Late this past summer in San Francisco, U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood plunged a shovel into a clump of dirt and made history, marking the official groundbreaking of America's first new transit station built to handle high-speed passenger rail.
When completed, the Transbay Transit Center will be a major stop on California's planned high-speed passenger rail system, which will whisk people from San Francisco to Los Angeles in just two and a half hours and at speeds of up 220 miles per hour. The new terminal will also handle buses, conventional rail, and light rail, enabling high-speed rail passengers to make seamless and quick connections to other modes of transit.
Construction of the California's high-speed rail system is scheduled to begin in two years, with the first segment completed by about 2020. Funding of the complete system and right-of-way matters are still an issue, but California voters have already authorized a nearly $10 billion bond measure to fund the state's high-speed rail system.
Overall, the federal government has contributed about $13 billion to kick-start 13 high-speed rail corridors throughout the country and California is one of many states and regions promoting high-speed rail.
After a recent trip to Asia, Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley reignited his push to build a high-speed rail service that will get travelers from downtown to O'Hare Airport in traffic-defying times.
Chicagoland commuters suffer the fourth-longest commute in the United Stated with a rush hour that lasts about 30 percent longer than it did just a few years ago. And according to the Texas Transportation Institute, Chicagoans spend about of 44 hours per year stuck in heavy traffic and spend about $720 worth of time wasted on the clogged roads.
In March, Illinois cleared a major hurdle when the state Senate passed a bill creating the Illinois and Midwest High-Speed Rail Commission, the third state to pass such a bill. According to a study by the Midwest High-Speed Rail Association, a 220-mph high speed rail link between Chicago and St. Louis would create 40,000 jobs. Shifting this traffic from automobiles to rail would also help keep 200 million pounds of CO2 out of the atmosphere each year.
Yet in several states, the future of high-speed passenger rail may depend upon the governing agendas of the election victors this November. High-speed rail passenger projects should proceed. To lose out on an opportunity to upgrade the nation's rail infrastructure would be a mistake and put the U.S. at a competitive disadvantage.
High-speed rail isn't just faster; it's smarter. And just as airplanes, asphalt and petroleum were key in the last century, information technology is proving to be critical to 21st century transportation infrastructure.
The next few decades of transportation will be defined by data. Rather than simply building more tracks or adding more trains, the rail industry of the future will rely upon smarter transportation systems that leverage a combination of technology, planning and greater intelligence to harness data that will be used to meet consumer demand for better service and safer travel.
Modern high-speed train systems are designed from the ground up and are like a rolling information highway on rails. The trains, track, stations and other assets can be instrumented with sensors that relay real-time data about the system's performance. In the near future, "smart" trains will be able to sense potential safety issues and then slow down or stop with little human intervention.
Smarter trains are more efficient, which means they're also greener. A scant 1 mph increase in the overall velocity of a train network results in a sharp reduction of greenhouse gases, roughly the equivalent of taking 500 locomotives out of use. And overall, rail is two to five times more energy efficient than road or air transportation.
High-speed passenger rail isn't meant to replace current transportation infrastructure. Instead, it is envisioned that it would be integrated with airports, Amtrak service and other public transportation systems.
It's not only about fast trains; high-speed rail represents a fundamentally different way of operating a passenger rail system with trains, track, and stations that are digitally aware, interconnected and infused with intelligence. It promises to be one smart ride.