An American Shinkansen

Challenges, Solutions, and Utility of High-Speed Rail Networks

Enabling daily commutes from Frederick to Baltimore, or Bakersfield to Los Angeles, high speed rail has the potential to strengthen trade, commerce, and mobility between American cities. While I would agree that it is unlikely, based on our current models to assume these projects could pay for themselves with ticket revenue alone, we can weigh enhanced mobility and freedom of movement with a limited national high-speed rail network.

The United States has traditionally been the nation of cars, trucks, highways, and airports. There is no doubt in the world that this culture is here to stay, and that Americans will always be out buying big cars, even if it means guzzling more gas.

Ford F-150, the nation’s single most popular vehicle (Ford)

If there’s one thing I’d like to leave here with the reader in this article, it’s that high-speed rail is not an attempt to socialize transportation or privilege urban states over rural states. I want to make the case that high-speed rail has some issues currently, but that these issues can be sorted out with some investment in new technologies.

High-speed rail is also the only fast cross-country transportation method that can currently be made emissions-free. Also, safety is often made a question; Japanese Shinkansen bullet trains have never had transportation-related fatalities or any derailments when passengers were on board, despite the earthquake-proneness of the Japanese islands. The only fatality that can be attributed to the trains was a freak accident in which a child was dragged to death after catching their finger in one of the train’s sliding doors.

California High-Speed Rail (Associated Press)

At the moment, many cities and states are looking into bullet trains, although few have actually begun construction. The most famous is the California high-Speed Rail, which will extend 520 miles in phase one. The cost estimate for phase one has been pushed to between $63-$98 billion, and is not expected to be completed until at least 2033.

There is a lack of transport from stations to final destinations, and ticket prices could be pretty substantial. I imagine most consumers will find it better to stick with owning a car until these trains can be made faster, cheaper, and more convenient.

One upcoming solution to the lack of intermediary transport is self-driving taxis, which will make taxi rides very affordable, and even competitive with car ownership. These high-tech taxis and trains could make 25-50 mile commutes faster and more convenient, and would reduce costs of living by allowing people to live in cheaper areas further out from work opportunities.

While these trains could possibly provide some utility at the metropolitan level, it makes much more sense right now to stick with airplanes for long distance travel since passenger airlines cost less than half a mile of high-speed rail, and are a couple times faster than the fastest trains.

Transportation Wars: Elon Strikes Again

We can see that high-speed rail really doesn’t offer the sorts of advantages right now that would make it a particularly worthwhile investment, however, this could change in the coming decade. Several companies are working on developing a so-called “hyperloop,” which could theoretically travel at the speed of sound.

Hyperloop Transportation Technologies Capsule (HTT)

Famous tech-industrialist Elon Musk is adamant that hyperloop can work, and will revolutionize travel in the 21st century. This is yet to be seen, and there are some big challenges that must be overcome. The first hurdle is getting a train up to the speed of sound in a near-vacuum. While this part may not be so difficult, powering the trains over long distances could require a great deal of expensive infrastructure, or innovations in battery density.

Another significant challenge is creating a tube which can be depressurized to a near-vacuum, and then remain depressurized. A rupture or breach in the hyperloop tube would cause it to literally implode, causing irreparable damage to the entire route and pod, potentially threatening the health and safety of passengers. One proposed way of avoiding depressurization is putting the tubes underground, which could add significantly to the cost.

When it comes to costs, high speed rail has traditionally come in at $100-200 million per mile, meaning a route from Columbus to Detroit would cost anywhere from $20-40 billion. Construction could be financed, but it wouldn’t necessarily pay for itself. In 2013, Elon Musk boldly claimed his hyperloop proposal could cost as little as $11.5 million per mile.

Elon Musk’s tunneling company Boring Co. succeeded in getting the cost of small tunnels down to $10 million per mile, which could help reduce the cost of actually implementing hyperloop when it’s finally working as advertised. The cost of hyperloop would likely exceed $100 million per mile, and since it carries fewer passengers, even at a higher speed of travel, would bring in significantly less revenue than airplanes.

Concept Hyperloop Interior (Hardt)

If the theory can be made a reality, and then see radical cost decreases, hyperloop could revolutionize transportation and steal market share away from airlines, saving us from the obnoxious noise of jumbo jets flying over our cities.

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