Size and Perception: Is the US really too big for high-speed rail?

A nifty website allowing users to pick a city in Europe and then see how far one can get from there by rail within a day made the rounds online recently. Rail and transportation advocates across the U.S. received these maps as an example of the virtues of European rail systems and the failures of the American system. “We could never get halfway across the continent in 6 hours, how can that be?” one asks themselves looking at these maps. Well, part of the problem is Europe is actually really tiny compared to the U.S. Size remains a problem for establishing a comprehensive rail American network comparable to operations in Europe. But it’s a problem of perception in addition to structural issues, which are perhaps reinforced by perception, that keeps down momentum on rail. Voices in opposition of greater investment often take the question of size to heart as a reason for passenger rail’s infeasibility; and the casual observer can probably comprehend the logic of size working against rail. We have to get over the question of size though. While the geographic size of the U.S. and distribution of its cities will definitely affect what passenger rail services will look like it doesn’t inherently hinder the potential for such systems.

The U.S. is a really big country, huge in comparison to Europe. I use a particular anecdote with the students I work with in Austria to impress this upon them. I ask how long a flight from New York City to LA lasts and usually get answers ranging from two to five hours, but hear answers in the two to three hour range, or a long flight within Europe. The answer, which is 5 hours and 20 minutes, always manages to elicit plenty of awe especially when I sweeten the whole thing by informing them this is about 20 minutes longer than a flight from London to Amman, Jordan. Crammed into this small area is a population well over 510 million (the EU’s current population, not Europe as a whole) compared to the U.S. with a population of 320 million and a combined U.S.-Canadian population that still pales in comparison at just 355 million. It’s a dramatic demographic and geographic difference that has defined how the two continents have been shaped in the last century.

EUROPE V. USA

When Europe was adopting advanced rail technology and building the Chunnel and TGVs in France, the U.S. was expanding the Interstate Highway system and building cities around cars and national travel around aviation. The changing world though is proving the resilience of the European (and Japanese) models of urban development and intercity transportation. The U.S. survived on the idea of cheap fuel without the foresight to consider the environmental impacts of our life styles and the potential that access to cheap fuel might be ephemeral, ideas that have no been thoroughly shaken.

Trains are inherently more sustainable than cars and planes. Cities and dense living similarly while also incubating contemporary economic advancements and human interactions. People are moving away from cars. These changes are forcing the U.S. to reevaluate how to get around the country and many eyes have turned towards high-speed rail (HSR) and passenger rail in general as a solution. A persistent point of opposition is that the U.S. is just too big for HSR, but that’s based on the false thinking that HSR and passenger rail systems like they exist elsewhere in the world are the only models that could work and it lacks the creative thinking to explore how such models can be adjusted for American landscapes.

I’ll grant this, doing a direct comparison of the U.S. and Europe would make the casual observe believe that, yes, the U.S. is just too big for HSR or any European style rail system. Even when broken down into regions, the U.S. is still at a very different scale from Europe. Take the Midwest for example, it covers an area comparable to much of Western Europe (population 260+ million), but has a population similar to France (approx. 67 million). With only one city of 10 million plus people (Chicago), it also falls far behind the two in this European region and the many of urban regions with over 5 million people there. If the distribution of cities and population are what make a successful HSR system work, well then yeah, Western Europe has a lot on the U.S.

But that’s not all what it takes to make rail feasible and work or what make it a valuable asset.

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The European counties of the UK, the Netherlands, Belgium, Luxembourg, France, Germany, the Czech Republic and Austria are shown in comparison to the Midwest and Great Lakes States with Chicago and Frankfurt positioned roughly at the same point.

What is too often overlooked in the simplistic argument that the U.S. is too big is considering the way rail fits into larger socio-economic, environmental, and transportation systems that are both dependent and independent of geography. There are of course the environmental reasons for promoting investments in rail over investments in car infrastructure and aviation. Trains contribute significantly less to global climate change than the latter two, but the environmental argument alone isn’t a huge sell for many Americans (unfortunately) and is at the very least it’s well established. Additionally, although the costs of building the system are high, the economic output that would likely result is even greater. That’s moving in the right direction. Perception is powerful though, and this all means nothing if people think the country is just too big for a system to be built anyhow.

But now it’s time to start thinking outside the box?

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France, superimposed over the Midwest, occupies a relatively small portion of region.

FRANCE V. GERMANY

There are a few particular points that indicate geography and scale are not the significant roadblocks to HSR and passenger rail generally believed. One point is how the system is going to be used. There are two models one can look at in determining the design of a HSR and passenger rail system. One is the German system, which really looks more like a subway system. Routes criss-cross a region connecting multiple urban centers of various size and varying in importance. Such a system would make sense along the Atlantic coast where urban centers are more scattered and a passenger getting on at Point A may be getting off an any number of points between A and B. Then there is the French model, which is all about getting people to and from a single primary center to outlying more minor urban regions.

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This map shows the different HSR systems in Europe and how each country follows pretty much one of two models, the German or French one. (Source: en.wikipedia.org)

The applicable model is important when considering geography. In the German model, trains run at slower speeds and can share tracks with conventional trains, because the shorter distances between stops means trains can never really pick up speed anyhow. In the French model, speed is king. With more express or almost express services, the goal is to get passengers from Point A to B with few to no stops in between; often because it’s not even necessary. A geographic and demographic distribution similar to Europe is significantly more important for the German model, but the French model could easily benefit from the spatial geography of a region like the Midwest.

Let’s focus on the Midwest as an example.

Part of what makes HSR in the French model work is trains getting up to very high speeds cutting down the door-to-door travel times while having the option to offer frequent service throughout the day in a more comfortable surrounding than an airplane. Competition with cars and planes though means trains need to hit speeds of well over 180 kph (110 mph) and usually closer to 320 kph (200 mph) (Link: 10 Fastest Trains in the World). The longer the distance between stops and the fewer stops means the faster trains can go and the better they can maintain their speed. The Midwest is ideal for such a system. With Chicago at its center and most traffic going to and from Chicago with few large cities between it and other major centers a system modeled on the French one here would be highly competitive.

Indeed, the long stretches of relatively flat land with few barriers (natural and man-made) means Midwestern trains could be some of the fastest in the world. Running at speeds comparable to the Renfe between Madrid and Barcelona an express train from Chicago to Minneapolis/St. Paul would arrive in about 2 hours, 10 minutes. At a maximum, there would likely be 4-6 intermediary stops (Chicago-O’Hare, Milwaukee, Madison, LaCrosse, Rochester, and maybe Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport). This is barely half the number along the Acela Express from Boston to Washington, D.C. with an average of 70 miles between stops in the Midwest versus 32 miles along the Acela. Combined with trains that have improved acceleration and breaking technologies common on German systems a Midwestern system could be globally state of the art. Here, geography is less an impediment to rail, and more a benefit.

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A Finnish train outside of Helsinki mid-winter (Source: 4rail.net)

WINTER IS COMING

In our Midwestern model, weather also plays a major role in supporting a strong rail based transportation system. The size of the Midwest will never save it from two things: summer thunderstorms and winter weather. Both of these can cause havoc at regional airports and on roadways and are especially troublesome for a singular aviation center, Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport. A Chicago Tribune article from 2013 looked at the numbers and reasons for flight delays at O’Hare and bad weather year-round socked the city’s airports’ on-time departure rankings. Unlike airports and airplanes, which can be quickly and more dramatically affected by severe weather trains, which are by no means immune, at least offer A) an alternative mode of transportation and B) can get through more before getting shut down.

In a region like the Midwest, where thunderstorms are common in the summer with snowy, cold winters, providing a quick and convenient transportation option that can get people around the cancelled flights and slogging traffic (or keep them out of it in the first place) is essential and up to now missing. Considering how much air and road traffic goes through Chicago this is significant for improving passenger and freight movements through the region. Since most any Midwest HSR system would in all likelihood include stops at O’Hare it would actually enhance intraregional and national passenger traffic.

Chicago’s O’Hare is a major hub, but not necessarily a major destination. One of the keys to making O’Hare function successfully is getting people and planes in and out of the airport as efficiently as possible. Weather regularly confounds those efforts and causing delays creating backups that include short-haul flights within the region and important national and international long-haul flights. Opening up capacity at O’Hare can be achieved by decreasing the number of short-haul flights to the airport from within the Midwest. This would improve operations year round and improve performance when operations are limited by bad weather.

And HSR makes this entirely possible at O’Hare. Chicago is within the Top 3 destinations for many of the region’s major cities (#1 from Cleveland, #2 from Detroit, St. Louis, Indianapolis each, and #3 from Kansas City) as well as the fourth top destination from Milwaukee. All of these are within 2-3 hours or less of Chicago based on optimistic proposals for a Midwestern HSR system. If an HSR system was built in the Midwest and bad weather strikes fewer passengers would get trapped at O’Hare, because the first or final leg of their journey to or from O’Hare would be by train rather than plane.

That’s not to say trains equal problem free winters. A study from the Swedish Royal Institution of Technology (KTH) called Gröna Tåget examines the problems facing high-speed rail operations in climates with harsh winters such as the Nordic countries, Russia, and northern Japan. While winters pose very robust engineering and planning problems for high-speed rail operations (and rail operations in general) they are not problems that are impossible to overcome. There are still many areas for improvement. Indeed, the Midwest’s geography in particular may be more ideal for HSR in wintry environments, because it’s relatively flat compared to Scandinavia where on top of everything snow build-up in valleys and avalanches are problematic too. Growing HSR systems in Russia and China and older ones in Germany and Japan show that winter isn’t as much of an impediment to rail as it may seem and reinforces the positive impact it can have in relation to other transportation modes.

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This is just one proposal for HSR in the U.S. This map gives more details about the types of services offered. (Source: america2050.org)

Weather disrupting air and road traffic though isn’t unique to the Midwest. Regions like the Deep South and Texas, both of which experience thunderstorms in the summer and the remnants of hurricanes would benefit from transportation modes that redistribute passenger traffic over a number of modes too. Indeed, these two regions share another common characteristic with the Midwest: both have major hub airports serving the American aviation network (Dallas-Fort Worth and Atlanta’s Hartsfield-Jackson airports), that could also be connected to HSR and passenger rail systems serving their immediate surroundings and regions. Indeed, a hub-and-spoke HSR system in the South with Atlanta at its center could beneficially serve Hartsfield-Jackson International airport the same way as with O’Hare in the Midwest. And all this means less traffic at airports allowing for a greater focus on the major mid- and long-haul flights people are most likely connecting to, less congestion in security lines and terminals, and fewer emissions and noise pollution from fewer flights overall.

BUT ARE WE BEING REALISTIC?

According to Shanghaiist, an ambitious new plan has been unveiled to connect Beijing and Hong Kong by an HSR line that will cover the 2,400 km (1,490 miles) distance in 8 hours. This is an equivalent distance to Amtrak’s Silver Star or Silver Meteor routes between New York City and Miami, which each take more than 27 hours. The article, which was shared by the Midwest High Speed Rail Association on its Facebook page, has made the rounds of social media as an example of the China’s increasingly superior HSR network. Granted that the construction of single, essentially transcontinental HSR lines is impressive, it’s not a shame the U.S. isn’t doing that, or at least not to the extent that China is (as well as Europe to an extent), because a U.S. network needs to serve the needs of the U.S. and reflect the realities of the country, including in terms of our geography, and there are plenty of ways HSR and other passenger rail services can do just that.

This is important to remember when planning and thinking about any model of passenger rail development. Although there are certain trends and truths that are universal, the way to apply them isn’t always identical. Examples like those from China are great to inspire something better in the U.S., but they’re not set in stone. I can see it already though, critics explaining how the U.S. is just too big for a system like China’s, because we have fewer people spread over more of the country than China.

Well, duh! The U.S. will never have the huge, concentrated population of eastern China that supporting massive transcontinental HSR lines. But that’s basing an American rail system on a country unlike the U.S. And that’s fine. China is not Europe is not the U.S. At the very least China can continue to set an example of what is possible. As Rick Harnish, Executive Director of the Midwest High Speed Rail Association pointed out in an e-mail interview “in ten years China has connected the equivalent of Miami to Boston, New York to Omaha, and New Orleans to St. Paul.”

That’s really impressive for sure and although it’s built to serve different demographic needs it also exposes the ironic situation the U.S. is in. The U.S. has a set of integrated regions and megalopolises to support regional systems connected to each other via long-distance trains or connecting hubs, all of which are included in realistic proposals for HSR and passenger rail improvements in the U.S. and none of which are nearly as big as the Chinese system. So how has the U.S. managed to achieve so little? Europe and Japan are successful by virtue of geography and technology. China is successful because of population and technology. The U.S. falls somewhere in the middle. Clearly the geography of the U.S. isn’t too big for comprehensive rail systems or its population too small and there is plenty of technology to fix the quirks. We simply have a limited perception of what’s possible.

All these arguments have gotten so swamped with chatter about how we’re not Europe or China and how unrealistic this whole HSR thing is that we’re losing sight of important details. Europe and China only offer examples for us to build on and most proposals are incredibly realistic. In an interview with Talk of the Nation on NPR Dr. Christopher Barkan of the Rail Transportation and Engineering Center at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign provides insight into the geographic practicalities of HSR compared to other modes explaining the sweet spot for HSR is somewhere between 240 and 1120 km (150-700 miles). Most existing proposals for HSR in the U.S. are well within this range and some routes are much shorter. The Northeast Corridor for example could be extended another 435 km (270 miles) and still be within this ideal range for HSR. That’s an extension from Washington, D.C. to Norfolk, VA.

IT’S NOT THE SIZE THAT MATTERS, BUT HOW YOU USE IT

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Fantasy map of an HSR network in the U.S. (Source: transitmaps.tumblr.com)

Yeah, some ideas are definitely too far outside the realm of possibility, such as one fantasy map showing a transcontinental HSR network with routes that carry trains from Miami to San Francisco and Québec to Cleveland… via Dallas! While it manages to simultaneously engage people in the discussion about HSR it also worrying reinforces a perception that HSR and passenger rail advocates in the U.S. day dream about trains that will whisk people from Seattle to Washington, D.C., rather than more realistic and practical dream of trains from Las Vegas to Los Angeles or New York City to Montréal. And these are the ones we should be discussing.

So okay, there are in fact pipe dreams out there, but the overwhelming majority of proposals are really well though out and realistic HSR and passenger rail concepts. What’s strange about arguing the U.S. is too big for HSR–or better passenger rail in general–is that usually the U.S. never sees itself as too big for anything. It’s just this time that we’re breaking from that mold. This point alone shows how the particular argument being challenged here is pretty blatantly used as a means to mask various other more subjective reasons to oppose HSR. If the U.S. never limits itself because of size, how did the country suddenly grow too big? The U.S. is not too big for HSR and it’s not too big for rail, we’re just thinking too small.

We’re a country of big dreams and big ideas and yet the dreams many have for passenger rail in the U.S. are pretty modest compared to international examples. HSR networks that connect specific regions, expanded passenger services, and potentially improvements that will make transcontinental trips an overnight journey instead of a weekend long excursion are all much more realistic than most of us think or are told to believe. How we let ourselves fall into the trap of suddenly thinking we’re too small for anything is pretty unfortunate and getting over that thinking alone won’t make HSR and better passenger rail services appear over night, but it’ll sure as hell help.

As Harnish put it bluntly, “Perception is everything.”