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On the Fast Track

The rest of the developed world has high-speed rail. We don't. That's finally about to change.

With its soaring, arched ceilings, 20-story bell tower, and gilded frescoes, the Gare de Lyon rail station in Paris feels like a kind of church. This cathedral of transport was built for the World Exposition of 1900, a Belle Époque celebration of the achievements in science and technology that had given birth to the Industrial Revolution a century earlier. Coal soot and dark halos of steam billowed in the rafters, symbols of the original builders' faith in eternal progress.

Today, sunlight streams through the roof, layers of caked-on coal grime having long since been scrubbed from the latticework of glass and steel. Gleaming silver-and-blue trains glide noiselessly in and out of the station, pushed and pulled at both ends by electrical "power units" that nuzzle the concrete platforms with aerodynamic, space-shuttle-like noses. These supertrains, which shoot through the countryside at almost 200 miles an hour, have transformed the Gare de Lyon from a sooty monument of the revolution that brought us global warming into something quite different. Now it's a temple to high-speed rail, a technology that some experts say is essential to helping us get out of our climate fix.

One day last fall, I stood next to a 30-foot-tall palm tree in the Gare de Lyon waiting to board a TGV -- train à grande vitesse, or high-speed train -- to Avignon. Fifteen minutes before my train was scheduled to leave, its platform number flashed up on the station's black-and-yellow departures board. I ambled to my assigned car and found my seat -- no waiting in line for check-in, security, or boarding. The train, a double-decker with a capacity of 545 passengers, was about two-thirds full. Even then, it was carrying as many people as a Boeing 747, yet with far greater comfort and freedom of movement than any commercial airplane in my experience as a frequent flier.

The doors whooshed shut at the appointed minute and the train started moving -- slowly at first, then gathering speed as it approached the southern outskirts of Paris. At some point during the transition from city to country, I looked out the window and realized that the train had accelerated to a speed roughly twice as fast as I had ever moved before at ground level. Trees, bridges, and electric poles appeared and disappeared before my eyes could focus on them. Trains rushed by in the opposite direction, producing a violent sonic jolt that would have been annoying had it not lasted less than two seconds. Inside the brightly decorated cars, however, the only sensation of movement was a gentle swaying. The train pulled into the Avignon TGV station exactly on schedule, having covered 463 miles in 2 hours and 40 minutes (average speed: 174 miles per hour, including slowdowns for several miles at each end of the trip). My ticket cost $75 -- about the same as the cheapest available airfare from Paris to Marseille (the major airport nearest to my destination), yet sans the hassle of getting to and from distant airports, not to mention the possibility of maddening air-traffic delays.

An hour after arriving in Avignon, I relaxed in the medieval quaintness of the village that was my final destination and reflected on my journey. It was not only as fast as air travel, but incomparably more pleasant. It is also safer than any other form of transportation. France's TGV service has carried 1.5 billion passengers since it started in 1981, without a single fatality during high-speed operations. (There have been fatal accidents in urban areas, where the TGV shares the track with conventional trains and moves at the same speed.) And, while the TGV runs on steel rails just like its slower-moving predecessors, my trip that day was as different from conventional train travel (average speed: 40 mph, charitably reckoned) as driving a car is from taking a horse-drawn buggy. With its speed and convenience, high-speed rail could revolutionize travel in the United States by offering an attractive alternative to cars and airplanes for regional trips.

Several states are improving existing rail lines with the goal of offering "medium-fast" (around 110 mph) service within the decade (see "Slow, Slow, Quick-Quick, Slow," this issue), but California has pulled into the lead as the probable site of America's first true high-speed (top operating speed: 220 mph) system. Supporters hope it will be whizzing passengers between Los Angeles and San Francisco by 2020. Once the technology has a foothold in the United States, its rapid spread will become more and more likely as the economic, environmental, and practical benefits sink in. State-of-the-art high-speed rail systems don't come cheap, but the price of not building them will be astronomical, in both economic and environmental terms. As far as the planet's climate is concerned, high-speed rail can't come fast enough.

Trains, even painfully slow ones powered by diesel engines, are inherently efficient compared with other ways of moving people and cargo. The reasons have to do with basic physics. Steel wheels on steel tracks have much lower rolling resistance than rubber tires on pavement. One train uses less energy to overcome wind resistance than the number of trucks or cars that would be needed to haul an equal load the same distance. A single freight train can take as many as 280 trucks off the highway and uses a quarter as much fuel as an average truck to move a ton one mile. Amtrak passenger trains, hardly paragons of up-to-date technology, consume on average 18 percent less energy per passenger mile than airplanes and 27 percent less than cars. So policies that encourage and expand rail transport will yield net reductions in both oil dependence and greenhouse gas emissions.

image of Craig Canine
OnEarth contributing editor Craig Canine lives in Washington State.  He enjoys riding the Amtrak Cascades (but wishes it were a tad faster).

I think Europe and Japan have had the right idea for years. We (Americans) are only now catching on. Train travel is better than bus, auto or air, if the technology is modern and eco-friendly. No 1890's coal-fired steam engines! Transportation for people isn't the only good use for this. It would also be beneficial for transporting goods, like produce to supermarkets. Although I support the consumption of local produce, there are many things we can't raise effectively in northern climates and people like their oranges in winter. Shipping these from Florida to New York via electric train, rather than gasoline-powered trucks would be fabulous for the environment and our health. It would also clear the roads of unnecessary traffic. High-speed trains, though, would probably be wasted on this.

Auto-manufacturers and Oil giants made sure that we don't have high speed trains. We are paying now. Every major city should be connected via high speed train. People should call their congressmen and senators to act quickly. Huge job creation, manufacturing, servicer etc., will generate huge jobs and taxes to the government.

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February 24th, 2059
WASHINGTON D.C.- Yesterday, the American Rail Association CEO spoke with the President about existing plans to begin construction on a new rail line between New York and Boston. The company, which was also in charge of the Sacremento High Speed project, now 30 years and $10.8 trillion over budgit, is expected to outsource much of the needed resources to Japan and China. After the recent scandal involving the ARA's former CEO, who knows what will become of America's high speed rail vision, imagined nearly 50 years ago.

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There are many problems with high speed rail in the US:

1. Security
One of the reasons air travel is such a pain is for security checks. Once some group blows up a few trains, like in Spain, security checks will be every bit as onerous as with planes.

2. Land appropriation
It's easier to buy/obtain a little bit of land for airports than a lot of land with hundreds of owners for train tracks across multiple states. Environmental impact studies are needed for train tracks too.

3. Capital expense
Rail in the US simply isn't competitive and doesn't make money. The gas tax pays for roads for cars and trucks. The airline ticket tax pays for the FAA and airports. But for some reason rail requires general tax revenues. Why?

4. Weather
The Detroit to Chicago train route works nicely until it snows too much. Then you have 12 hour delays. See . Which is easier to plow, 2 miles of runway or 300 miles of train track?

I'm not completely against high-speed rail, but would rather we spend money speeding up air travel, especially for routes longer than 300 miles. Why travel at 200 mph when you can travel at 600 mph? We should have more small and medium-sized airports instead of fewer massive ones that are hard to get into and out of. Traveling from smallish airports like Toledo or Flint is a joy.

all of which are also problems with air travel - save that air travel uses more fuel and pollutes more.

I was having this discussion with a friend the other day actually. We were talking about the shift that occurred after the Industrial Revolution from cities to suburbia. This not only added to economic stratification in the US, it also established a way of life that had not previously existed. While families living away from cities were considered to be living the 'American dream,' the individuals left behind were the working poor.

While a high-speed rail system would increase productivity and connect people in a way like never before, my friend argued against this. Why? fear of terrorism.

What do you think?

Never forget that building railways is a hugh problem especially for high speed trains:
- The trajectory must be a straight line without curves. (When you have to take the land of persons)
- These trains generate a lot of sound pollution.
- It is difficult to scale with the traffic
- Without efficient public transportation in the departure and destination, it is useless for commuting..

(I live in Switzerland.)

i never forget that people in europe have somehow figured out how to have access to high speed rail. also people in japan - a much more comparably sized country. if it's so difficult, how did they ever figure out how to do it? Isn't the u.s. capable of benefiting from their experience?

High speed rail is not profitable anywhere and isn't likely to be in the US with it's high cost. It is unlikely to have a positive impact on the environment and worst of all it is completely unnecessary (not to say obsolete). With airfare from San Francisco to Los Angeles at $30, do we really need to pay $50 to get there in double the time? High speed rail is the worst kind of government subsidy: it solves a problem that doesn't exist and distributes the cost on the American taxpayer. But the worst effects are the unintended ones: it will hurt profitable airlines, because it is impossible to compete with a subsidized monopoly.
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Why not surpass the rest of the world and build vactrains? They use underground vacuum tubes and can theoretically reach speeds of 8000 km/h

imagine a person working in los angeles taking a train to go to nyc for lunch.

I wonder who needs to hear about this in order to get the gears turning?

Bravo! I do hope that California can lead the way for us in the Midwest. Boomers might live to take the High Speed trains from California, Illinois or Indiana to Florida. Us Hoosiers could take trains to Chicago and back for a one day shopping spree, or Cubs game in Summer.
Visiting relatives in New York would no longer be the chore it is now.

There is just one passenger train a day that runs down the length of the Pioneer Valley from Brattleboro, Vermont to Springfield, Mass. Assuming the train is on time, which it often isn’t, it takes two hours and nine minutes to get from Brattleboro to Springfield. That’s an average speed of 27 miles per hour. (The train makes just one stop, in Amherst.) Driving from Brattleboro to Springfield usually takes under an hour.

On the Boston to New York City Amtrak line, trains travel at speeds of up to 150 miles per hour and average about 60, including stops. To understand why Amtrak is so slow in the Valley, one must travel down the river from Brattleboro to Deerfield, Mass., home of Pan Am Railways’ sprawling freight train parking lot and repair facility.

Pan Am Railways (until recently known as Guilford Rail System) runs freight trains on about 1,600 miles of track that it owns in New England and New York. Pan Am is privately held, not publicly traded, so executive compensation and other information is unavailable. The company’s spokesman, David Fink, did not respond to repeated requests to be interviewed for this article.

Timothy Mellon of Old Lyme, Conn. owns most of Pan Am and controls the company. Mellon bought the railroad in 1981 for $24 million cash. In 1998, he spent $30 million to acquire the bankrupt Pan Am airline, which now operates flights between Florida and cities like Elmira, N.Y. and Bedford, Mass. Mellon later merged the two companies. Mellon, heir to one of America’s biggest fortunes, has been a major donor to President Bush and Republican members of Congress, and was a founder of the Heritage Foundation, a conservative advocacy group.

Pan Am is a big part of the reason Amtrak takes so long to get from Brattleboro to Springfield, and why there is no longer passenger rail service in Northampton. Until 1987, Amtrak took the direct route down the Valley, on Pan Am’s tracks alongside the Connecticut River through Greenfield and Northampton.

Because Pan Am did such a poor job maintaining its tracks, trains were required to go so slowly that it became faster for Amtrak to switch to a more circuitous route over tracks owned by New England Central Railroad. This new route, which is still used today, sent trains traveling from Brattleboro to Springfield on a detour through Amherst and Palmer. Today, Pan Am’s track in the Valley is in such bad repair that its trains typically average five to 10 miles per hour. When Pan Am workers want to stretch their legs they will sometimes get off the train they’re on and walk alongside it as it travels up and down the Valley. So you don’t have to be an economist to see why most companies that need to move freight up and down the Valley put it on trucks that go 70 miles an hour on I-91, rather than on Pan Am’s tortoise-like trains.
Even at the glacial speeds they travel, Pan Am’s trains sometimes derail. A Pan Am freight train derailed in Deerfield in September. Several of the heavy cars ended up lying on their sides, perpendicular to the tracks. (Witnesses to another recent derailment on New England Central tracks near Brattleboro compared the sound to an earthquake.) Deerfield police, fire, and ambulance personnel rushed to the scene, fearing that federally-designated hazardous material on the train had spilled. It turned out that the cars carrying hazardous material did not derail.
In October the town sent Pan Am a bill for $6,915 for the emergency services it provided. The Advocate obtained a copy of a Nov. 22 letter from Pan Am lawyer Clinton Wright to the town. In three pages of highly legalistic prose written in tiny type, Wright refused to pay the bill, writing, “It is Pan Am’s position that it is not liable to the Town or Fire Districts for costs associated with emergency response actions as there was no release of hazardous materials warranting such response action.”
Carolyn Shores Ness is a member of the Deerfield selectboard. She has worked aggressively to get Pan Am to pay what it owes the town for the derailment. She also wants Pan Am to pay a whopping $228,078 it owes Deerfield in back taxes. “The railroad has not been a good neighbor,” she said. “When a major taxpayer doesn’t pay its taxes, it impacts the ability of our small, volunteer-run government to deliver services like schools and police.”
Deerfield police chief Michael Wozniakewicz recently expressed concern about Pan Am’s plans to remove the security guards it had provided at the Deerfield rail yard. Wozniakewicz said local police will have more calls to answer without the two officers Pan Am had previously stationed at the yards. Last year the company cut 60 percent of its police force system-wide, though in the post-9/11 world both passenger trains and freight trains carrying hazardous cargo are considered potential terrorist targets.
In 2004, a Pan Am train carrying sulfuric acid derailed in Greenfield, according to the Greenfield Recorder. The year before that, another Pan Am train carrying propane and chlorine derailed in Charlemont. No spills were reported either time. But in 1999, a Pan Am train derailed and spilled 6,000 gallons of latex into the Deerfield River.
“It turned the whole river white,” Charlemont selectboard member Chuck Bellows told the Advocate recently. “It wasn’t paint. We weren’t sure what it was. They said it wasn’t hazardous. At the time, we talked about sending them [Pan Am] a bill for around $2,500 for our people’s time, but I don’t think we ever got around to doing it.”
Warren Flatau is a spokesman for the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA). He said Pan Am’s safety record is “pretty average” compared to other mid-size railroads. Flatau refused to say how much Pan Am has paid in fines for violating safety rules. After the Advocate filed a request under the federal Freedom of Information Act, the FRA disclosed that in the 10 years ending December 22, 2006, the FRA fined Pan Am $482,500 for 71 violations. The company paid just 57 percent of that amount, because FRA lowered the fines to avoid having to take Pan Am to court. When the Advocate asked the FRA for the average total fines for railroads the same size as Pan Am for the same time period, the FRA claimed it has no way to provide that information.
Andrea Donlon of the Greenfield-based Connecticut River Watershed Council has worked for years with Deerfield Planning Commission member Lynn Rose to try to get Pan Am to clean up the mess at its Deerfield yard. “The company’s technique for dealing with the groundwater pollution under the Deerfield rail yard is basically to not do anything and hope it goes away,” Donlon said. “We don’t know how serious the pollution is because the state and federal regulators haven’t done enough oversight of the yard.” Donlon noted that Pan Am’s rail yard is located at the juncture of the Deerfield and Connecticut rivers—a spot that a recent study concluded was the most important section of the entire Connecticut River for the shortnose sturgeon, an endangered species of fish.
Pan Am has about 1,000 employees, according to George Casey of the United Transportation Union, which represents about 175 Pan Am conductors and engineers. (Workers who do track maintenance and other jobs belong to different unions.) Casey said Pan Am treats its workers the way the Army treats soldiers. “They’re pretty discipline-oriented,” he said. “Our guys are expected to be available for work 24/7. They don’t get as much time off as they’d like. The average workweek is probably 48 hours.”
There is some good news when it comes to rail service in the Valley. The state of Connecticut recently announced it will extend frequent, low-fare commuter rail service from New Haven to Hartford, at a cost of some $300 million. It would cost Massachusetts about $30 million at first, then around $1.25 million per year, to extend and operate commuter rail service from Hartford to Springfield, said Tim Brennan, director of the Pioneer Valley Planning Commission. “The odds of commuter rail getting to Springfield are better than 50-50,” he said. “It depends on the legislature and the governor. In the best case scenario, commuter rail to Springfield could open for business by 2011.”
If that happens, Brennan added, it’s likely that commuter rail would eventually be extended from Springfield to Northampton, Greenfield, and Brattleboro. Brennan praised Congressman John Olver for his efforts to improve rail service in the Valley and urged people to call governor-elect Deval Patrick and their state legislators to urge them to support the Hartford-Springfield commuter rail project.
Commuter rail ridership in eastern Massachusetts roughly doubled between 1991 and 2004. That’s according to “Shifting Gears,” a 2006 report by the Massachusetts Public Interest Research Group (MassPIRG) and other environmental groups.
Meanwhile, the state of Vermont is “very keen” to get high-speed rail service restored along Pan Am’s more direct tracks from Brattleboro to Northampton and Springfield, Brennan said. Yet to be determined is whether Vermont will be willing to pay the cost of buying the rights to have Amtrak use Pan Am’s tracks in the Valley, and the cost of maintaining the tracks so trains could go more than 10 miles an hour. (After much resistance, Pan Am recently agreed to such a deal with Maine, allowing Amtrak service to resume between Boston and Portland.)
The Vermont legislature is expected to vote by the end of January on whether to spend $18 million on three high-tech, fuel efficient “self-propelled” train cars and two passenger train cars. Amtrak would contribute $2 million to the project. Vermont subsidizes the daily roundtrip Amtrak service that runs from Washington, D.C. to Burlington via New York City, New Haven, and the Valley.
Moving people and freight by train instead of by car and truck cuts global warming and acid rain, reduces suburban sprawl, and saves lives. Some 43,000 people are killed in auto accidents every year in the U.S. And, says Amtrak rider Carrie Dawes, trains are more fun. “Taking the train is more relaxing than driving,” Dawes said as she stood in the sun with a dozen or so other people on a recent Sunday afternoon waiting for a southbound train at the Brattleboro train station. “You get a nice view.”
Between 1992 and 2004, passenger rail ridership in the Boston-New York-Washington corridor grew by 40 percent. That means fewer people are dying in car accidents. In 2005, the most recent year for which data were available, 43,443 people were killed in auto accidents in the U.S. On a “passenger-mile” basis, trains were 38 times safer than automobiles, according to the National Safety Council. (Local buses were 15 times safer than autos; long-distance buses and scheduled airlines were both 150 times safer than private automobiles.)
Trains are also cleaner. Some 70,000 Americans are killed annually by air pollution, more than one-third of which comes from transportation (almost all the rest comes from heating buildings and generating electricity). Shipping a ton of freight by rail uses less than half the fuel a truck would use, according to the MassPIRG report. The environmental benefits of moving people by train are similar. One “passenger-mile” takes 1,600 BTUs of energy on a commuter train; 2,100 on Amtrak; 3,600 by car; 3,800 by domestic airplane; and 4,000 by SUV.
MassPIRG notes that local, state, and federal governments spend far more on subsidies for driving—cheap gas, road construction and maintenance, cheap or free parking—than they do on trains, buses, bicycle paths and sidewalks. Because the gas tax is so much higher in Europe, and because money from the tax is used to lower the cost of train travel, it is often cheaper and faster to travel by train than by car, even in rural Europe. So far, public support for raising the gas tax in the U.S. to improve Amtrak and commuter rail has been unable to overcome lobbying by the auto, oil and road construction industries. The way things are now, if a state wants to build a highway, it gets 50 to 90 percent of the money from the federal government, says Ross Capon, director of the National Association of Rail Passengers. “If a state wants to spend money on making Amtrak better, they get zero from the federal government,” he said. “People should call their representatives in Congress and tell them that has got to change.”


Eesha Williams of Brattleboro, Vermont is editor of

Your article is the best I've read in many years of faithfully reading OnEarth. I just joined NRDC because of it.

I don't think that Americans understand how heavily these European trains are subsidized. In Santa Barbara, the County funded study showed that just the modifications to the rail for a normal speed commuter train would be a Billion dollars for about a thousand riders. This is a lot to offset a portion of the many thousands of vehicles per day that travel here.
Also, even in Europe, train ridership is down and auto trips are way up. How do you go shopping with a train? They like their 24-packs of Coke from the Hypermarket too!

"I can imagine the journey: the TGV transplanted to a uniquely American landscape...Silicon Valley office parks, and the Pacific Ocean." Apparently, the author, Craig Canine hasn't looked carefully at a map of California. The route chosen by the CAHSR authority runs inland; there won't be views of the Pacific Ocean. At best riders will be able to see the San Francisco bay.

who's that smurf character that always used to exclaim, "it'll never work?" you remind me of him. perhaps you know his name. where were you when the railroads in this country were built? (rhetorical. thankfully, you weren't around.)

Massive endemic fraud and wanton unbridled greed are ruling the world and ruining the Creation in our time. Willful blindness, hysterical deafness and elective mutism prevail over speaking truth to the wealthy and powerful. What is to become of the children?

There is a path to a good enough future for the children, I suppose, but it is not be found by recklessly pursuing the patently unsustainable path of Charles Ponzi, the path so adamantly advocated by the greed-mongering bankstas and other Masters of the Universe among us who profanely proclaim that they are the ones doing "God's work".

But let's not talk about such things. Shhhhh!

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we can keep spewing jet fuel into the air or supplement hops between cities with high speed rail. chicago to milwaukee would be another ideal route - also milwaukee to minneapolis. there are plenty of cities on the east coast that could be linked up. also cities in the south could benefit. jobs, jobs, jobs.
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chicago to milwaukee would be another ideal route - also milwaukee to minneapolis.
Why not surpass the rest of the world and build vactrains? They use underground vacuum tubes and can theoretically reach speeds of 8000 km/h how to make a solar panel imagine a person working in los angeles taking a train to go to nyc for lunch. I wonder who needs to hear about this in order to get the gears turning?
Ich kann die Reise vorstellen: der TGV verpflanzt zu den einzigartig amerikanischen Landschaft… Silicon- ValleyBüroparks und das pazifische Ocean." Anscheinend der Autor, Craig Hunde- hasn' t betrachtete sorgfältig einem Diagramm von Kalifornien. Der Weg, der durch die CAHSR Berechtigung gewählt, läuft inland; dort won' t ist Ansichten des Pazifischen Ozeans. Bestenfalls in der Lage sind Mitfahrer, das San Francisco Bay zu sehen. PPI Claims
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