In his 2011 State of the Union address, President Obama dreamily depicted a future, just 25 years hence, where almost all Americans would have easy access to high-speed rail. “This could allow you to go places in half the time it takes to travel by car. For some trips, it will be faster than flying –- without the pat-down.”
I think we’ll see a space elevator before America gets a nation-spanning bullet train system. The New York Times finds that “despite the administration spending nearly $11 billion since 2009 to develop faster passenger trains, the projects have gone mostly nowhere and the United States still lags far behind Europe and China.” Reporter Ron Nixon cites experts who fault the Obama administration for spreading that dough around rather than focusing on key projects like improving Acela Express service in the Northeast Corridor, “the most likely place for high-speed rail.”
Acela averages just 80 mph between Washington and New York, although the trains are capable of going twice as fast. Old infrastructure and rail-sharing slows it down. According to the piece, “a plan to bring it up to the speed of Japanese bullet-trains, which can top 220 m.p.h., will take $150 billion and 26 years, if it ever happens.”
Of course, the US is a lot different than many nations with high-speed rail, nations which have “higher population densities, higher gas prices, higher rates of public-transportation use and lower rates of car ownership.” Not that bulleteers doubt a high-speed future will happen:
But Andy Kunz, executive director of the U.S. High-Speed Rail Association, thinks the United States will eventually have a high-speed rail system that connects the country. “It’s going to take some years after gas prices rise and highways fill up with traffic,” he said. “It’s going to happen because we won’t have a choice.”
Wait, we have no choice but to build high-speed rail because the highways are going to “fill up with traffic”? Let me bring your attention to this chart from Paul Kedrosky:
It depends on where you are as to whether traffic’s declining, but national statistics have shown that per capita travel in vehicles is roughly where it was in the late 1990s. And vehicle miles traveled, the number of miles that cars are moving is roughly where it was in the early 2000s. And this is after a 90-year increase in the amount of automobile traffic, from, you know, the 1910s to the early 21st century.
So people have sort of this expectation that traffic will continue to increase because it has increased in the past for such a long period of time. And this is built into traffic forecasts. It’s built into the way people view the world. But beginning in the early 2000s, in particular after 9/11, with a number of societal changes, including things like increased gas prices, changing demographics, changing employment, the amount of travel that people were engaging in individually has leveled off and has declined on a per capita level.
Now, a lot of technologies have a lifecycle. They have an S curve associated with them. So they start off, they grow slowly even, there’s a period of very rapid growth. Then it levels off. And then something new happens and the S curve begins to decline. And so we sort of see that in a number of things that we no longer use as much we used to. U.S. mail volume increased for decades upon decades until the 1990s. And it started to level off in the 1990s with the rise of email and the Internet, and then, in the early 2000s has fallen off a cliff.
So is that going to happen with travel? And so this is the scenario that I’m painting. And so it’s a future scenario. I don’t want to say that I predicted that this would happen, but this is one thing that might happen that nobody is taking any account of right now.
And here is a good piece by Tim Worstall on the impact of potential impact of driverless cars on high-speed rail. Technology will change how America’s gets around. But more likely it will be 21st century technology, not that of the 1970s.