Trains For America

More choices for better transportation

USA is way behind on high speed rail, and it’s not all bad

One of the recurring themes here at TFA concerns the woeful lack of a balanced transportation system and the failure of American political leaders, Many of us have suspected that this would give us an advantage on the “learning curve,” and Keith Dierkx makes that point in an excellent column for

Dierkx is director of the Global IBM Rail Innovation Center in Beijing. He points to China’s expeiences, along with Russia and Taiwan.

In this mobile era, passengers expect to be able to use their cellphones to book train travel. Advanced data analytic systems can perform scheduling so that seats are effectively assigned as passengers get on and off at stations along a line. All of these advantages are available today, thanks in part to the experience of other nations, and federal stimulus funds will help pay for them.

Filed under: International High Speed Rail, Passenger Rail Politics, United States High Speed Rail

11 Responses

  1. Right you are again, Pat. We can learn a lot by watching, to cite Lawrence Peter “Yogi” Berra, and China’s a perfect place to start.

    As Keith Dierkx points out, “We can start by taking a page from countries like China that are improving high-speed rail systems with passenger-only lines and the right technologies.”

    Back in 2001, they started constructing the Transrapid high-speed maglev “demonstration” line — fully sealed for passenger-only operations — connecting the Pudong International Airport and their financial district downtown. In the intervening years they’ve learned a lot about maglev operations, performance and benefits, even from this short (19 miles) application. Admittedly, their rail ministry is strongarming the government to invest in steel-wheel systems for the future, but at least they gave maglev a chance. They might extend the initial line yet.

    The U.S. should take a page from China and reject the notion of 110-mph rail systems that share track with freight and commuter trains as “high-speed rail.” We should invest in at least one or two demonstration maglev lines of our own, so we can take advantage of the most modern high-speed intercity technology known to man while we have the chance.

    After all, as the UK Ultraspeed team in London has recently found out, Britain [like the USA] has no sunk investment in 300 km/h [186 mph] domestic TGV-style railways, and such a decision is a 100-year commitment. Transrapid maglev is the only ground transport system in the world licensed to convey passengers at 500 km/h [311 mph]. It offers a strategic opportunity to ‘leapfrog’ all Britain’s [and the USA’s] major competitors. No rail system can match maglev’s combination of inter-city and short-sector performance, nor can rail match maglev’s efficient multi-task utilisation of fleet assets.

  2. NikolasM says:

    “Rail ministry strongarming the government” = it is too expensive.

  3. “Rail ministry strongarming the government” = we can probably figure out how to build conventional trains ourselves.

  4. Maglev should be a non-starter in the US. It is too expensive and would take too long to build. We are foolish to reject the notion of incremental increases in speed. With modest improvements, we can and should set up a network of trains between major cities running at a max. of 110mph and in addition have at least one daily train on those routes that makes local stops in the rural areas. This is a relatively cheap way to test the market, but a major problem exists. Some railroads, CSX and evidently UP, for starters have figured out ways to eliminate the need for PTC on some routes and thus if Amtrak is to operate on those routes, for example, Jacksonville, FL to Flomaton, AL then someone else will have to pay for the PTC, but this is just another capacity improvement, like better tracks, etc. Problem is though, that it was an unfunded mandate of Congress.

    Once it is proven that passengers will ride these trains then it is very likely that there will be a demand for HSR which can then be built on dedicated right-of-ways for the purpose. Right now, I don’t believe there is the political will in the US for spending the many billions that would be required for HSR, but for less than a billion, we can make a good start on incremental improvements. Then there is the real Chinese problem. To get new equipment, the US must stand in line behind third world countries and China that already have large equipment orders on the books. I have read and heard of backorders up to several years being already on the books, and we do not (yet) have a domestic manufacturer. The investment group that bought the Colorado RailCar materials is a start, but I hope their plans go beyond DMU equipment.

  5. Don says:

    Jerry & NikolasM,
    could you please present your figures that make you think “Maglev is too expensive”?

    I don’t know why it seems an obligation for rail proponents to be anti-maglev at the same time; I’m a fan of both. You can also do it.

    (hint: maglev’s capital costs are approximately the same as those of a conventional HSR, and maglev’s maintenance costs are SIGNIFICANTLY lower – maglev already pays off in the short run, and then we’re not even mentioning you could utilize its guideway surface for solar panels that completely produce the energy required to propel the trains at 311mph with a 10-minute frequency, plus creating a little extra energy for the surroundings to use.)

  6. NikolasM says:

    your ‘hint’ really needs to be backed up with something as well.

    Maglev won’t be viable until an entire Line/network is built. HSR can be used incrementally as pieces get added to the network. The only line that may be coming into service in the next 20 years is in Japan and is outrageously expensive, something like $45-50 billion for a 263 km line, which works out to $170-190 million per kilometer or $275-305 million per mile!

  7. Don says:

    It was not me who came up with an argument (pro or against) first…
    But I’d be delighted to provide you with an excellent source for information: visit as this is the UK Ultraspeed website. They have an excellent factbook with detailed information.

    By the way, you are stating that Maglev won’t be viable until a line gets built; this is entirely and inherently true. Why not make it viable by building a line in the first place?
    The HSR “network” – which does not exist in the USA – must also start somehow. Why stick with conventional technology for many decades from now when you can leapfrog a generation and install a vastly superior technology for your own huge good and be a tourist attraction by it at the same time?
    Think big! You don’t even have to think bigger than HSR as maglev is actually cheaper if you consider all the costs – but the benefits far surpass what one could ever imagine with a HSR system.

  8. Don says:

    To be more specific, I recommend you download this briefing from the UKU site under ‘media resources,’ ‘PDFs’:

    The slides at pp. 8-9, pp. 29-40, p. 47, p. 87 and pp. 117-124 tell a compelling story about maglev’s efficiency, performance and cost and deliver all the information you need.

  9. Without effective public transportation in the connected communities, high speed rail will not work. Getting to the city is only half the problem, getting around the city is the other half. People won’t use it if they can’t get around once they arrive at their destination and will still drive instead.

  10. tomokazu says:

    Sacha: This is entirely correct. The inner city electric tramways were all over the USA in the 1930s. The carmaggedon lobby destroyed them all (except San Francisco?) well, that should have given Bushama an opportunity to create jobs. Instead, he is cutting jobs, and cutting and cuttting jobs. For example the defense budget is grotesquely inflated (above 800 billion), but cutting jobs there will be depressing on the economy, and has to be compensated with trams. European cities have been building electric public transport, as they fight the cars in city centers… Even New York is building a subway. To serve Wall Street, of course…

  11. Sacha, Thanks for writing. You are so right. And that is why we favor all forms of effective public transport. Where do you live and what kind of transport works for you in your city?

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