Plugged In: Trains, Public Transportation

Today, many Americans think of trains as bygone technology and artifacts of the Wild West, symbols of rugged cowboys and pioneers. Yet, for the rest of the world, trains are an ever-evolving technology and one of the easiest forms of transportation.

Instead of investing in high-speed rail, the United States has focused on fostering interstate highways and air travel. While these forms of transportation can be useful, they’ve put us in a difficult situations with oil dependency and air travel security. Inter and intrastate train development could not only weaken our dependency on oil and reduce our carbon footprint, but provide an alternative, efficient form of transportation that doesn’t involve the hassles that modern-day air travel entails.

Parts of the country do have forms of passenger rail transport, with companies such as Amtrak, and while these services demonstrate the promise of rail transport in the United States, they are often slow and subject to equipment inefficiency. Other train companies, such as BART and LIRR, are regionally-based, and aren’t accessible or efficient for interstate travel.

In Europe and Asia, high-speed rail projects have not only been built in recent decades, but are continually expanding, as China is building out trans-continental rail to make traveling by 320km/hr (≈199mph) train from London to Beijing a reality within the next ten years. Plus, travelers will not only be able to trek from London to Beijing, but to and from any city along the same route, making long-distance travel much easier.

In the United States, high speed rail could open up many opportunities, including job creation. As the automobile industry faces a war against rising oil prices and foreign competition, jobs are continually being lost. Investing in high-speed rail construction would not only create jobs, but create jobs in an industry that would improve transportation efficiency and help reduce our negative impact on the environment.

Many of the new high-speed rail projects are designed to use clean energy sources, so, by utilizing these trains, we can help reduce our carbon footprint. Plus, we would be taking many cars off the road, reducing congestion, improving pedestrian safety, and allowing emergency vehicles to better move through the city.

These trains can be used for long-distance travel, but also for commutes, mail delivery and for short day trips. For instance, by building a high-speed rail infrastructure in Texas, we could travel from Bryan to Houston in around twenty-four minutes.

Therefore, commutes and day trips to Houston could be made much easier and much safer. Imagine being able to hop onto a train, and in twenty-four minutes, be in Houston to shop, eat dinner, see an Astros game, visit a museum or see a play, and then, catch a train when you’re ready to return and be home in twenty-four minutes.

Of course, for a system such as this to work, we’d also need to build out public transportation infrastructure in large urban areas, which would also make inner-city travel more efficient, safer and cheaper for consumers.

The postal service and other shipping agencies could also utilize high-speed trains to ship products and letters between distribution centers and cities much more quickly than by truck.

As oil prices are driven up, investing in high-speed rail and public transportation now will make travel cheaper in the future, as we can use cheaper, renewable resources instead of the archaic, pollutant nonrenewable resources that dominate today’s most popular forms of transportation.

High-speed rail is undoubtedly an expensive investment, but it’s incredibly worthwhile, as we could wean ourselves of our oil dependency, reduce our negative impact on the environment, promote greater consumer activity and travel, make commutes quicker and more efficient and improve the traveling experience.