intercity high-speed rail lines, trains depart every three minutes.

Beginning in 1964 with the 322-mile line from Tokyo to Osaka, Japan’s high-speed rail network now stretches for 1,360 miles, linking nearly all of its major cities. One of the most heavily traveled links is the original line between Tokyo and Osaka, on which the bullet trains carry 117,000 passengers a day. The transit time of two hours and 30 minutes between the two cities compares with a driving time of eight hours. High-speed trains save time as well as energy.

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