Investing in modern, fast, comfortable and convenient higher-speed rail service is a smart move. Better rail service will improve mobility, reduce pollution, create new jobs and spur economic growth.
The new federal investment is about more than "just speed" to succeed. "Modern, comfortable and convenient" count as much as "fast" for transforming our transportation system for the 21st century.
First, modern trains can excite people and attract riders, as will train stations that are well-lit, clean and enjoyable central places. Wi-Fi or Wi-Max available all the way along the rail corridors can allow travel time to be productive work time for businesspeople, study time for students and reading time for others compared to air travel frustrations and new limits on cell phone and texting while driving.
Second, the top speed is less important than the average speed and overall trip time. For example, the 150 mph Acela high-speed rail service in the Northeast Corridor moves at that top speed for only few miles; its average speed between New York City and Washington D.C. is around 80 mph.
The best way to go fast is by not going slow. Synchronizing high-speed rail and freight rail improvement programs, such as the CREATE program in the Chicago area, can create double plays benefiting both passenger and freight service by alleviating congestion points and clearing out bottlenecks. Using skip stops as more high-speed train runs are added will avoid turning them into milk runs.
What really matters to passengers is how long the overall rail trip takes when compared to long car trips and door-to-door air travel for businesspeople, students and families traveling to see each other. This is a classic "compared to what" situation. It's not just about bragging rights for top speed.
Third, let's have comfortable trains. Nice seats, easily accessible plugs for laptops, good cell phone and computer access, and decent food.
Fourth, this is about convenience. Understandably, few people take the train from Chicago to Cleveland arriving at 1:45 am, or the return trains departing Cleveland at your choice of 2:59 am or 3:45 am. That's why I can't easily take the train with my three teenage sons over the weekend to visit the Rock 'n Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland. The key is increasing the frequency of train service with enough reasonably scheduled trip opportunities to work well for people.
When Amtrak improved service between Chicago and St. Louis a few years ago, ridership doubled. Better high-speed rail service is expected to triple ridership in the coming years.
All of this adds to the environmental benefits of displacing pollution from air and car travel, and the economic vitality from pulling jobs, people and business into our downtowns.
High-speed rail investment meets the public's mobility needs and boosts the economy. For years, federal transportation funds almost exclusively supported auto and air travel. Today, Americans spend $1 billion a day on foreign oil and an average of 4 weeks each year stuck in gridlock. High-speed rail is 3X more efficient than cars and 6X more efficient than planes on a per passenger mile basis. Better performance, more national security, less pollution for the future.
Everyone is feeling the strain of the economic downturn, but investing wisely in a 21st century rail transportation system is important to keep our economy moving. According to an economic study conducted for nine state Departments of Transportation, the new Midwest high-speed rail network can create 57,000 permanent new jobs across the region, produce more than a $1 billion in additional household income, and spur almost $5 billion in private new development near Midwest rail stations.
"Rome wasn't built in a day," and the interstate highway system wasn't built in a year. The recent federal funding announcement is the first step towards a modern high-speed rail system that will create jobs and boost our economy, better enable people to go from city-to-city, and protect our environment.