Friday, February 11, 2011

High Speed Rail and the United States Conundrum

Actually, there are many more countries than just the United States that have problems developing an efficient high speed rail system, but America is a good example. Balancing the needs of a growing population spread over a huge area with responsible fiscal and environmental stewardship is one heck of a puzzle. Intra and near inter city mass transportation options improve with population density. That is a no brainer, so metro areas where the automobile traffic is so congested that personal vehicle use is impractical will receive most of the high and higher speed rail attention. It is just not cost effective in many other areas. The independent mentality of Americans is often blamed for our lack of high speed rail connecting the country. That is a part of the problem, but separating passenger rail from freight rail is the larger issue.

Because of the long distances between major metropolitan centers in the US, freight has a higher priority than passenger service. Goods do not mind taking a slow trip across the country, people do. Attempts to improve passenger rail utilizing existing rail infrastructures have met with very little success. The cost of separating passenger from freight over long distances is enormous and impractical since the estimated increase in passenger use of rail systems does not justify the cost. Heavy freight use deteriorates the rail system quickly. Passenger rail speeds are limited by track quality and traffic. So many proposed high speed passenger rail systems have been shelved because they make no economic sense.

Because of current economic and political situations, US high speed rail has been pushed into the spot light again. High unemployment and poor economic condition would seem to preclude high speed rail expansion. In reality, massive public works projects during poor economic times have stimulated economic growth. High speed rail would also impact the domestic airline industry which is teetering on the verge of bankruptcy daily it seems. So even in economic times when it is reasonable to take greater risk to improve infrastructure while stimulating the economy, it is still very difficult to justify high speed rail projects. There is no obvious solution that pops up. Thanks to my contrarian mentality, there may be a viable solution.

Game corridors to reestablish game migratory patterns disrupted by human encroachment have been proposed by environmental and conservationist groups. A reasonable start has been made in buying or leasing private land to expand game corridors. The Florida-Georgia wildlife corridor is an ongoing project. Elevated high speed rail along this corridor could be mutually beneficial to both efforts. Wildlife quickly grows accustom to the silly activities of humans when the activities do not rain death and destruction on their wildlife lives. High speed rail from Atlanta, GA to Orlando, FL could be cost effective if all things are properly considered. Politically, such a project may create strange bed fellows, but that is not a bad thing since nearly every situation requires political compromise.

Such a rail system would need to be designed to appeal to international tourists which would most likely be a large percentage of potential users. Many of these tourists are already accustomed to rail travel. Combined with a semi-wilderness experience, the trip itself may well attract ridership because of its educational and entertainment value.

Approached in this manner, longer distance high speed rail may actually prove to be viable even in a country full of people stubbornly clinging to the independence they enjoy with their personal vehicles. Just a thought.

UPDATE: Some people have read this and think the game corridor is like a hunter's Utopia kinda thing. The concept of the game corridor is to help reestablish the range of the Florida Panther and the southern black bear. One idea someone had was to use the corridor to extend the Appalachian Trail southward into Florida. I approve of that idea and most environmentalists and hunters approve as well. Strange bedfellows to say the least, but a worthy common goal.

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