APTA | Passenger Transport
January 31, 2011

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Maximize the Benefits to Promote High-Speed Rail
BY CHUCK McCUTCHEON, Special to Passenger Transport

Saying that high-speed rail is facing a crucial need for greater public and political support, several of the technology’s highest-profile proponents are imploring their fellow backers to start talking up its many benefits so it can win wider acceptance.

Panelists at a Jan. 23 forum during the Transportation Research Board’s 90th Annual Meeting expressed satisfaction with the progress of high-speed rail in recent years, with $4.3 billion obligated to projects nationwide and another $2.7 billion close to obligation. But they said that, in a tightly constrained budget environment, they are concerned that too much emphasis could be placed on its upfront costs and not on its overall benefits.

“Our biggest challenge is one that I call all of you to action on … we need help with the continued communications challenges,” said Karen Rae, deputy administrator of the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA). “This makes sense in the rest of the world; this is new to a lot of Americans.”

APTA President William Millar agreed with Rae, saying that high-speed rail funding must be put in the context of making sure the U.S. remains economically abreast of nations that already have invested in—and are enjoying the benefits of—the technology.

“We have a competitive global future in front of us, and we need to wring every ounce of efficiency from our transportation system that we can,” Millar said. As a result, he told the audience of more than 150 people: “If we believe in this, you have an obligation to not only vote, but to talk to your representatives, talk to your mayors, talk to your neighbors. We have to make that happen.”

Citing one area where more education is necessary, Millar said he hopes that officials in the freight rail industry eventually will see high-speed rail as a business opportunity “in the way that they haven’t seen passenger rail in the past.”

The forum came as the Obama administration’s serious commitment to high-speed rail has run into some uncertainty with Republicans regaining the majority in the House.

Rep. John Mica (R-FL), the new chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, believes in the concept of high-speed rail, although he has said he wants to review how the money has been spent. A statement on the committee’s web site says the mode has “potential” in boosting U.S. transportation infrastructure.

But other Republicans are more skeptical. A budget-cutting proposal introduced Jan. 20 by the Republican Study Committee, the informal caucus of conservatives in the House, slashes more than 100 programs, including $2.5 billion in annual intercity and high-speed rail grants.

Anthony Perl, chairman of TRB’s Intercity Passenger Rail Committee, acknowledged that the decades-long debate over Amtrak’s viability as a national passenger railroad “crowded out” discussion of high-speed rail’s potential.

Rae and others at the forum repeatedly stressed that high-speed rail must be regarded as augmenting existing modes of transportation and not as a competitor. “It’s not about adding rail at the expense of everything else,” she said. “It’s about adding rail as a complement to everything else.”

But that presents its own challenges, said Angel Aparicio, who has worked on Spain’s transportation system and is a professor at the Civil Engineering School of Madrid. He noted that high-speed rail has been shown to be a successful substitute for air transport, but it remains less obvious under what conditions high-speed rail and airlines can cooperate.

Panelists stated that high-speed rail’s global warming-friendly technology and unmatched global safety record must become important parts of the national conversation.

“We killed 43,000 people two years ago on U.S. highways—that’s an epidemic,” said Rod Diridon, executive director of California’s Mineta Transportation Institute and past chair of APTA’s High-Speed and Intercity Rail Committee. “Yet the oldest high-speed train systems in the world, Japan and France, have not had one fatality.”

At the outset of his talk, Diridon asked the audience for a show of hands for how many believed that high-speed rail eventually will happen. About half did so, prompting him to respond, “That’s better than most.”

To address Republicans’ call for more public-private partnerships on rail financing and operations, Millar said APTA is working with several groups, including the International Union of Railways (UIC). UIC Director-General Jean-Pierre Loubinoux said the organization will hold its Eighth World High-Speed Rail Congress in the U.S. in July 2012.

Loubinoux also said he sees no reason why the U.S. cannot join other nations that have invested heavily in high-speed rail. He advised that, as plans move forward for rail lines, great emphasis should go toward train stations as “centers of harmonizing the different modes of transportation.”

Some nations, such as Germany, have worked to develop Internet trip-planning sites that integrate high-speed rail with other transportation modes, said Patrick Hoenniger, a transport research planner at that country’s Research Institute for Regional and Urban Development. He also said Switzerland has developed a sophisticated combined-ticketing approach—for about $3,400 U.S. annually, customers can obtain a card enabling them to use the country’s entire public transportation network.

Perl said in closing that two key questions remain to be addressed: whether incremental progress will make it easier or more challenging for high-speed rail to advance, and how Americans’ travel behavior will change over the next 15 years. He said the latter will hinge on forces beyond the scope of the rail community, such as interest in climate change and in reducing foreign dependence on oil.

“The faster that those changes happen, the greater the demand [for high-speed rail] will be in North America,” he said.


Panelists at the event include, from left, William Millar, Jean-Pierre Loubinoux, Rod Diridon, and Karon Rae. 

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