In May, 1986, my wife and I were in Vancouver for the World’s Fair. One of the top attractions was a Japanese mag-lev train, which uses electro-magnets to hover over the rails.
The line to get on for a demonstration ride was too long, so we did some other things for a couple of hours and then stopped for lunch. We sat at a table next to a chain link fence without looking to see what was on the other side. A few minutes later, I heard a “whoosh” behind me. When I turned to see what it was, I saw one of the mag-lev trains racing past. There were none of the normal train-on-track sounds, just the soft whoosh of air displacement as the train passed. I thought, “that’s a technology that has a great future, and I can’t wait until it comes to the United States.”
Here we are more than two decades later, and that technology hasn’t taken hold here, but in Japan, the bullet train moves people quietly, at high speeds, throughout the country. Meanwhile, in France, their version of the bullet train — which does ride on rails, rather than above them — just broke a speed record by going 357mph. And China is investing heavily in high-speed rail, with thousands of miles of tracks under construction.
So, why hasn’t the US jumped onboard? It would take a massive investment in infrastructure, of course, and would have to overcome tremendous pressure and opposition from the airline industry and others. But I’d like to see us undertake a national commitment to high-speed rail, similar to the interstate highway system a half-century ago.
With customer complaints about airline travel rising every week, and concerns about gas prices and fuel consumption making headlines every day and changing America’s travel habits, now might be the time. Other reasons:
- Less vulnerable to terrorism. It’s awfully hard to take down a skyscraper with a train. True, they’re vulnerable to the kind of attack we saw in Madrid a couple of years ago, but so are Amtrak trains currently, and we haven’t had to ramp up security to ridiculous airport-like levels for that. Imagine being able to travel quickly between US cities without having to remove your shoes for a TSA screener.
- Train travel is more comfortable, with more leg room, and more room to get up and walk around. Listeners who have been on the Japanese bullet train tell me that you don’t even feel any vibration or tilting during the trip — one guy said he didn’t even notice a ripple in the glass of wine he had with lunch. Others who have traveled on the French TGV report a much more comfortable ride than on any commercial flight.
- With average speeds of 180mph on long hauls — trips of over an hour — you could travel from St. Louis to Chicago or Kansas City in about 90 minutes. Take an Amtrak train today and the ride takes 5-6 hours, no better than you’d do in your own car. That’s why so few people ride the rails now, because it doesn’t save time.
- Unlike air travel, the train can go from downtown to downtown, a big plus for business travelers who have to waste time getting to and from the airport at each end.
- Eminent domain would have to be used to create the right-of-way for the new track that would have to be laid. But better to use it for this than for the $1.1 billion boondoggle that kicked families out of their homes in Bridgeton (MO) to make way for a new Lambert Airport runway that no flights land on! Why do we need new track? Because the current rail system is set up to facilitate freight transport, making passenger travel a secondary priority. We’d have to eliminate those waits on side tracks while a freight train rolls through. We’d also have to eliminate all those grade-level crossings, to make the ride as secure and simple as possible.
For political support, we’ll appeal to Democrats’ environmental sensibilities. For Republicans, we’ll appeal to their patriotism, telling them there’s no reason to be behind the dreaded French in anything (we could even call our high-speed rail The Freedom Train!). For both of them, we’ll talk about creating jobs and new technologies, rather than relying on decades-old methods of getting from place to place.
In the 21st century, Americans want everything to be quicker — here’s one more way to make that happen.