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Tuesday, January 25, 2011

You want REAL high-speed trains?

Yesterday I traveled from Brussels to London by train through the Channel Tunnel. The cities are 215 miles apart as the crow flies, and my train was scheduled for 1 hour 49 minutes en route. (It arrived 5 minutes late). Using air mileage, the train has an average speed of 118 mph including a station stop at Lille, where passengers can transfer to/from trains of southern France without having to change stations in Paris.

I'd estimate that the train I rode -- one of many that day -- carried about 200 passengers who would have filled a medium-size airliner. Allowing for transit time from the center of Brussels to the Brussels airport and from Heathrow into the centre of London, the train was probably faster than flying.

Years ago I rode a Japanese Shinkansen from Tokyo to Osaka. Westerners call them bullet trains, which the early trainsets did resemble (although "shinkansen" in Japanese means merely "new main line"). The Shinkansen fleet carries an average of 400,000 passengers a day between cities that are 300 miles apart. Some trains operate at an average speed of 127 mph, including several stops en route. Again, the trains are basically time-competitive with flying -- although a fleet of Airbus A380s could not handle that many people per day.

Four things make these trains feasible.
  • Population density along the routes is high.
  • Endpoint cities have comprehensive mass transit systems.
  • The railways have developed specialized technology.
  • The national governments have allocated billions to construct the infrastructure.
Ecologically speaking, these trains do require energy; the laws of physics have not been repealed. On the whole, however, they require less energy per passenger than any other type of transport. And in the case of France, where the majority of electricity is nuclear-sourced, there are no ongoing carbon emissions.

The four conditions I have listed above don't apply anywhere in the USA -- at least, not yet. The well-intentioned Amtrak "high speed" [sic] service connecting Washington, New York, and Boston compares poorly, although it's better than nothing. The Obama administration has tossed around some grant money to stimulate new high-speed rail projects, but I can't see where the funding to finish the projects will come from. Too bad. Here is a case where the USA has a transportation infrastructure of a second-world nature.

P.S. Traversing the Channel Tunnel takes about 20 minutes and is the most boring part of the trip.