A retired pilot of my acquaintance told me the other day how to start solving the nation’s air travel problems: high-speed rail.
A robust and reliable network of high-speed trains would alleviate air congestion by reducing the number of small, regional jets hopping among cities in the same region. The trains could carry passengers rapidly from one city center to another, alleviating highway congestion between airports and downtowns.
The United States already has one high-speed rail service – depending on how you define high-speed rail. Amtrak’s Acela Express can reach speeds of 150 mph on its trip between Boston and Washington, but it travels at an average of less than half that because of track limitations.
Still, the Acela Express is the fastest train in the country – and it operates at a profit.
It would be difficult for Amtrak to replicate the Acela’s service elsewhere because the Northeast Corridor is unlike its other rail routes. In the Northeast, Amtrak owns most of its tracks. Almost everywhere else it must use tracks owned by freight lines.
Amtrak’s dismal on-time record is, apparently, a direct reflection of this circumstance. In the Northeast, Amtrak’s trains arrive on schedule 86 percent of the time. Outside the Northeast Corridor, on long-distance routes where Amtrak shares the rails with slower freight trains, that drops to 42 percent.
Not surprisingly, a recent study by the Department of Transportation’s inspector general concluded that Amtrak would lose less money if its trains were on time.
Anyway, it’s pretty clear that new, high-speed rail in the United States will have to involve new, high-speed track. If built to European standards (which means not only high-speed track but lighter trains) we could see sustained speeds over 200 mph.
It’s an expensive proposition, but not an unimaginable one.
Voters in California will decide in November whether to spend $10 billion to jump-start a $42 billion plan for bullet trains that would travel at 220 mph, making the trip from San Francisco to Los Angeles in 2.5 hours.
There’s also talk of a mag-lev train that could carry passengers from Los Angeles to Las Vegas in less than an hour.
There could be more. In 2002, the Federal Railroad Administration designated 10 potential high-speed rail corridors, including a new one between Washington and Boston.
Throw in some light commuter rail, and I can ditch the car and the airport.