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Prall: The need for bullet trains in the U.S.

BY JACOB PRALL | MAY 14, 2015 5:00 AM

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Tragedy struck an Amtrak train on Tuesday night. Seven people were killed and hundreds were injured after the train, travelling close to 100 mph, derailed going around a curve. This only illustrates how much we need a safer form of rail transportation here in the States.

The Japanese maglev train beat its own world record last month, reaching nearly 400 mph.  Japan isn’t the only place where you can find such an incredibly fast (and safe) mode of transportation.  China, France, Spain —across the developed world bullet trains are getting people where they need to go at incredible speeds.

This technology has been alive and vibrant for 50 years, so why don’t we see this technology stateside?  With so many pushing for eco-friendly transportation, why haven’t the highly efficient and effective bullet trains come to move us from Point A to Point B?

Well, for starters, the bullet train is expensive to build initially.  No one in the States has put in the effort to raise money for construction and R&D of bullet train technology.  The U.S. is much more expansive than Japan or Western Europe, with a greater diversity of geography.  This provides significant challenges in constructing rails for bullet trains.  Because of this, taking to the air still has the edge over bullet trains in terms of speed if the distance is long enough.

Another issue confronting bullet trains that is less discussed is the problem of city layouts.  If you take a bullet train from San Diego to LA, for example, you’ll be forced to use a taxi or rent a car to get around, much more expensive than the extensive public transportation used in Tokyo or Paris.  U.S. cities, especially in the West, are much more spread out than their European or Asian counterparts.  It makes walking to your destination much less pleasant, or even impossible.

Despite these issues, the Northeast is still a prime candidate for bullet trains.  Boston, New York, and Washington D.C., all suffer from gridlock, and are all close enough to be effective places for bullet trains over air travel.  The cities are dense, and with the instillation of bike rentals and public transportation stops, going between the three could be very pleasant.  The closest thing to high speed rails in the Northeast, Amtrak’s Acela service, was very successful, finding a larger ridership that surpassed air travel between New York and Washington.

The federal government has enough issues with transportation funding as it is, though.  There are very few supporters of passenger rails in Congress, and most of the power over public transportation has been given to states  making interstate travel difficult.

Obama tried to jumpstart a program for high-speed rails between Chicago, Milwaukee, and Madison with a billion dollars in 2009.  The governor of Wisconsin, Scott Walker, flipped the political bird at the federal government by refusing the grant money (which consequently found its way to Californian rails).

The most populated of U.S. states:  California, Texas, and Florida, are all seeing high speed rail installation by public and private entities.  We can only hope that public reception is overwhelmingly positive, sparking conversations closer to home about the implementation of high speed rail technology in the Midwest.

In the meantime, we can all look enviously on Tokyo’s speedy rails — or just move there.


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