TRB Special Report 233 - In Pursuit of Speed: New Options for Intercity Passenger Transport assesses the applicability of high-speed ground transportation (HSGT) technologies to meet the demand for passenger transportation service in high-density travel markets and corridors in the United States.
In certain corridors, high-speed rail could offer a means of reducing congestion at airports and on major intercity highways while serving the travel needs of a substantial number of intercity passengers. Technologies in use in Europe and Japan have already resulted in highly successful systems operating at average speeds of 125 185 mph with enviable safety records. Congress has provided limited funding for research and planning toward the deployment of magnetic levitation (maglev) technology in both the Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act and the Transportation Equity Act for the 21st Century. Though still in an experimental phase, maglev trains have demonstrated speeds of 300 mph.
The committee that examined new options for high-speed rail noted a striking and important contrast between intercity train travel in Europe and Japan and the United States. Both Europe and Japan had substantial intercity rail markets before evolving to high-speed technologies; comparable service offered by Amtrak occurs in few corridors. Trains in Europe and Japan also connect directly to extensive networks of intracity transit service, whereas Amtrak passengers enjoy such interconnections in only a few cities. The committee found that high-speed train service competes most effectively with automobile and air travel in major city-pair markets of roughly 150 to 300 miles. Many such city pairs exist in Europe and Japan, which are more densely populated and cover smaller geographic areas than is the case with the United States. Rail can connect the major cities of France relatively easily, for example, but could scarcely compete with air transport between New York and Atlanta or Chicago and Los Angeles. Moreover, whereas the French and the Japanese have long histories of strong institutional commitment to and government support for passenger rail development, U.S. support for such service has been modest and wavering.
The committee that produced this report concluded that high-speed rail service is costly and that passenger revenues would be unlikely to cover its capital and operating costs in the United States. Public subsidies might be justified in some corridors because rail could divert enough passengers from crowded airports and highways, resulting in less adverse environmental impact and lower energy consumption per passenger mile. High-speed rail is relatively noisy, however, and requires long, straight alignments to achieve its high speeds; such corridors could traverse residential areas and sensitive wetlands and lead to fragmented habitats. Moreover, whether high-speed rail corridors would be any easier to build than other major transportation infrastructure is an open question.
The report recommends that USDOT develop the capacity to analyze investments in intercity travel modes and help fund the most cost-effective strategies (accounting for environmental and other external costs), regardless of mode. Aside from the special provisions made by Congress for Amtrak, however, the United States lacks an institutional mechanism to subsidize high-speed rail. Highway and aviation users are taxed to form trust funds for infrastructure improvements for these modes, but the trust funds cannot be used to subsidize rail service, even in situations where such funding may be warranted. The committee also found that conventional high-speed technologies pose much less technical risk and would cost less than proposed maglev systems, which require additional research and experimentation.