I was reading an article about a high-speed rail network in China, and I began to think of the arguments made in America for the potential implementation of high-speed rail in this country. Some of the statements I’ve read compare established high-speed rail systems in European countries and Japan, and essentially argue that the smaller size of those countries allow high-speed rail to flourish better than in a country the size of the U.S. (Just to give you an idea of size Japan is slightly smaller than California, Spain is more than twice the size of Oregon, France is just less than twice the size of Colorado, and the United Kingdom is a little smaller than Oregon.) Of course these smaller countries can have a more successful high-speed rail network because their major cities are closer together.
But even in a country like China, despite being only slightly smaller than the United States, most of their major metropolitan areas are located along the east coast. The United States appears to be the exception when it comes to a larger country that has major metropolitan areas equally spread throughout the country. Despite having major cities located throughout the country there are a handful of mega-metropolises such as the Northeast Corridor (from Boston to Washington, D.C.), Florida (Miami-Tampa/St. Pete-Orlando), Texas Triangle (Dallas/Ft. Worth-San Antonio-Houston), Southern California (Los Angeles-San Diego), and the Bay Area (San Francisco-Oakland-San Jose), and it’s this idea of a regional high-speed rail system that makes so much more sense than trying to create a single national system.
The idea of taking a train from LA to New York doesn’t make a lot of sense when we already have the option of flying between these cities. Of course it doesn’t make a lot of sense to take a 45-minute flight from one city to another, especially when you consider it’s typically recommended that you arrive at the airport 60 to 90 minutes before your flight. So in my mind I don’t see high-speed rail as a substitute for all air travel, but there are instances where short regional trips by air would be greatly improved by high-speed rail. (Think of these regions as European countries.) There are some other issues that plague the air travel industry which would benefit from the option of high-speed rail such as flight congestion, traveling in bad weather, the ability for a passenger to use his/her phone and computer during travel, and connecting to medium-sized cities whose airports have limited travel destinations (and may not be profitable).
But the aspect of high-speed rail that the airlines can’t do is provide a meaningful asset to spur community growth. Airports typically are not located anywhere near the central business district of a city. They prefer a lot of open terrain with very sparse development and low buildings. Industries related to air travel (hotels, rental cars, shipping companies) will set up shop in close proximity to the airport, but for the most part commercial and residential development can’t thrive in that environment. For this reason airports have a difficult time becoming a major hub for local transportation.
Train stations are able to thrive in an urban environment, and thus have the ability to become a major hub for regional and local transportation. It’s a building type that can complement adjacent commercial and residential districts within a major city, but it also provides a physical connection between the central business district (CBD) of a major city to residents from medium-sized cities beyond the metropolitan region. An example of this is if there was a high-speed rail between Chicago (IL) and St. Louis (MO), and there were stops in between in Peoria (IL) and Springfield (IL). (This next sentence might give some people flashbacks to algebra, so for that I apologize in advance.) A person living in Springfield, which is approximately 100 miles from downtown St. Louis, could take a high-speed train traveling 160 mph/260 kph (which seemed to be a nice medium for high-speed trains throughout the world) and reach his destination in just over thirty minutes. So in this scenario not only does the CBD of the major city (destination) benefit but so does the CBD of the medium-sized city (origination).
This type of travel will most likely redefine how people see suburbia. Many people live in suburbia for the openness (whether it’s real or perceived) of the natural environment (i.e. some people like to have a big yard). So what makes more sense – living in a nearby suburb and driving 60 minutes to work every morning or living a hundred miles away and taking a train ride for 35 minutes?
High-speed rail is not the answer for all of our transportation woes, just like how air travel has proven not to be the answer either. A comprehensive system that includes the advantages of all transportation methods, from a national network of airlines and a regional network of high-speed rails to a local transportation network including light rail, buses, cars, bicycles, and even pedestrian traffic. If you want a sustainable built environment the key is to strengthen the connections between all types of transportation and being able to maximize the attributes of each mode of transportation.