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Is High Speed Rail The Answer?

I’ve suggested before that returning to rail would be a good thing for many areas, and that air travel is likely to decline, as well as support for roads and longer distance highway travel. So if rail is good, the high speed rail must be better right?

Not that anyone is seriously talking about high speed rail projects here in Canada, but I’d have to question the viability of any new infrastructure project without the population base to support it. I can hear the arguments already… But Florida is getting one, why can’t Canada? Florida has a population of over 18 million, and a country of over 300 million support it, Canada has just over 33 million people total, there is neither the population nor the tax base to support any grandiose schemes such as high speed rail. Lets get tradition rail right first.

Down in Florida, even though the advocates are putting a positive spin on the feasibility of the project, the numbers just don’t add up, both potential ridership and costs. From Tampa to Orlando to Miami, the total cost of construction, (excluding right-of-way acquisition) is around 12 billion US dollars. Interestingly, the federal government gave Florida, a state with a billion dollar deficit, a grant of $1.25 billion dollars, not even enough to build half of the Tampa to Orlando stretch.

Obama waxed lyrically over the prospect:

“Imagine whisking through towns at speeds over 100 miles an hour, walking only a few steps to public transportation, and ending up just blocks from your destination,” the President mused while unveiling the plan April 16. It’s a beguiling image that’s compelled and thwarted travelers in this country for decades, especially as highways clog, oil prices climb and airport delays mount.

Read more: http://www.time.com/time/nation/article/0,8599,1892463,00.html#ixzz0eF8oZOw8

Some people see this as a huge step forward for rail transport in the US, as though throwing billions at anything remotely different from six lane highways or airports is just worth the effort at any price. Construction costs of $40-80 million a mile takes a lot of riders to see a payback over any period. The most famous high speed train system in the world, the Japanese Bullet Train saw a previously viable transit utility flouder, with the government absorbing a $200 million debt.

Others believe that this money should be spent on public transit, not the pie in the sky high speed routes…

But right now, there are far better, fairer and faster ways to stimulate the economy than spending $8 billion on the relatively affluent 1 percent of Americans who ride trains. Public transit immediately comes to mind. Missouri got $31 million to upgrade St. Louis-to-Kansas City service that served 150,000 passengers last year. The state alsosubsidizes those twice-daily trains with $5 million a year.

Read More: High-speed wail: A bridge to the 19th century

The most valuable role for rail in the coming century is at the local and regional level, on routes that replace the commute and provide enhanced mobility through urban and surrounding areas. I like big projects as much as the next engineer, but these high speed routes that are being held up as the poster boy for infrastructure projects represent routes that should be eventually developed if, as a country, America ever had enough money to build them.

Mike Thomas

Mike Thomas P.Eng. ENV SP, is the author of UrbanWorkbench.com and Director of Engineering at the City of Revelstoke in the Interior of British Columbia, Canada. If I post something here that you find helpful as you navigate the world of engineering, planning and building communities, that’s wonderful. But when push comes to shove: This is my personal blog. The views expressed on these pages are mine alone and not those of my employer.