Issue Report: High-speed rail

Is high speed rail development generally good policy?

High-speed rail (HSR) is a type of passenger rail transport that operates significantly faster than the normal speed of rail traffic. Specific definitions by the European Union include 200 km/h (124 mph) for upgraded track and 250 km/h (155 mph) or faster for new track. In Japan, Shinkansen lines run at speeds of up to 300 km/h (186 mph), and in China, high-speed conventional rail lines operate at top speeds of 350 km/h (217 mph), and one Maglev Line in Shanghai reaches speeds of 431 km/h (268 mph). As high-speed rail has become increasingly common around the world, and as countries begin considering whether adopting the transportation technology is a good idea, the debate over its various pros and cons has been elevated to newspaper front pages around the world. In the US, for example, President Obama’s calls to institute a national high-speed rail system has been met with a flurry of both die-hard support and vitriolic criticism. The issues include whether high-speed trains are superior to flight and high-way driving, whether a better value can be achieved through expanding existing road, airport, and standard rail infrastructure and capacity, and whether high-speed trains are economical and a public good or merely a service that will be used by the wealthy. These and issues are outlined below.

Vs. air travel: How does high-speed rail compare to air travel?

High-speed train stations can be positioned in city centers.

While the travel time by plane itself cannot be beaten by currently known high-speed trains, the airports usually lie rather far from cities (due to the noise created by aircraft) and this increases the overall time needed for a trip. High-speed rail station, on the other hand, can be positioned in a city center, so for short- and even mid-range travels, high-speed rail could be actually faster than airplane.

No need to turn off electronics, etc., on trains


“High speed rail offers its riders the easiest, most comfortable way to travel. Easy access to downtowns, little or no delays, no security lines, fast boarding, few restrictions, plenty of leg room, a cafe nearby, and a fast ride to your destination – this is what high speed rail delivers day after day.”

High-speed rail allows people to see/visit new places.

"The Case For High Speed Rail." Bright Green. March 2nd, 2011

“I’ve talked to people who choose to go day trips to places they’ve never considered before after seeing them from a train window.”

High-speed rail helps relieve air-travel congestion.

US High-Speed Rail Association

“HIGH SPEED RAIL = FREEDOM! Freedom from the daily hassles, delays, dangers, and problems America’s transportation systems have become.”

Rail travel has fewer weather related delays.

Rail travel has less weather dependency than air travel. If the rail system is well-designed and well-operated, severe weather conditions such as heavy snow, heavy fog, and storms do not affect the journeys; whereas flights are generally canceled or delayed under these conditions. Nevertheless, snow and wind can cause some issues and can delay trains.

Airplanes better than high-speed trains for long distances

Jack Mobley. "A case against high-speed rail." Merced Sun Star. December 11th, 2010

“For long distances, the advantage of air travel over the train is obvious. Why would someone ride a train when one can buy a ticket and fly the same Los Angeles-to- San Francisco route in half the time for nearly half the proposed high-speed rail fare?”

Improving airport access better than new high-speed rail.

If the problem with airports is that they are too hard to get to, then access should be improved, with public transit such as light rail systems extending to the airport. This would cut the overall trip-time associated with air-travel, and would make high-speed transport less important.

High speed rail cannot seriously displace air travel.

"On the wrong track: Why high-speed trains are not such a green alternative." Guardian. April 29th, 2010

“HSR is promoted as something that can sort out nasty carbon-producing aircraft on domestic routes. It has done this on the Paris-Lyon and Madrid-Seville lines, but this ability to trash a single air route should not be interpreted as something than can dent the growth of air travel. Germany has one of the largest HSR systems in the world, yet has seen an explosion in internal air travel.”

Vs upgrading: HSR better than upgrading old infrastructure?

Upgrading existing lines is ineffective solution.

Philip Hammond. "High Speed Rail: the case for." The Telegraph. November 26th, 2010

“Opponents of the project have asked why we cannot simply upgrade our existing infrastructure to deal with this capacity challenge. But no upgrade of existing infrastructure can deliver the huge improvements in journey times and the transformation of our economic geography that a new high speed network would bring. Reliability would also deteriorate as we tried to squeeze ever more capacity out of existing, mixed-use lines. And another major upgrade to the West Coast Main Line would deliver years of disruption and huge economic cost.”

High-speed rail has greater capacity than roads.

Railroad tracks permit a far higher throughput of passengers per hour than a road the same width. A high speed rail needs just a double track railway, one track for each direction. A typical capacity is 15 trains per hour and 800 passengers per train (as for the Eurostar sets), which implies a capacity of 12,000 passengers per hour in each direction. By way of contrast, the Highway Capacity Manual gives a maximum capacity for a single lane of highway of 2,250 passenger cars per hour (excluding trucks or RVs). Assuming an average vehicle occupancy of 1.57 people,[50] a standard twin track railway has a typical capacity 13% greater than a 6-lane highway (3 lanes each way), while requiring only 40% of the land (1.0/3.0 versus 2.5/7.5 hectares per kilometer of direct/indirect land consumption). This means that typical passenger rail carries 2.83 times as many passengers per hour per meter (width) as a road.

High-speed rail offers freedom

US High-Speed Rail Association

“HIGH SPEED RAIL = FREEDOM! Freedom from the daily hassles, delays, dangers, and problems America’s transportation systems have become.”

Expanding roads and runways better than high-speed rail.

Jack Mobley. "A case against high-speed rail." Merced Sun Star. December 11th, 2010

“The argument that not building this train system would mean building more highways and more runways doesn’t hold water either. If we’re going to have to build one or the other, why not build the one which gives us the better options, namely more highways and runways? Lanes can be added to existing highways and more runways added to existing airports more easily than overcoming the logistical nightmare of 800 miles of high-speed rail cutting through the heart of California.”

Train capacity can be increased without HSR

"On the wrong track: Why high-speed trains are not such a green alternative." Guardian. April 29th, 2010

“High-speed rail will indeed increase capacity, especially if it proceeds on German and French models and produces new lines across open countryside. But what is not addressed is why we need the increased capacity, and whether or not this is the right way to go about it. Capacity is routinely increased in mainland Europe by using double-decker trains for passenger travel.”

Decentralized country planning better than high speed rail.

"On the wrong track: Why high-speed trains are not such a green alternative." Guardian. April 29th, 2010

“We could even have a policy about developing strongly independent cities, such as those in Germany. The “need” to travel to London is a result of decades of public and private policy and cash to centralise functions there and to avoid the idea that Newcastle upon Tyne, Leeds, Manchester, Birmingham and Liverpool could operate as high-level attractive financial, cultural, corporate HQ and media centres, just as Frankfurt, Munich and Hamburg do in Germany.”

High speed rail based on falsely seductive idea of speed.

"On the wrong track: Why high-speed trains are not such a green alternative." Guardian. April 29th, 2010

“There is something quite seductive about speed. It sounds good, and economists cling to the misleading idea that saving time saves money and produces an economic bonus that the whole of society can share.”

Environment: Is high-speed rail environmentally friendly?

High-speed trains are highly sustainable and green.

US High-Speed Rail Association

“Trains are the most sustainable & green form of transportation. Electric high speed rail is the most energy efficient of all trains. A national high speed rail system is the centerpiece of a sustainable America, and will significantly reduce congestion and our dependence on cars and oil, while cutting our carbon emissions by epic proportions. The entire system can be powered by clean, safe renewable energy including wind, solar, geothermal, and ocean/tidal. Clean electric trains are a major form of daily transportation in numerous countries, and are the single most powerful transportation choice that can solve serious mobility, energy, environmental, economic, health, and social problems simultaneously – on a global scale.”

High speed rail efficiently increases capacity.

US High-Speed Rail Association

“True high speed rail (186+ mph) shortens trip times more than 70% over slower, conventional rail. This increased speed equates to faster trips, higher ridership, and far greater overall capacity of the system to carry much higher numbers of people each day. In addition, each train can do more round trips per day, requiring less equipment, and making the true high speed rail business model far more profitable than slower, conventional rail.”

High speed rail creates green jobs

More travel with high-speed rail is bad for environment.

"On the wrong track: Why high-speed trains are not such a green alternative." Guardian. April 29th, 2010

“If we are serious about reducing our carbon emissions by 80% by 2050, we should not move towards higher speed, more carbon intensive forms of transport and a policy of increasing the mass of travel.”

Too few will ride HSR to have environmental impact.

Samuel Staley. "The Pragmatic Case Against High-Speed Rail." Reason Foundation. June 22, 2009

“It won’t relieve urban traffic congestion and its contribution to improving air quality (or reducing carbon dioxide emissions) will be negligible because it won’t carry enough riders to make a big difference.”

To access the second half of this Issue Report or Buy Issue Report

To access the second half of all Issue Reports or